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Monday, June 30, 2014
Article in The Star World(Toronto Star) with reference to AASRA
As stressed Indian students hit breaking point, new ad urges parents to chill
TV commercial sparks debate about one of India’s most pressing social issues: the off-the-chart stress India’s children face to excel in school.
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In India, competition for university spots is fierce and students are under so much stress that some schools have removed ceiling fans so students can't hang themselves. Shashwat Misra, 15, (foreground) and his brother Samarth, 18, study in their New Delhi home.
NEW DELHI—The boy lies flat on his back on a judo mat, wincing under his heavier opponent’s weight.
His mother watches from the stands nearby and even though the crowd roars, her son — he’s maybe 10 years old with a shock of sweat-soaked black hair — can hear her voice in his mind.
“Are you wondering what people will say? No one will say anything. And it’s not necessary to win each time.’’
The mother and son are actors who appear in a new TV commercial for a malt drink mix that’s airing across India. The 30-second ad has touched off a discussion about one of this country’s most pressing social issues: the off-the-chart stress India’s children face to excel in school.
“It’s such an important message to send that children are not worthless if they don’t finish first,” says Johnson Thomas, who runs a youth helpline in Mumbai.
“Most people in this country now are in pursuit of a better life and their children are the way for them to get there.”
Far too often, Johnson and education experts say, India’s school-aged children shuffle into exam halls understanding that the fortunes of their families rest on their shoulders. They are acutely aware that the odds are against them.
India has 1.2 billion people, a figure that’s expected to surge by 30 per cent over the next 40 years, and 60 per cent of the current population here is under the age of 30. With roughly 30 million students graduating high school each year, space in a university or college program is precious.
In New Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University receives about 100,000 applications every year and accepts about 1,500.
Then there’s St. Stephen’s College, where just 450 of 12,000 applicants are accepted.
Rumour has it this year that nothing less than 98 per cent on the final high-school exam will be good enough for St. Stephen’s.
A recent survey showed India’s heralded middle class spends an estimated one-third of its income every month on tutors and other forms of private tuition.
Weekend newspapers are bursting with ads for tutoring centres such as the Cambridge School and the Harvard Centre.
For some students, the pressure becomes impossible.
When exam marks are disclosed each June, Indian newspapers publish a slew of student suicide stories.
In New Delhi last month, a 15-year-old named Aljin reportedly hanged himself from the ceiling fan in his bedroom because of school-related stress.
His death occurred at the same time the Indian magazine Outlook reported that several universities have replaced ceiling fans in classrooms with desk-top models to remove the temptation for depressed students.
A study in the South Indian city of Vellore that was published in The Lancet medical journal in 2004 showed suicides among young women (15 to 19) running at 148 per 100,000 population, against 58 per 100,000 for young men. In comparison, the world average among all age groups is 14.5 per 100,000.
Educators, community leaders and filmmakers are beginning to spotlight the issue.
The federal education ministry this year gave schools the option to eliminate a series of crucial Grade 10 exams, replacing them with a grading system that evaluates a student’s progress through the course of the year. The move is designed to reduce pressure on students.
At the Indian Institute in New Delhi, first-year students are now required to spend 10 hours with a psychologist, the school’s dean of students said in an interview.
On traffic bridges in the city of Jodpur, in Rajasthan state, messages in Hindi script urge students to call a helpline.
Social workers like Johnson are slowly making progress at establishing ties with schools and employers.
“By and large, most schools don’t want us around, they say their students are too busy with studying,” Johnson said, chuckling at the irony.
He started the Aasra Suicide Prevention Helpline in 1998 and in its first few years, averaged about 40 calls from distressed students each week. Now, he and his volunteers field about 175.
The pressure for students to excel here starts long before their senior year.
During Class 10, when students are 16, they take an exam that determines the specialized stream they’ll pursue during their final two years of high school. The science stream is most popular because it leads to university programs in engineering and medicine.
On a recent evening in a middle-class New Delhi neighbourhood, Rati Misra sat in the living room of her modest three-bedroom apartment and groused over India’s ultra-competitive education system.
Her two boys, Samarth, 18, and Shashwat, 15, are likely to pursue careers in business administration. While his mother said Samarth was destined to become a veterinarian, he scored a 60 per cent on his Class 10 exams two years ago.
That scotched any possibility of medical school.
“I understand that we all can’t be heroes, that someone has to be the one offstage clapping, but what they do as a young boy shouldn’t impact them so far down the road,” Misra said.
Before sitting down to their dinner table for a study session, Samarth and his brother Shashwat said they are coping with the pressure of school, even as those around them struggle.
Their 18-year-old cousin killed herself several years ago and only a few weeks earlier, a classmate who lived around the corner did the same.
“It’s not something that’s talked about a lot,” said Shashwat.
There’s no arguing academic pressures are hot topic.
Another ad that aired on Indian television recently showed a number of young Chinese students learning Hindi. The ad’s implicit message: Better do well in school because they’re coming for your jobs.
But the new Kraft Foods malt mix commercial is a positive step and it will be broadcast for a year, said Siddharth Patkar, a company spokesman.
“The portrayal of the mother-child relationship is seen as being very real and in line with the changing mindsets of today’s parents,” Patkar said, adding the message the commercial delivers is that “winning is important, but not at the cost of putting undue pressure on the child.”