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Satyam Kumar

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IBN Live reports on the youngest person ever to make it through the IIT entrance examination:

A 12-and-a-half-year-old boy from Bihar has cracked the highly competitive Indian Institute of Technology-Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE). Satyam Kumar of Bakhorapur village in Bhojpur district qualified from the Mumbai zone with an all-India rank of 8,137.

“I am happy to crack IIT-JEE but I will not join IIT this year because of my poor rank. I will attempt next year for a good rank,” Kumar told IANS over telephone Saturday.

Kumar is still awaiting his class 12 results. According to the father, Kumar passed the Class 10 board exam from Modern School in Kota, Rajasthan.

IIT graduates of a certain age, who wax nostalgic over the Agarwal or Brilliant classes of another era, have nothing but contempt for the coaching schools of Kota. Caravan recognizes that this is a democratization of elite schools which is changing the lives of students as well as the villages where the schools are:

You could make a decent living here, gathering discarded leaflets off the ground and selling them to a waste-paper collector, or perhaps even back to the respective institutes so they can be handed out and discarded again. On my last morning in Kota I walked past a woman doing just that: efficiently collecting leaflets from the side of the road—only the less-soiled ones—and adding them to the inches-thick stack she balanced in one hand. The economy of Kota these days, I had heard from teachers and doctors and tea-stall owners and friends, revolves around coaching students for the Indian Institute of Technology entrance exam (IIT-JEE) and other tests. Hard evidence of that, in what this woman was up to.

In a town where coaching has boosted all kinds of professions, it has also created a new one. Consultant guardians are folks who, for a fee, stand proxy for a child’s absent parents. Who better to take along to help argue marks not awarded, if you’re far from home, than a consultant guardian? The senior administrator told the girl she had no case, but if she still wanted to argue it, she needed to come back with a parent. A real parent.

Walking around Kota, I got a sense of the range of professions and enterprises, beyond consultant guardians, ancillary to the coaching business.

Bike rentals? Check. Tyre puncture repairmen? Check. Roadside stalls selling “bread omlet”, “chaumeen”, “maggie noodles” and minuscule plastic cups of tea? Check. Do the same stalls also sometimes stock SIM cards? Check. Rickshaws with these words painted on the side: “Daily Up-Down Service to Allens, Bansals, Resonance, etc”? Check. Women collecting discarded leaflets off the roads? Check. Other stalls selling notebooks, loose paper, pens, pencils, erasers and forms for each of BHU, VIT, AIPVT, KIIT, AMRITA, WARDA, whatever those are? Check.

T HE KOTA COACHING CLASS PHENOMENON traces its origins to 1981, and to a dining table. VK Bansal (always “Bansal Sir”), then an employee of JK Synthetics who lived in the JK housing colony, discovered he was suffering from muscular dystrophy. As a degenerative disease, it would eventually leave him unfit for his job. He needed something else
to do, but what?

Someone suggested teaching, which struck an immediate chord. Bansal began helping a seventh standard student from the area—an indifferent student—with his schoolwork. As Sachin Jha writes in It All Adds Up, his biography of Bansal, the boy “had broken into the stratified ranks of the top ten” in his final exams that year. “This was no ordinary feat.”

Neighbours noticed. The next year, two more boys joined Bansal’s fledgling effort. The year after that, there were 15 kids. At that stage, Bansal was teaching for free—and yes, sitting at his dining table. But the parents persuaded him to accept fees. One thing led to another, and before long Bansal was giving tuitions to IIT aspirants. In 1986, the first of these made it through the IIT-JEE and went on to attend IIT Kanpur. This too was no ordinary feat. The JEE has always been one of the most competitive exams in the world: in 2011, nearly 500,000 students took the test. Less than 10,000 got through.

By the mid-1990s, Bansal was teaching 150 students. Dozens were getting through the JEE, so clearly he was doing something right. In 1998, he upgraded from his dining table, Jha writes, “and started to take his lectures in packed classrooms”—first in his refurbished garage, and eventually in the flashy Gaurav Tower on Road No 1.

Nitin Jain of Vibrant shares my engineering alma mater, Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS) Pilani (though he was several years junior to me). While I spent 20 years in industry after graduating, Jain stopped after two and started teaching at Bansal’s. In 14 years, “Ninja”—as his students called him—built a reputation as one of Bansal’s best physics teachers. So when he and six others left in 2009, it was a big blow to Bansal.

Chatting in his office on the first floor of the Vibrant tower, Jain spoke at length about faculty in Kota, explaining in an oblique way the constant ferment among the institutes. “The teachers here,” he said, “are of outstanding calibre. You can’t compare them to school teachers.” They need to be that good since they are teaching “students of the highest calibre”. So most of them are like him, graduates of the country’s best engineering colleges, BITS and IITs included.

But it’s not enough to merely hire such graduates. “We also have to keep working on new things,” he said. “We have to be innovative.” To that end, they follow mathematics Olympiads, watch lectures online at great universities like MIT, and are always on the hunt for new problems. This is how they differ from teachers in schools—“those guys are not knowledge seekers”—where the management does not invest in such things. But at Kota’s coaching institutes, said Jain, “our horizon is not limited to just books. We have to perform, or students will go elsewhere.”

Kota does not deserve the infamy that it has generated. It is merely a symptom of the blind reliance on exams that is the result of decades of underspending on education by most of our governments. In a better planned system the number of places in higher education would have risen in proportion to the population; by roughly a factor of 5 since independence.

Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

May 19, 2012 at 1:46 pm

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