In the mid-1980s, Kota girl Purnima Padmanabhan sat at V K Bansal’s dining table in the JK Synthetics employees’ colony, along with other aspiring engineers to learn the nitty-gritty of mathematics. By 1994, Bansal became so popular for helping students crack the Indian Institute of Technology entrance exam that parents from various parts of the country arrived at his doorstep, beseeching him to teach their children and he did so. However as thousands of students began pouring in, Bansal lowered the bar and became Kota’s coaching czar – until more aggressive players overtook him. Kota, a struggling industrial city in Rajasthan, with JK Synthetics closing down in 1997 and the Kota-headquartered Instrumentation Ltd turning sick, was glad to embrace the lucrative business of engineering and medical entrance coaching.
In 1986, Bansal worked as a mechanical engineer with JK Synthetics. However, unfortunately, he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and had to look for an alternative career. “He was a fantastic teacher,” says Padmanabhan, a vivacious 46-year-old, who went for an MBA from Stanford University and a successful career in the software industry. During her stay in the San Francisco Bay area, she visited her hometown, Kota, often and found how the city was changing. She saw her parents’ home changing with new sets of women enrolled at coaching institutes coming to stay as lodgers.
Market leader Allen Career Institute says 31 percent of its 77,000 students in Kota are young
women and you meet a small sample of them in Padmanabhan’s parents’ living room, 18 year olds from places like Bijnore and Gorakhpur watched over by alert and kindly landlords as they work 15 hours a day to beat the 1:90 odds of getting into medical college.
Former lodger Almas Fatima, from Lucknow, who did beat the odds, believes she would not have made it to a medical college in Kanpur, had Kota not given her the tools. “School,” says the second year student in a phone conversation, “doesn’t prepare you to solve multiple choice questions with negative marking in 30 seconds. Coaching centers in Lucknow only give you past papers to solve. Kota teachers devise their own questions, hundreds and hundreds of them. They get you to understand concepts, they make you mentally tough.”
Yet, many distressed students took their lives in Kota this year (15 says the district administration but 26 according to media reports citing local police) clearly feeling anything but mentally tough. As Kota’s District Collector Ravi Surpur, himself a medical doctor by training, points out, these numbers cannot be dismissed as tiny. “For every child who commits suicide,” he says, “there could be a thousand at various stages of depression. Suicide is at the end of the spectrum which originates in worry, stress, anxiety, competitive pressure, exam pressure, and the inability to meet the expectations of parents.” But even before the suicides became the big story from Kota, Padmanabhan had been looking at her home-town with disquiet. “I have always considered coaching a great equalizer for those denied decent schooling. But I felt very sad,” she says, “when I saw how mercenary coaching was becoming in Kota, how one-dimensional the students’ lives were.”
She wished Kota to turn into a university town, and, in its bare outlines, Kota does feel a bit like one. The town is flooded with a whopping 150,000 students — pouring out of small buildings, swarming around the city on bicycles. There are coaching complexes trying hard to look like campuses with imposing buildings, auditoria and attractive plants. There is a sighting of a Kashmiri, an Arunachali, a Bengali or Assamese that makes it seem as if all of India throngs here, though three-fourths of the aspirants are from four states — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar.
There is a sense of opportunity being created for the deprived, even if the recipients are not poor. The Bihari student is more likely to be from a place like Saharsa or Gopalganj than Patna, and the UP-ite from Sultanpur or Etawah rather than Lucknow. Most of the students are from families that are making their first foray into the world of professional education. You will see a child of a police constable, government teacher or even that of a businessman, which could be anyone from a property dealer to a trader selling vegetables in a mandi. New arrivals seem as nervous as the freshers in a college campus, like Poonam Dahiya, a farmer’s wife from Hissar with a strong Haryanvi accent, and her expectant-looking 16 year old, both seem as if they have arrived, not in a north Indian town with heaps of garbage and bad drainage, but the Oxford of the East.
With five big companies and several smaller outfits selling the same dream, Kota has become the IIT coaching hub. Four brothers who own a coaching empire, their foreheads bisected by identical long red tilaks, advertise their wares from hoardings scattered across the city. Individual teachers – “PPS Sir”, “VKP Sir”, “Amit Sir” — solicit custom with improbably glamorous posters of themselves strung up at street corners. Parents are confident that sending their pre-teens to residential schools-cum-crammers will give them an edge over their peers. Rank-holders in medical and engineering entrance exams are to Kota’s spaces what Jayalalitha is to Chennai.
There is a corresponding coarseness in everyday conversation with students, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, all sounding blasé about coaching companies, fighting over “toppers” and stealing each other’s teachers. You repeatedly hear the story of how two different coaching centers, Allen and Aakash, put out triumphant ads in 2015 laying claim to the very same seven names from the top ten in the All India Pre Medical Test. Or the observation that Bansal Classes is no longer the go-to place because it has been “raided” far too often for its teachers.
Raided? Pramod Maheshwari, CEO of the publicly listed coaching company, Careerpoint, and a lively raconteur, explains how such a heist is conducted. “It’s done with careful planning. The teachers work normally all day. Their employers only get to know when they see an ad with their names and faces in the papers the next morning. Then, they discover some students have also left.” Has he done it? “It was done to me once so I replied in kind,” he says calmly. “After that, my teachers were not poached.”
Allen, which boasts of a teaching staff of 1000 in Kota, including 200 IIT graduates and 50 MBBS doctors, is the main beneficiary of such migrations. Unsurprisingly, it is the city’s best paymaster, and its “campuses” feature huge classrooms where teachers wearing lapel mikes address 200-plus students. Deepak Gautam, Vice President HR, confirms that it is possible for senior teachers to earn “in crores” annually. Is it true that Allen’s teachers drive Audis and BMWs? “I think I have seen an Audi,” Gautam says carefully, “but I’m not sure of the BMW.”