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Inside India’s Cram City

Every summer in northwest India, as hot winds sweep up from the deserts of Rajasthan, trains packed with students from the countryside trundle into Kota, a small city dense with clusters of test-prep centers. All told, roughly 150,000 students arrive every year — some of them children of fruit vendors, farmhands, welders, freight-truck drivers, construction workers, sweepers and rickshaw-pullers from the poorest corners of the country — hoping to improve their chances on the nation’s highly competitive college entrance exams. In a society rife with corruption, where bribes routinely ensure advancement in both the public and private sectors, attending an elite college is one of the most reliable merit-based routes to success. National entrance tests are used to rank students applying to colleges across the country, and families take on lifelong debt for test-prep courses, hoping their children will gain admission to universities that guarantee a career as a doctor or an engineer.

Kota is a place for strivers, where the fear of being left behind is palpable. Two of the city’s main neighborhoods — Vigyan Nagar and Landmark City — feel like open-air museums of Indian anxiety. Their narrow lanes are crammed with student boardinghouses, private tutors and restaurants offering home-style tiffin services. A corner store sells mock tests along with shampoo and cooking oil. Food carts hand out samosas wrapped in textbook paper. Bookstores display biographies of famous engineers alongside self-help books on personality development. Coffee mugs come printed with threats: “If you are not scared and restless, your dreams are too small.”

Govind Pandey is 17 and attends the Motion Education coaching center. He writes formulas on the walls of his hostel to help him prepare for his engineering entrance exam. “Surrounding myself with the material means I am manifesting results,” he says. Credit…Zishaan A Latif for The New York Times

In many ways, Kota is a reflection of the culture of inequality that persists across Indian society. This past year, 2.74 million Indians sat for engineering and medical entrance exams, competing for 64,610 spots. More than 2.6 million failed. Of the students who arrive in Kota every year, only a small percentage are accepted to elite colleges. Known as “toppers,” they are seen as symbols of how grit and dedication can pay off. Everywhere you turn in Kota, the faces of toppers look down on you from billboards advertising the coaching center that tutored them. The many who fail repeat prep courses and retake tests multiple times until they can’t afford to keep trying. Some drop out and return to their villages to find temp work. Some get into lesser-known colleges, graduates of which often earn a fraction of what elite-college graduates can make. Some, mostly women, drop out of the work force altogether.

A student’s room at Crianza, a private hostel. Roughly 150,000 students from across the country move to Kota every year to focus on test prep. Credit…Zishaan A Latif for The New York Times

Despite these grim odds, young Indians continue arriving in Kota, and the coaching institutes have become a big business, encompassing 300 or so centers that generate $350 million to $450 million in revenue every year, according to one estimate. The largest coaching company, the Allen Career Institute, instructs more than one million students.

The industry began as the brainchild of Vinod Kumar Bansal, a mechanical engineer who worked at a city textile factory. In 1974, Bansal was diagnosed with a degenerative neuromuscular condition that would eventually confine him to a wheelchair. At the time, Kota was an industrial town with few job opportunities outside of a cluster of quarries and synthetic-fiber factories. Searching for an alternate career, Bansal began tutoring high school students, and in 1985 helped his neighbors’ daughter pass the engineering entrance exam — she later attended the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology. Over time, more kids from the neighborhood joined his tutoring sessions. In 1990, 13 of his students were accepted into I.I.T. Three years later, 23 students got in. In 1995, the number climbed to 49, according to the book “It All Adds Up,” by Sachin Jha, an early student.

Bansal’s teaching style was rooted in the Kumon method, which was invented by a Japanese high school teacher named Toru Kumon in the 1950s. It was predicated on mastering one topic before moving onto the next. Bansal’s daily practice problems included a sheet of 10 challenging questions sourced from textbooks across the world, which he regarded as a type of “mental massage.” “Spare no effort, work hard and live up to your potential,” Bansal would tell his students. “Whatever follows will always be for the best. That is the simple calculus of karma.” By the time the textile factory, the largest employer in town, shut down and left thousands of skilled workers jobless, Bansal was running a successful test-prep business.

Orientation day at the Allen Career Institute, Kota’s largest coaching center. Allen stretches across 22 buildings in the city and employs 2,000 teachers who instruct 1.25 million students every year. Credit…Zishaan A Latif for The New York Times

One afternoon in the summer of 2000, Bansal awoke to a crowd surging at the gate to his house. News had spread quickly that one of his students had earned the top score on the engineering entrance test. The total number of acceptances to elite colleges from his classes was now close to 300. When Bansal emerged to address the crowd, he announced that he could not accommodate more students. “A riotlike situation prevailed, and the police had to be summoned to get things under control,” Jha wrote.

Over the years, Bansal expanded his business, acquiring neighboring houses to increase capacity, hiring more teachers and eventually constructing a tower with 120 classrooms. Across the city, new coaching institutes, started by Bansal’s factory colleagues and teaching associates, cropped up. They mimicked his teaching style in an attempt to capitalize on the growing demand. So many instructors were being poached or leaving to start their own centers that Bansal created a reserve of roughly 200 teachers and trainees. Coaching centers throughout the city also began spending millions on marketing, recruiting students as early as sixth grade. If a student was bright enough, there was no limit to what a coaching center would do to persuade him or her to move to Kota and study under its banner. Incentives could include a relocation sum, a monthly stipend, a bedroom and, in at least one case, full-time employment for the student’s father. The largess was strategic — one topper could attract thousands who would enroll in the hope of becoming just like them.

