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India’s IITs Are a Golden Ticket With a Dark Side

A place at an Indian Institute of Technology is a golden ticket. There are 23 IITs across India, the country’s most elite technology training institutions: a production line for CEOs. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and Flipkart’s founder Sachin Bansal are among their alumni. So are Infosys founder N. R. Narayana Murthy and FedEx CEO Raj Subramaniam.

Dhaval Raghwani hadn’t even considered going to an IIT until, in 2017, a coaching institute—a finishing school designed to get kids into elite institutions—opened up in Thane, close to where he lived in Mulund, Mumbai. Possibilities unrolled in front of him. Each year, the media runs headlines of students leaving these prestigious institutions with “2 crore per annum jobs” (nearly $245,000). Raghwani was swept up by the promise of earning in crores.

Taking a run at an IIT involves, counterintuitively, leaving school. To get into an engineering college in India means passing the Joint Entrance Exam, or JEE, and coaching centers specialize in preparing students for these grueling tests. Just 0.5 percent of candidates are accepted into undergraduate courses at IITs.

Raghwani quit school—completing his high school diploma as an independent candidate—to enroll in the coaching center. Classes at the coaching center would normally have cost him the equivalent of $6,000; however, with a scholarship, Raghwani paid $2,500. It was an intensive program. “I had no social life,” Raghwani says. “I [went] to coaching classes early morning and used to come back home late. I didn’t have a phone. I just used to study, eat, sleep.”

The intense work paid off. In 2019 he got a place at IIT Madras in the southern city of Chennai. But there was an even steeper hill to climb. The average IIT student is expected to spend 50 to 55 hours per week on their academic program, to secure internships and placements at prestigious companies, and to maintain a variety of extracurricular interests and activities—including up to two hours of mandatory physical education per week. The definition of exceptional has become inflated over the years. It’s no longer enough to have good grades. Now you have to have edited the university paper and raised money for charity. With every student having been top of their class, the academic environment is fiercely competitive. Current and former students say that campuses are often hypermasculine, with female students facing overt harassment and abuse.

Unsurprisingly, the dropout rate is high. For some, tragically, the pressure of the IIT pushes them into crisis. Since 2018, 33 IIT students have died by suicide, according to government figures. This year alone, the IITs saw six suicides in the first four months of the year. In late April, IIT Madras, the top-ranked IIT, reported its fourth suicide in three months.

“I guess it depends on the individual,” says Raghwani, now a 22-year-old Bachelor of Technology student, “how they [handle] the pressure.” His voice lowers as he proceeds: “In my hostel, [last semester] there was a suicide,” he clicks his tongue between every second word. “I knew that person very well—and in front of my room, he committed suicide.”

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