Welcome to Kota, the site of a terrifying social experiment. It’s a coaching culture that gets students into IIT, but leaves them uneducated
Now that the results are out, the media is awash with IIT-JEE success stories. There are stories of extraordinary teenagers who have ‘topped’ the entrance examination, small town youth who, against all odds, have gained a place at the top of our hierarchy of educational desires, and delirious parents whose every sacrifice now stands justified. Amid all the exuberant reporting, there is one town that figures prominently as the El Dorado of competitive success. Instead of a name, Kota is now a promise. What are the different ways in which this promise plays out? Let’s begin with a slightly longer view of Kota’s place in the national imagination.
In February 2005, the small village of Narhi Nagra in Uttar Pradesh suddenly found itself Shanghaied into the public sphere. The national media reported that Saurabh Singh, a 17-year-old from a ‘poor family’ had ‘topped’ the International Scientist Discovery examination conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa). It was a rags to (possible) riches story, and the media focused on Saurabh’s modest circumstances. There were also a number of newspaper ads for a ‘coaching college’ based in Kota that claimed him as one of their great success stories, as well as promises of financial rewards by the UP government, much publicised expressions of pride in his achievements by his headmistress and townspeople, and a meeting with the then President Abdul Kalam. It was also reported that Saurabh had stood first in an exam that both President Kalam and the astronaut Kalpana Chawla had also taken, but neither secured his ranking. After a sustained period of media euphoria, another set of news stories began to trickle in. It was now reported that Nasa denied any knowledge of the examination, that Kalam had never appeared for it, and that Saurabh’s subsequent claims that it had actually been conducted by Oxford University had also been refuted by the venerable institution. According to reports, the police had begun an investigation on whether Saurabh Singh’s exploits might be in the nature of a ‘national fraud’. Now, newspaper photos showed an apparently tense Saurabh (mobile phone in hand), watched by suitably worried looking relatives and fellow villagers. After having traversed a combination of regional, national and transnational spaces, we—the media audience—were now firmly back in the small village. In later media reports, there was a sense of disappointment about how everyone had been ‘tricked’ by a young man’s chest thumping.
What is the culture of contemporary India that throws up stories such as Saurabh’s? A useful place to start is the media’s obsession with ‘Indian idols’: the incessant search for messianic figures who will ‘make India proud’ on the global stage. From fashion designers to artists, the pursuit (and manufacture) of the Global Indian is a big preoccupation. Whereas Americans can assume global superiority, Indians must continually engage in offering evidence of it. Saurabh, till his fall, was part of this process.
Saurabh’s ‘flights of fancy’ are also mired in what might be another peculiarity of contemporary Indian culture: the system of competitive examinations for jobs and entry into professional courses, and the massive complex of ‘coaching’ institutions that prepare students for these. So, it was reported that Saurabh had been sent to Kota to prepare for the IIT-JEE, and that he had later returned with a Nasa certificate proclaiming his accomplishment. ‘Kota’ is the name for a number of overlapping dreams of ‘making it big’: it is a technology machine. For many small-town people in India, a merciless system of highly selective examinations is one of the key avenues of social mobility, often paving the way for a journey from Samastipur to Stanford.
For many a poor parent, fees for their wards’ (usually, but not always, sons) coaching prove a drain on their limited resources, and, ironically, might be compared to trying to scrape together a daughter’s dowry. If, after all this, the child is still not able to secure the desired admission, the consequences can be calamitous; a family already in financial debt might suffer a sense of collective failure all the more acutely. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that children seek ways of minimising the family’s collective pain. Having been sent to Kota to secure admission to an engineering college (and perhaps having failed at it), Saurabh Singh’s actions might be more sympathetically viewed as those of a young man dealing with a complex social situation—one where avenues of social mobility for someone of his background are few and any breakthrough demands great effort and luck.
The culture of competitions in India has now become firmly enmeshed within the rise of new consumer and commodity cultures that also proclaim the ‘virtues’ of individualism in hitting big time. The privatisation of key areas of economic and social life has produced an arena of fantastic dreams for the future, catered to by equally exaggerated promises of success. Within this sphere, it is the relatively less well-off who are likely to take the greatest risks, basing their decisions on the barest promise of a life beyond their present circumstance. It is here that the coaching colleges of Kota, the hunt for ‘Indian idols’, and Saurabh Singh’s imaginative landscape and hopes for the future come together.
But the pressure-cooker that is Kota is more than a place where IIT dreams come true. It is also the site of a terrifying experiment in education that might define the ways in which youngsters think about issues of politics and social justice in ‘New India’. The Rajasthani city sits at the juncture of a new spirit of educational entrepreneurialism, technocratic learning, and global transactions in education as a commodity.
Starting from the early-1990s, Kota has become the centre of a booming ‘competitions coaching’ industry, primarily centred around preparing students for engineering and medical examinations. While difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for how the city’s kachauri culture was also able to nurture a coaching one, the Kota legend points to small beginnings by engineers at a local industrial house, some of whom had been laid off work. It apparently all began with private tuitions for a small group of school students seated around the dining table. As the 1990s unfolded, many more Kota based engineers and science graduates engaged with the spirit of New India through furious educational entrepreneurialism. This was the beginning of Kota’s coaching industry. A techno-fetish, combined with perceived opportunities for engineers and infotech specialists at a global level, set the stage for what now exists as an almost parallel universe: the Kota System of education.
Along with numerous small operators, Kota has a handful of large institutions that enjoy national fame. These have sprawling campuses, with cavernous ‘reception’ areas and massive class-room complexes. The campuses appear far better equipped and maintained than those of most universities in India. Adjoining them is a slew of new suburbs full of multi-storied hostel buildings. These are ‘dormitory suburbs’ of a new kind, spaces for the remaking of educational thinking. There are, as one Kota resident told me, upwards of 600 such hostels.
One of the most striking features of the city is the number of children—usually in classes 8 and above—who, while enrolled at a school, either do not go to school or attend school for only one or two days a week. This was already the case with students preparing for competitive tests: school enrolment was simply a tool that allowed them to take Board exams. Participation in the various activities that school-life enables was not the point. Exams of different kinds were the exclusive goal, with all else seen as distractions. Increasingly, however, even this situation is witnessing a dramatic change: it is now common for school-going children who are not attending IIT and other coaching to prefer going to ‘school-coaching’ classes, rather than attend regular school. School-coaching, which operates in parallel with entrance exam coaching, is seen as a guarantee of better Board results. Regular schools don’t appear to mind, since they receive full fees and do not have to spend as much on teachers’ salaries and other facilities. Indeed, the system works so well (and, profitably) that some of the larger coaching institutes have established their own schools that act as feeder bodies for their school-coaching as well as post-school coaching businesses. Everyone is happy with schooling without schools, and education without the slightest taint of ‘liberal arts’ thinking.
The potential of the Kota System has most recently been recognised by a Korean company that is setting up an IIT/medical coaching institution in the city. Rumour has it that they will be paid according to the number of students they are able to attract. Perhaps mindful of how New India views education, the company’s office is located at one of Kota’s new shopping malls.
On my way back on a train from a recent visit to the city, I was talking on phone to a friend about the Kota System, whose many products the media will one day identify as members of ‘civil society’. At the end of my conversation, a young man on the top berth peered down to tell me that his own schooling had been through school-coaching and that he was now a ‘teacher’ at the same institution. Did he not miss the experience of going to a regular school, I asked. “No,” he said, “the school was only needed for the Board exams. What else?”
The author is professor of sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, New Delhi