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Suicides at IIT Madras – can’t they be prevented?

Concerned by the rising incidence of students taking their own lives at this prestigious institution, N.S. Venkataraman considers possible underlying reasons and offers some suggestions for remedy

Four students of IIT Madras have reportedly committed suicide so far in 2023. The latest was the death of a 2nd year student of Chemical Engineering, in April. And it is worth noting that other IITs in India have reported such incidents, too. The situation is concerning, and merits investigation by experts who take a holistic view of the matter.

So far, the deaths at IIT Madras have simply been termed ‘suicide’, and the matter appears to have been closed. Obviously, there are underlying reasons why these students of the elite institution, all in their teens or early twenties, took such a step. The management of the institution has so far not come out with any credible explanation for the rising number of suicides. And preventive measures stop at providing counselling services, which may prove to be only partially effective.

Studying engineering subjects in depth and understanding the concepts in full require hard work and a certain level of basic intelligence. This is true of both IITs and other engineering colleges, whether under the government or in the private sector. Obviously, the brighter students will be in a better position to grasp and appreciate concepts than the average ones. IITs select students for admission based on a competitive entrance examination at the all-India level and, mostly, students joining these institutions have a higher level of intelligence than average.

Further, the standards of the faculty members in IITs, most of whom have had good exposure in elite institutions in developed countries, could be better than those of the teaching faculty in other engineering colleges. Therefore, the level and standards of teaching in IITs may be higher than those in other engineering colleges. However, 64.5 per cnt of the seats in IITs come under the reserved category, and students admitted under this group could have scored lower than those admitted in the non-reserved category.

Reservation policy

CategoryReserved Percentage of Seats in Each Course
GEN – Economically weaker section (EWS)10 per cent
OBC27 per cent
SC15 per cent
ST7.5 per cent
Person with disability (PwD)5 per cent in each category seats

Therefore, the brighter students are likely to maintain higher academic standards compared to others. In such circumstances, it is quite possible that some students find it difficult to understand the nuances of the subjects and to cope with the demands of faculty members. While the IIT management and faculty members treat all students on par and provide the same facilities to everyone, the capacity of students could differ, particularly amongst those who are admitted under the reserved category and those who get the seats on academic merit. This could generate diffidence and frustration among some students.

Further, all students in IITs have high expectations regarding careers and higher studies in prestigious foreign institutions. These opportunities come easier to students with high academic achievements. All students in IITs do their best with regard to academics, but some may not be able to achieve the levels they desire, particularly in comparison with other students. For such students, the fear of not landing the best of jobs will be a matter of utmost anxiety.

In institutions like IITs, when some admissions are given on the basis of reservation, it is inevitable that the intellectual capacity of all students will not be at the same level. The objective of this article is not to discuss the merits or demerits of the reservation policy in educational institutions. It is only meant to trigger a dispassionate analysis on whether the reservation policy has led to the increasing number of suicides in IITs. If it is indeed so, then the possibility of providing specialised coaching to students admitted under the reservation policy can be explored.

(The writer is trustee, Nandini Voice for the Deprived, Chennai.)