In the run-up to exam season, which begins in spring and lasts through summer, prospective toppers are locked away in boardinghouses and offered apartments, motorbikes or wads of cash to thwart poaching by rival coaching centers. Last September, when the medical entrance-exam results were announced, one of the national toppers was Mrinal Kutteri, a teenager with a halo of curly hair from Hyderabad, a city in southern India. There was just one problem: Two different institutes in Kota claimed credit for his success. Kutteri had received coaching in a satellite branch of the Aakash Institute but had also accessed an online test series from the Allen Career Institute. To solidify its claim, the Aakash Institute brought Kutteri to Kota to participate in a victory parade on the institute’s behalf. Kutteri stood in an open jeep, his neck swaddled in garlands, as a wedding band with trumpets and snare drums led a procession of prancing students hoisting posters of his face.

“There are two types of students in Kota — rankers and bankers,” Amit Gupta, a coaching-center biology instructor, told me. “One ranker will attract thousands of bankers. This is our modus operandi. We are in the business of selling dreams.” By Gupta’s definition, rankers are students with the potential to get into elite colleges, while bankers, who are in the majority, are students whose ambitions outrank their capacities. “A ranker was always going to get selected,” Gupta told me. “If he gets good teachers, his rank may improve, but he was already capable of selection. The business model of the coaching industry relies on the banker. We show him a dream — ‘You can also become an I.I.T.-ian or a doctor’ — even though we know all along that he would never be selected because there are just not enough seats.”

Yet every student who moves to Kota believes, on some level, that anyone who works hard enough can make it. “Kota gives you the right atmosphere to study hard,” Saurvi Kumari, a student from Bihar who was hoping to go on to study medicine, told me. “You get out of your house for a walk, and you’ll see students with their heads buried in textbooks. You stop to drink tea at the corner stall, and you’ll see students solving problems. It makes you want to leave your cup half-full and run home to your books because everything other than studying can start to feel like a waste of time, but this is what motivates us to work harder.”

Kumari had heard that there was an amusement park with replicas of famous monuments from around the world in the center of the city. There was a house of horrors in a nearby mall where shop attendants dressed as ghosts. You could go boating on the Chambal River and make videos of hand-shadow dances at sunset. “The day I get selected for admission, I will treat myself to these places,” she said.

The never-ending hours of study, the missed birthdays and family gatherings, the sting of disappointment, the loss of friends, hobbies, fresh air and the experience of being young — all of it combines to turn Kota into a pressure cooker. Friendships are tainted by the fear of getting attached to a competitor. Watching a movie means throwing away your future. In the end, the merciless culture of competition can push students over the edge. According to the latest National Crime Records Bureau report, from 2021, 13,081 students committed suicide in India, the highest number in five years, with “failure in examination” listed among the causes. They hanged themselves from ceiling fans, drank rat poison and jumped to their deaths. In 2022 alone, 15 students committed suicide in Kota. After three suicides took place on Dec. 12, two in the same boardinghouse, the National Human Rights Commission demanded that the Rajasthan government regulate the coaching industry in Kota.

Arman Ansari came to Kota from a village in Uttar Pradesh four years ago to prepare for the medical entrance exam. After four unsuccessful attempts to pass the test, he is studying for a fifth try. “Even if I take the pressure, my family diffuses it,” he says. “They have been my support, that’s why I am still trying.” Credit…Zishaan A Latif for The New York Times

And increasingly, the small number of students in Kota who gain admission to elite colleges are also facing challenges, graduating into an economy that may not have a place for them. India has one of the world’s largest populations of young people, roughly 600 million people are under age 25 — a demographic shift that was expected to deliver once-in-a-lifetime economic growth. But prosperity for these young adults has proved elusive. The latest report from the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, an independent agency, shows that even as the working-age population increased by 121 million since 2016, the labor force shrank by 10 million jobs; the unemployment rate among college graduates and postgraduates stands at a dismal 33 percent. As a result, graduates are forced to accept work for which they are overqualified. “That is a very bad signal for an economy,” said Indrajit Bairagya, a professor at the Institute of Social and Economic Change in the southern Indian city Bengaluru, “because it leads to a crisis of diploma disease. Your education is becoming less valuable every day.”

As India struggles to revive its economy after the pandemic, which cost the country 4.5 million jobs, Kota’s students are consumed with worry. They worry about their weekly tests. They worry about catching dengue and missing out on lectures. They worry about whether their hard work will pay off in the way their families hope. Abhyudaya Raj, the son of a cement trader from Nalanda district in Bihar, moved to Kota at age 13 to start test prep for an exam he would attempt five years later. “My dream is to attend I.I.T.-Bombay,” he said. He was sitting on the edge of his bed under a flickering fluorescent light in a student boardinghouse where he had already spent four years of his life. He rarely saw friends from his village and had no time to make new ones. When I asked him why he wanted to attend that particular school, he looked at his feet and ventured a guess. “Because I think you get good job placements from there?”

The walls inside Radha Krishna Temple are covered with handwritten prayers from students. “Please, God, give me potential to study 24/7 for 3-5 years,” reads one note. Another student wrote: “Please make my parents happy and rich. Please only one government medical seat, only one, please.”Credit…Zishaan A Latif for The New York Times

Mansi Choksi is an Indian journalist and the author of “The Newlyweds: Rearranging Marriage in Modern India.” Zishaan A Latif is a photographer and filmmaker based in New Delhi. He recently photographed the designer Sabyasachi for the magazine.

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