Singh's friend is among more than one lakh students who arrive in Kota, the mecca of IIT coaching, every year. Girls comprise nearly a fifth of the students. This year about 1.25 lakh students are likely to join Kota-based institutes, according to estimates by coaching centres. Besides, there are the so-called "droppers", who stay on for repeat attempts by hopping from one institute to another. Most students fail to make it to the IITs as seats are limited and competition intense. That still hasn't dampened the aspirations of thousands of others.
Depending on the course, students spend between Rs 40,000 and Rs 1 lakh a year on tuition fee alone in Kota's coaching centres. Annual boarding and lodging expenses are at least Rs 60,000. Most students are from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand. Students are coming in from faraway places, too. Anurag Gulung, 17, from Gangtok, Sikkim came to Kota last year while Mohammed Kamran, 16, is here from Oman. Gulung's first introduction to Kota was from a Chetan Bhagat novel -- Revolution 2020: Love, Corruption, Ambition -- in which the protagonist comes to the town for engineering coaching. "This place (Kota) is ideal for coaching," says Gulung. "It has the best faculty. If you follow what the teacher says, selection is guaranteed." Kamran, who is here with his 80-year-old grandfather Amir Mohammed, agrees. "I always wanted to be at the IIT and this is the best place for its coaching."
More than one lakh aspiring engineers flock to Kota every year to study in nearly three dozen coaching institutes. The average batch size is 180 students
THE BUSINESS OF COACHING
There are about three dozen coaching centres in the town, including big ones such as Bansal Classes, Allen Career Institute, Resonance, Vibrant, Motion IIT JEE, and Career Point. In 2011, South Korean coaching company Etoos set up shop in Kota. "IIT is the most famous Indian education brand overseas and Kota is the hub for it," says Choi Young Joo, Director for overseas business at Etoos Academy. He says Etoos plans to record lectures at its centre and provide them online through streaming services to students in Delhi.
The institutes and related businesses such as hostels, stationery shops, cyber cafes and photocopiers have spawned an industry with estimated annual revenue of Rs 1,700 crore. For instance, there are an estimated 500 private hostels in Indra Vihar and Rajeev Gandhi Nagar localities alone. Overall, nearly 70 per cent of Kota's economy depends on these businesses. The lure of some coaching centres is such that students even have to take an entrance test to join these institutes. In recent years, however, growing competition among coaching centres has led to simpler entrance tests. Most institutes admit almost all students who apply as they do not want to lose revenue. "If we say no to a student, he will take admission at some other institute," says Pramod Maheshwari, a Kota native and IIT-Delhi alumnus who founded Career Point in 1993.
To attract students, the institutes provide a host of academic and non-academic services. These include orientation programmes for students and parents, help in school admissions as well as lodging and boarding and even in opening bank accounts. Some institutes also organise quiz contests at a local shopping mall where the winning students are offered discounts on fee and study material. These institutes pack, on average, 180 students in a batch. To focus on the top students and maintain a high success ratio, the institutes then create smaller batches of 15 to 30 students who work with the best teachers.
Kota's success as an IIT coaching factory has had other effects as well. The real estate market is booming. In Jawahar Nagar, a hub for hostels, land prices have jumped from Rs 700 per square feet about a decade ago to Rs 3,500 now, according to Puneet Dadhich, a local builder. Hotels, hostels and coaching institutes have come up on industrial land owned by state-run Rajasthan Industrial Development and Investment Corporation, he adds.
Kamal Singh spent Rs 2.5 lakh over two years to prepare for the IIT entrance test. He now studies in a private engineering college
LAYING THE FOUNDATION
The foundation of the coaching industry was laid in early 1980s by V.K. Bansal, an engineer at a J.K. Synthetics factory who began his teaching career by taking math tuitions for local students. Slowly, his students started clearing the IIT exams. In 1986, Kota came in the IIT limelight when local boy Sanjeev Arora topped the entrance exam. Bansal says 13 of his students cracked the entrance test in 1990. In the mid-1990s, after the closure of the J.K. Synthetics factory, several engineers joined Bansal Classes. Many of them later started their own institutes. One such was B.V. Rao, who founded Rao Academy.
Kota's image got another boost in 1995 when 51 students from the town made it to the IITs. This further attracted aspiring engineers and teachers. Such was the euphoria at the time that coaching centres started hiring IIT graduates as teachers. R.K. Verma, an IIT Madras alumnus who founded Resonance in 2001, had also initially joined Bansal Classes. Maheshwari of Career Point recalls recruiting 12 faculty members through campus placements at IITs in 1997. This trend continued until 2002, when IITs stopped allowing coaching institutes to participate in campus placements. But hiring was still possible as institutes started putting posters in hostels and fresh graduates could directly apply. Today, almost 35 per cent of the coaching fraternity is from the IITs.
