If you or someone you know needs help, call 1800-599-0019 to reach KIRAN, a 24/7 national helpline set by the Ministry of Social Justice.
KOZHIKODE, Kerala — This October Sumathi Reddy, a tailor, and her husband Srinivas Reddy, a mechanic, told their children they had come to a difficult decision to survive India’s brutal economic recession: The family would sell their two-room home in Hyderabad, and mortgage Sumathi’s gold ornaments in a final bid to keep their family afloat.
Their elder daughter Aishwarya took the news particularly badly. A second year scholarship student studying mathematics honours at the prestigious Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi, Aishwarya felt her education was placing an undue financial burden on her working class family at a very difficult time.
On November 2 this year, at little after 8 pm, Aishwarya shut herself in one of the rooms of her house and died by suicide.
No-one was responsible for her death, Aishwarya said in her suicide note written in Telugu, “My family has been spending a lot of money on me. I am a burden for them. My studies are a burden. But I cannot live without my studies. I have been contemplating this for days. I think that suicide is my only resort.”
Countries around the world have struggled to cushion the double-blows of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic devastation it has wrought; yet the Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has done a particularly bad job. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has described the Modi government response as a “poster child of what not to do”.
India’s economy contracted by 25% in the June 2020 quarter — the sharpest contraction among major global economies even as coronavirus cases have exploded.
Lost amongst these big abstract numbers are stories like those of Aishwarya Reddy.
No one knows when and why someone chooses to take their life, but the circumstances leading up to Aishwarya’s tragic suicide point not just to the immediate effects of the India’s ill-planned lockdown, but the Modi government’s years-long campaign to systematically defund and privatise the public education system that millions of young Indians see as their only path out of inter-generational poverty.
Her death, LSR students say, also reflects how one of India’s most prestigious colleges has failed to protect some of its most vulnerable students in a time of unprecedented stress. Rather than consider the effects of the pandemic on its diverse student base, LSR’s insistence on following a controversial hostel policy — announced only last year — added to Aishwarya’s anxieties.
Aishwarya’s suicide note reflects the dilemma and intense pressure experienced by many students from under-privileged backgrounds: of being a financial drain on family resources in the short term, while also representing the best chance for their family’s future.
After worrying about the expenses borne by her family, her note says, “Please make sure that the INSPIRE scholarship for one year reaches my family.”
A Brilliant Student
By all accounts, Aishwarya was a brilliant student. In 2019, she came second in Telangana’s class 12 state board exams, scoring 98.5% in the maths, physics, chemistry stream. Her academic record won her not just a chance to study a Bachelors of Science (Honors) in mathematics at LSR, one of the best colleges in the country, but also an INSPIRE scholarship granted by the Ministry of Science and Technology to students who score in the top one percent in state board exams.
INSPIRE scholarships span a number of disciplines; Aishwarya won the SHE (Scholarship for Higher Education) grant for 10,000 girls and women each year to study science.
In her first two semesters Aishwarya thrived in studies and scored a Grade Point Average of 8, her friends said. “As her GPA improved from 7.4 in the first semester to 7.8 in the second, she was keen on joining civil service coaching. She wanted to be a district collector,” a friend said.
In March this year, Aishwarya made it back home from the student hostel on LSR’s campus to her home in Shadnagar Hyderabad days before Prime Minister Modi announced a draconian and unplanned national lockdown.
In lockdown, Aishwarya attended her classes online but was left to face the effects of a contracting economy on her family. Her father Srinivas’s work as a mechanic had come to a grinding halt, as had her mother’s work as a tailor.
“Customers who need car repairs were few because people stopped using vehicles,” said Sumathi, her mother. “I too lost income as people started maintaining social distance.”
Then in October this year, Aishwarya was notified by LSR that she would be losing hostel accommodation as part of the college’s new policy that reserves hostel accomodation only for first year students.
LSR claims its new hostel policy, announced last year, is an attempt to offer hostel accommodation to a more diverse student base despite the Modi government systematically reducing spending on public education.
“The college authorities decided to make the hostel a first year hostel to implement OBC reservation and to give more number of students access to the hostel over the years,” an LSR official said on the condition of anonymity. “The hostel currently has 285 beds and limiting accommodation to first year students allows around 900 students to use the hostel in three years.”
Unnimaya, SFI Delhi state committee member and LSR students representative said the implementation of OBC reservation is a welcome step, but the college authorities should have increased the number of beds instead of limiting access to first years.
