Phillipian Commentary: Suicides in India

Trigger warning: suicide

As students attending an academically rigorous boarding school, we all know what it is like to get a disappointingly low score on a major assignment as well as the depressing comments that almost always accompany it. To console ourselves, however, we might look at India’s secondary exams. While the pass rate for the examinations has hovered at around 65 percent in the state of Telangana for the past few years, it has dropped by 3.45 percent for first year students and 2 percent for second year students this year. Given the one million or so students who take these exams each year, these two percentages represent a further 25,000 students who failed this year. At Andover, we can at least be reassured that we are passing all of our courses.

Taken at face value, a decrease of a couple percentage points is hardly significant; it is possible that the exam was simply harder this year. However, reports soon appeared with unexpected results. In the Narayanpet district, an aspiring biology major named Sirisha immolated herself after finding out that she had failed. At the Naginenipally village, 19-year-old Akrapu decided to hang herself after her parents left for work. And finally, in a rural part of the state, an unnamed boy threw himself in front a train early one morning. In total, 22 students have taken their own lives since the results were published two weeks ago.

Shocked by the results, some students decided to send their tests back for re-evaluation. After all, many of these students who had previously been at the top of their class now had grades in the single digits. Though some students were inevitably disappointed by the fact that their tests came back without any changes in their grade (aren’t we all), others had starkly different experiences. When a student who had scored 98 on the exams in her first year appealed her score of 0 on her second year, it was re-evaluated and changed to a mark of 99.

Soon, parents raised an outcry of indignation at the system. It turns out that Globarena Technologies, the company in charge of the optical recognition software to process the results, had committed what “The Times of India,” India’s national newspaper, has passed off as a ‘goof-up'[a]. In India, it seems, a system that has so completely failed in its function—one that has resulted in the deaths of 20 students—is no more than a simple ‘goof-up’. The CEO of the company has commented, saying that “these kinds of errors happen every year” and explaining that “this is just the first year of [the algorithm’s] operation[b][c]” according to the [d][e]TheNewsMinute. Additionally, he added, “there was nothing extraordinary about [these mistakes]” and this issue was simply “blown out of proportion.”

In response to recent events, state minister Chandrashekhar Rao implored students not to take their own lives and added that “failing in examination does not amount to failing in life.” While many students may not have failed, the government evidently has. Free re-evaluation has only been offered to failing students, and the very company that has caused the entire travesty has been entrusted with this process. In a letter, India’s congress asked: “who should be made responsible for the deaths of 30 odd students?” Seeing as the contract with Globarena has not yet been cancelled and nothing is being done as of yet to uncover the cause of the errors, the fault must lie with some other force and not with the company.

While I am naturally indignant that politicians and CEOs have been so quick to displace the blame and guilt for directly causing the deaths of aspiring students, what’s more disturbing and disheartening about this tragedy is that it is not an anomaly but rather has simply managed to gain more coverage and press than other such incidents. Students may not have killed themselves due to grading errors, but they still have done so when they really did fail the exams. The latest data (collected in 2016) reports that there have been 9,474 students who killed themselves that year in India, the equivalent of one death every hour. Yet, although there are approximately 135,000 suicides each year, the number of psychiatrists and psychologists combined adds up to a puny 7,000 in a country with more than 1.3 billion inhabitants.

The Indian government must not only do more to correct the errors that Globarena Tech has caused by penalizing them, but also to divert more attention and resources to helping distressed students. Even as the country strides into the global spotlight with its economical and technological advancements, it must be ever more careful not to leave anyone behind. After all, behind each and every statistic there is an individual with his or her own experiences.