At around 5 pm on April 18, Kaveti Sudhakar Rao stepped out of his apartment in West Marredpally in Telangana’s Secunderabad to run a few errands. He was in a hurry. The chartered accountant wanted to be home with his only daughter when results of her Class XII intermediate exams were declared that evening.
Sudhakar Rao missed the deadline. He got back half an hour after the Telangana State Board of Intermediate Education released the results at around 5.30 pm. His daughter, Kaveti Lasya, 17, had failed one of her subjects, Mathematics 2B, and she felt devastated.
Sudhakar Rao consoled her, suggesting that she could take a supplementary exam to clear the subject without falling behind a year. Lasya agreed. She went to her room while her father got busy online looking up how to apply for the supplementary exam.
At around 6.30 pm, the family found Lasya hanging from the ceiling of her room.
Not long after, nearly 10 km away in Sri Nagar Colony, Dharma Ram, 17, jumped from the sixth-floor balcony of his building. Ram, who studied at Narayana College in Ameerpet, had also failed Mathematics 2B. “He was the only one in his class to have cleared the JEE test with 85%,” said his sister Mahitha Paturu. “He could not accept that he had failed in this exam.”
Of the 9.74 lakh students who appeared for Telangana’s intermediate exams for Classes XI and XII, 3.28 lakh failed this year. Fifty thousand candidates, Ram and Lasya among them, failed only Mathematics.
The results triggered a spate of suicides. At least six students killed themselves the evening the results were announced. Within ten days, the toll climbed to 23.
The main reason the exam become a matter of life and death for so many students is that scores in the intermediate exams get a 25% weightage in the Engineering Agricultural and Medical Common Entrance Test, or EAMCET, students, parents and education experts told Scroll.in. This is the test that determines admission to medical, agricultural and engineering colleges in Telangana.
In addition, tests like EAMCET and JEE, the national exam for admission to IITs and engineering colleges, have come to be the marker of academic achievement.
“The idea that we have to aspire only for engineering or medicine is sown into our minds right from high school,” said a cousin of Lasya’s who asked not to be identified. “Any other course is looked down upon. We are basically told that these are the only two options.”
This obsession with medicine and engineering has been fueled, and exploited, by profit-driven private colleges. Their big draw is that they offer to prepare students for the intermediate exams and entrance tests simultaneously.
“There are at least 2,203 private intermediate colleges in the state and only 404 government colleges,” said Madhusudhan Reddy, president of the Government Junior College Lecturers’ Association.
Institutions run by the Sri Chaitanya and the Narayana groups are among the most sought-after. The Sri Chaitanya group’s reputation for preparing students for entrance exams persuaded Sudhakar Rao to admit his daughter to the Sri Chaitanya College in Secunderabad to study Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, paying Rs 1.40 lakh a year in fees. Aside from teaching her the required intermediate courses, the college also prepared Lasya to take EAMCET and the JEE.
“We did not want to burden her by sending her to tuition classes,” said Sudhakar Rao. “So we chose a semi-residential college that offered regular classes and training for entrance exams under one roof.”
For two years, Lasya had to keep a 12-hour schedule. She took practice exams every Saturday and Monday.
“They are given multiple choice questions to answer like in entrance exams for IITs or EAMCET,” said Sudhakar Rao. “Results are sent via SMS to each student’s parents and displayed on the college’s noticeboards. They teach the regular courses only at the fag end of the academic year.”
In the intermediate exams conducted by the state board, though, students are required to write detailed answers. Since there is little time to prepare for this, the colleges encourage rote learning. But this strategy does not work for Mathematics, Lasya’s cousin said.
“Every student who enters intermediate college has to go through this grind,” she added. “Those two years are the worst of our lives.”
Lasya did not complain about the grinding schedule or the frequent exams. “She never seemed stressed by the long hours in college,” her mother Kaveti Sridevi said. “As soon as she returned home, I would feed her dinner. She was always cheerful. She would come home and watch cookery or comedy shows before going to sleep.”
Sridevi said the family gave Lasya the leeway to study “at her own pace”.
“We did not pressurise her to excel at everything,” said Sudhakar Rao. “I only insisted that she learn the fundamentals of each subject very well. Though she didn’t top her class, she always scored above average marks and we were content with that. She scored over 80% in her first intermediate year.”
This is why, Sudhakar Rao said, the family can’t understand why Lasya decided to take her own life. “It was all over within half an hour,” he said. “None of us anticipated it.”
He, however, agreed that the state’s education system puts students under enormous stress by focusing so intensely on maximising exam scores.