Some students say the move to restrict hostel accommodation to first year students was part of a quiet attempt to prevent senior students from organising strikes on campus, and that LSR could not absolve itself of all blame for Aishwarya’s death.
As a statement shared by the LSR student body says, “It is no longer enough to sit back and blame larger structures. The authorities of Lady Shri Ram College must realise that they are a part of producing the said structure and thus must play an active part in providing transformative solutions.”
“It is clear that she was failed by her institution as well as a government which has used this pandemic to throw students like her under the bus,” the statement continues.
In Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the students union president Aishe Ghosh said that, “unplanned lockdown that failed to take students’ concerns into consideration”, was bound to affect the lives of female students and those from other marginalised sections.
“It is not easy for a student like Aishwarya to breach gender and cultural barriers to come and study in a city like Delhi. The government failed to realise that under trying circumstances as those posed by pandemic it could become extremely difficult for women to continue their education,” Aishe said.
Aishwarya, her friends say, was shaken when LSR decided to implement its hostel policy in the midst of the pandemic.
“She was hanging on, attending online classes which has been going on since a few months,” Aishwarya’s friend explained. “But when LSR administration asked all second year students to vacate the hostel, her trouble started.”
Accommodation outside the campus typically costs between Rs. 12,000 and Rs. 14,000 a month, Aishwarya’s friends said, adding that Aishwarya worried that her family would not be able to afford the additional expenditure. Further, according to the statement released by LSR students union, while answering a questionnaire issued by them, Aishwarya had mentioned that she does not have access to a laptop.
“They (teachers) are teaching well but I don’t have laptop and my mobile is not working well. So I am unable to do any practical papers,” she had explained as an answer to the survey.
She was also frustrated and stressed out by the peculiar terms of her SHE/INSPIRE scholarship.
While Aishwarya’s scholarship was announced in 2019, the scholarship kicks in only in her second year. An official at the Department of Science and Technology explained that the scholarship is paid out with a year’s delay “to prevent the scholarship from reaching students who have dropped out in the first year”.
The students are expected to upload their first year mark sheet on the INSPIRE portal and open an SBI account to receive the funds, said the official seeking anonymity as they weren’t authorised to speak with the press. The DST official said the funds — Rs 80,000 a year — are transferred to recipients within an average of 47 days of students uploading their bank details, and that there were no delays in disbursing scholarships this year.
Aishwarya’s friends say she died by suicide before completing the process.
“During the pandemic and the lockdown which ensued it became extremely difficult for students to collate documents and apply for fellowship,” said Ghosh from JNU. “The government should have assessed the situation and on humanitarian grounds awarded eligible students at least a part of the scholarship amount”.
Institutions Fail, Friends intervene
Aishwarya approached her friends for solace. A friend, who did not want to be identified, said she visited her on October 9.
“I stayed with her for 10 days and consoled her. At the end of my stay at her home I brought her to my home and we stayed here till after Dasara,” the friend said.
In Warangal, where her friend lives, Aishwarya was told of a student loan. “My mother and uncle decided to help her and fixed an appointment with an official at State Bank of India. She did not wait to see that through,” her friend said.
Aishwarya reached back home on November 1 and informed her mother of her loan prospects.
“She said that she could get up to Rs. 5 lakh in student loan. I was not keen as I did not want her to be burdened by a loan at a young age,” her mother Sumathi said. The family decided to stick to their plan of selling the house.
“She asked me, ‘Mother, where would we live?’ I had no answer but told her that we’ll make it work,” the distraught parent said. Aishwarya confined herself to the only bedroom in the house, troubled by financial burden and an uncertain future. “She used to watch movies on Netflix. She stopped watching films the night before she took the extreme step,” her sister Vaishnavi, who had dropped out of school a year ago because of financial trouble said.
Aishwarya made a final call to her friend on November 2 night. “She called around 7.30 pm and told me that she wants to help a friend get admission in LSR. She promised she would call me again,” the friend said. Aishwarya killed herself an hour later.
She was rushed to a government hospital but the health professionals could not resuscitate her.
“She was brilliant and our future was her future,” said Sumathi, her mother. “We hope the government releases her scholarship amount as per her last wish.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1800-599-0019 to reach KIRAN, a 24/7 national helpline set by the Ministry of Social Justice. You can also mail firstname.lastname@example.org or dial 022-25521111 (Monday-Saturday, 8am to 10pm) to reach iCall, a psychosocial helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).