LSR student’s suicide shows how the pandemic has deepened inequality and apathy in education

Since the educational setup moved largely online, lack of resources and institutional negligence has led to many poor students taking their own lives.

BySamyak Jain
LSR student’s suicide shows how the pandemic has deepened inequality and apathy in education
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On November 2, Aishwarya Reddy was found hanging at her home in Telangana's Ranga Reddy district. She was a student at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University.

A bright student by all accounts, Aishwarya, 19, had been struggling on two fronts – she couldn’t study online and was told to vacate her hostel before October 31. Her family of gig workers could barely afford to pay for Aishwarya’s education. In fact, they had reportedly been forced to take her younger sister out of school to fund Aishwarya’s higher education in Delhi.

Aishwarya left behind a suicide note. “My family has spent a lot of money on me. My studies are a burden for them. If I can’t study I can’t live,” it said. “Please try to ensure that the INSPIRE scholarship is given to my family for at least a year.”

Aishwarya was a recipient of the INSPIRE scholarship, provided by the union science and technology ministry to meritorious students pursuing undergraduate and postgraduate courses in basic and natural sciences. After her death was reported in the press, the ministry claimed the delay hadn’t been on their part; Aishwarya hadn’t submitted the required documents. “The students are asked to upload three simple documents like bank account details, marksheet, and a bona fide performance certificate from the college, following which scholarship for the entire year is promptly released,” the ministry said. “Regretfully these documents were not received from Aishwarya.”

Varshini Katam, one of Aishwarya’s friends, told Newslaundry, “We were together until the day before it happened. She told us about her situation, how even her house was mortgaged. My mom arranged for an education loan for her. Aishwarya was supposed to go to the bank and complete the formalities. I don't know what happened, she didn't go. The next night we got to know she was no more.”

In September, a committee of the college’s student representatives conducted an internal survey to assess the problems posed by online education. In her response to the survey, Aishwarya said, “They are teaching well but I don’t have a laptop and my mobile is not working well, so I am unable to do any practical paper.” And because she was unable to attend online classes, she mentioned, her mental health was affected. She noted that her internet connection wouldn’t last more than three hours while her classes “went on for double the amount of time”.

The representatives claim that they went to the administration with the survey but weren’t heard. The administration refused to even recognise the student committee, they added.

Suman Sharma, the college’s principal, however, claimed that the students never reached out to the administration. Asked about Aishwarya’s suicide, she told the news magazine Outlook, “We have a counsellor at the college to help students if they are facing any challenges emotionally or mentally. However, nobody knew about her state of mind. It’s unfortunate, we wish she had reached out either to her teachers or the counsellor or anybody in the college.”

Starting last year, the college limited hostel facilities to first-year students. Aishwarya was among the many students affected by the new policy. She was supposed to vacate her hostel room by October 31, after she had moved into her second year. This meant she would have had to rent a private accommodation, and pay for commuting to and from college.

On October 26, the LSR hostel’s warden sent a message to the hostel union saying “67 second year students have made no arrangements to collect their luggage as of now, nor have they gotten in touch with us to tell us when they will be coming”. She added that after November 10, “all luggage left behind will be packed by packers and movers and shifted. There will be no supervision of the packing by the hostel and the hostel will not be responsible for any loss or damage”.

Aishwarya, stuck at home because of the pandemic, was in no position to travel to Delhi and clear out of the hostel, her mother Sumathi Reddy told the media. “It would have taken Rs 30,000-40,000 for her to go to Delhi and rent accommodation. We couldn’t raise the money immediately and this troubled her very much.”

Aishwarya’s father was quoted as saying by The Quint, “Aishwarya had asked me if I could get her a laptop, even a used one, because her phone wasn’t of much help, but I couldn’t. I asked her to wait.”

She had even emailed actor Sonu Sood and Telangana minister KT Rama Rao for help, the father added, but did not receive a response from either.

Aishwarya isn’t the only student to have taken her life during the pandemic, partly because of the lack of resources or institutional negligence. At least 15 such cases have been reported from across the country since June.

On June 18, Mumbai Mirror reported that two Dalit girls had taken their own lives in Kerala’s Mallapuram. The family of one of them claimed she was frustrated when there was a power cut while she was taking an online class. She asked her sister to spare her cellphone, but her sister was using it for her own studies. They didn’t have another smartphone at home. The second victim, too, was reportedly upset because she couldn’t take online classes.

On June 20, Mirror Now reported that a 16-year-old girl had died by suicide in West Bengal’s Howrah because she couldn’t take online classes for want for a smartphone. The victim’s father, Santa Sau, was quoted as saying their phone had been damaged and could not be repaired during the lockdown. “My daughter was fearful that she may fail in exams as she could not attend online classes. She was feeling very depressed,” he said.

On June 24, the New Indian Express reported that a 16-year-old boy had died by suicide in Assam’s Chirang. He was troubled because his family couldn’t buy a smartphone for him to attend online classes or appear for examinations conducted by his school.

On August 25, Business World reported five separate cases of female students dying by suicide over the course of June, July and August in Kerala, Punjab, Bengal, Tripura and Karnataka. Reportedly, all the victim's belonged to distressed backgrounds of farmers and daily wagers whose earnings were hit by the pandemic.

On August 30, Mint reported the suicide of Anu, a 28-year-old man in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram. He had secured 77th rank in the Public Service Commission Exam but failed to secure a job. His relatives claimed that he was in deep distress due to the same. Reportedly, he also left behind a suicide note which cited the administration’s failure to offer a job as the cause for his death.

On September 3, India Today reported two suicides in Tamil Nadu’s Theni and Ulundurpet, both students who were unable to continue online classes. In Theni, a class 11 student, Vikrapandi was having difficulty in following and understanding online classes. In Ulunderpet, Nithyashree, a second year nursing student died by suicide after having an argument with her two sisters over using the phone that the three of them were sharing for online classes.

On September 9, India.com reported that a 20-year-old woman, Jayanti Bauli had died by suicide in Bengal’s Jalpaiguri because she upset over not being able to afford a smartphone for her classes. Her father was a daily wage labourer who could barely make ends meet.

On September 27, Telangana Today reported that an 18-year-old girl, Kodijuttu Pravallika had killed herself because she could not afford a smartphone for online classes. She was relying on the mobile phones of her friends to attend online classes.

On October 1, the Indian Express reported that a 15-year-old girl, Sakshi Aabasaheb Pol, a student of class IX, had committed suicide in Maharashtra’s Satara. Her parents were daily wage labourers and, according to the report, couldn’t afford to buy a smartphone for her to attend online classes during the pandemic. The victim had been going to a classmate’s house to attend online classes.

On October 17, Herald Goa reported that a 16-year-old Rohit Varak had killed himself after his parents were unable to raise money for a smartphone.

On October 24, NDTV reported the death of Vidhi Suryavanshi, a NEET aspirant from Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh who was distressed after her scorecard showed only 6 marks to her name. When the victim’s paper was re-evaluated her actual score turned out to be 590.

If you or someone you know needs help overcoming suicidal thoughts, contact KIRAN, a national helpline set by the social justice ministry, at 1800-599-0019. You can also call Fortis: +91 8376804102; AASRA: +91 98204 66726; and the Samaritans, Mumbai: +91 84229 84528.

Also Read : JNU’s entrance exam was riddled with irregularities. What went wrong?
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