“Colleges should at least engage with their students and open up different avenues for them to dream of and pursue other than medicine and engineering,” Sudhakar Rao said. “Students should be told that failing in a test is not the end of the world.”
Harder for rural students
For rural students, making the transition from school to intermediate college is even more difficult. In recent years, a growing number of students from Telangana villages travel to Hyderabad and other cities to study in private colleges. Many of them come from Telugu-medium panchayat schools but have to deal with classes taught in English. Of the 23 students who have killed themselves since the exam results, 20 were from rural areas.
Among those who exemplify the acute strain to which students are subjected is Kukatla Praveen, 18, attempted suicide on May 1 by drinking pesticide near his home in Venkataraopalli village of Karimnagar, nearly 200 km from Hyderabad. He has failed five subjects in his second intermediate year. The first year, he failed three subjects.
“I felt humiliated when my friends made fun of me for not clearing the exam, so I drank poison,” said Praveen, lying in a hospital bed in his village.
Praveen did not want to study in a private college: he said he knew that he would find it difficult to cope with the “environment and teaching methods”. He would rather have studied at the nearest government college, 27 km away. But because there was no public transport to get him there, he enrolled himself in a private college in Karimnagar city, even though his family could barely afford it.
Praveen’s parents own seven acres of land, but they gave up cultivation six years ago because of persistent drought. They now work as agricultural labourers, earing Rs 300 to Rs 400 a day. This isn’t uncommon in Telangana. With sections of the reeling under drought for more than a decade now, many marginal farmers have moved off their land to search for other employment.
For children in rural areas, education is the only route out, said Nakka Narayana Rao, general secretary of the Civil Liberties Committee, an advocacy group. “When they fail in the intermediate examination, the societal pressure on them of failing their impoverished parents is much greater,” he said.
Telangana has seen an increasing number of students committing suicide over the past few years. At least 151 students killed themselves in 2016, a steep rise from 68 two years earlier, according to Balala Hakkula Sangam, a child rights group in Hyderabad.
Lasya’s father Sudhakar Rao blamed the media for student suicides. “There is relentless media coverage of suicides which students see as a solution to their problem,” he said. “The media fails to inform their viewers and readers that suicide is not a solution.”
This year’s intermediate results were not very different from those of the previous two years. Around 61.35% of the students who took the exams passed in 2017, and 64.73% in 2018. This year, the pass percentage was 62.29%, with the decline partly attributed to faulty marking.
A committee set up by the state government under GT Venkateshwar Rao, managing director of the Telangana State Technology Services, to examine the results for errors found that practical exams scores were not displayed for 531 Geography students. Over 500 students were wrongly shown to have skipped the exam, while 4,288 were wrongly awarded single-digit marks for Mathematics.
“All the mistakes were attributable to inadequacies in the design and implementation of the application,” the committee concluded, referring to a software deployed for processing “data relating to all aspects of examinations conducted in the academic year 2018-’19”.
The software was developed for the Board of Intermediate Education by Globarena Technologies at a cost of Rs 4.35 crore. The company is supposed to run it until 2021 and then hand it over to the board.
But the committee found the board had not yet signed a contract with Globarena Technologies to operate the software and that “effective project execution on the mandated lines was inadequate”.
“Their approach was always reactionary, dealing with problems as and when they came up,” the committee said in its report. “There are no standard operating procedure documents for most of the activities and modules that are a part of the project, from TSBIE as well as Globarena’s side.”
In conclusion, the committee blamed both the board and Globarena for the faulty results.
Congress leaders have alleged that the project was given to Globerana without a contract at the instance of the Telangana Rashtra Samiti’s working president, KT Rama Rao, son of Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao. He has denied the allegation, saying he had “no clue about the entity called Globarena Technologies until the intermediate results controversy surfaced”.
In spite of the committee’s report, the government has not acted against the education board’s officials or Globarena so far.
The chief minister held a review meeting on April 24 where he instructed the board’s officials to conduct “free reevaluation and recounting of papers for the students who have failed the exams”. He also expressed “deep sorrow” at the suicides.
But the government has not acknowledged the error in the system so far. Nor has it explained why Globerana was asked to develop and operate the software without a contract being signed.
In an article in The News Minute, activist and academic Padmaja Shaw noted that the education board has often been accused of not carrying out its role as a regulator and allowing private players to dictate terms to it.
The government may yet take responsibility for the systemic failure and offer to pay compensation to the families who lost their children, state officials said. That would be no comfort for Sudhakar Rao. “I don’t want any compensation,” he said. “Nothing is going to bring back my daughter.”