Almost all institutes run in-house faculty training programmes to beat competition and keep a buffer of teachers, says Verma of Resonance. Demand for good teachers is such that their salaries have shot through the roof. The average annual salary of the faculty hovers around Rs 30 lakh and the experienced ones carry home double that amount. To stabilise faculty pay, the coaching centres had an unwritten no-poaching arrangement. But that was broken early this year when Etoos poached 11 teachers from Resonance at an annual salary closer to the Rs 1 crore mark, says Om Sharma, an IIT Bombay alumnus who teaches math at an institute.
The role of coaching institutes gained even more importance in 2005 when the format for the engineering entrance exams was changed. The subjective paper was done away with and the exams now comprise only multiple-choice questions. Puneet Hakoo, who teaches physical chemistry at an institute, says the multiple-choice format is a test of memory rather than intelligence. "It works like a short cut and is detrimental to students as the fundamentals are ignored," says Hakoo. The system also hampered the quality of the faculty, says Sharma. "Since the subjective paper required mastery over the subject, the faculty standard was very high until 2005."
Some institutes admit students from Class Six onwards for integrated courses. On average, the tuition fee is Rs 30,000 and the coaching fee Rs 20,000 for Classes Six to Eight
The reason students focus more on coaching rather than school is that the format of the engineering entrance tests is different from the Class 12 exams, which retain subjective questions. The institutes tapped into this opportunity and tied up with schools. Under such arrangements, students enroll in these schools but do not attend classes. Instead, they prepare for the engineering entrance tests and go to school only to take their Class 12 exams. Some institutes have opened their own schools and are admitting students from Class Six onwards to prepare them for IITs. The tuition fee for Classes Six to Eight is Rs 30,000 on average while the coaching fee is Rs 20,000. Hostel charges can be as high as Rs 80,000 a year. The coaching fee for Classes Nine and 10 goes up to Rs, 30,000 and to as much as Rs 1 lakh for the final two years of schooling. Some institutes have gone a step further and opened colleges and even universities to maximise revenue opportunities.
The new entrance test pattern introduced from this year, which will give high weighting to Class 12 board exams, will add another dimension. Maheswari of Career Point says the new pattern will increase the dependence of students on coaching centres. "It would double the pressure on students. Earlier, the students were taking coaching for the entrance exam. Now, they will have to take it for the board examination also."
Coaching centres offer a range of academic and non-academic services to lure students. These include help in school admission, lodging and boarding, and counseling
Govind Maheswari, Director, Allen Career Institute, says some coaching chains such as FIITJEE, Aakash, Sri Chaitanya and Narayana, which operate multiple branches across India, tried to establish a footprint in Kota but did not succeed. Ramashish Paul, who was part of a six-member FIITJEE launch team sent from New Delhi in 2002, recalls how for the first six months only a handful of students enrolled. FIITJEE wrapped up its Kota operations within three years. "Kota has its own system," says Paul, who teaches organic chemistry. "You mould students here and students, in turn, mould you. It's a very flexible system where the bonding between teachers and students is very strong."
Coaching classes run from six in the morning and students clock as many as 12 hours a day preparing for the entrance exams
The mushrooming coaching industry has a dark side as well. The town witnesses at least a dozen suicides a year by engineering aspirants. Psychiatrist C.S. Sushil, a professor at Kota Medical College, says the problem of depression is growing among students. He says the town has 11 psychiatrists, who attend at least five children daily on average. In most cases, these students were toppers in their schools, villages and states. But when they come here, amidst a line of toppers from across India, their rank falls. "At the back of a student's mind is the fear of being a failure and all the money that his family has spent on him," says Sushil. He adds that, since children come here at a young age, they suffer from separation anxiety disorder due to staying away from home for a prolonged period. "Such cases have shot up in the past seven-eight years."
South Korea's Etoos set up shop in Kota in 2011. Choi Young Joo, Director for overseas business at Etoos Academy, says IIT is the most famous Indian education brand overseas
Bansal, the man credited with giving the town a new identity, is saddened by these developments. He regrets the falling standards of teachers. Sharma, the math teacher, says there is little difference among institutes now. "The key difference is who has the best student and a better marketing team."
The Kota-based institutes are now expanding to other places, from Guwahati and Patna to Chandigarh and Bangalore. Bansal, however, says engineering aspirants will continue to flock to Kota in spite of the failure of students such as Bihar's Kamal Singh. That belief stems from the high number of students who do make it to the IITs. Though there is no official data, estimates from people in the coaching business suggest students from Kota grab nearly a quarter of the seats in the IITs.
Cycles are the main mode of transport for the thousands of students who stay in Kota
As for Singh, he wants to go back to Bihar after completing his engineering studies and open an IIT coaching centre in Siwan district. "I know exactly how coaching is imparted, what are the drawbacks and how to overcome the loopholes," he says. "Kota gets maximum students from Bihar. Every parent wants to send his child to Kota for engineering coaching. I want to stop that."
Mohammed Kamran (left) came to Kota from Muscat, Oman, with his 80-year-old grandfather Amir Mohammed to prepare for IIT
Photographs By Aditya Kapoor