By Ila Ananya
In April this year, at the end of her four years at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur, 23-year-old Arushi Kesarwani saw something that she had rarely seen in her time there. At exactly 7 pm, the electricity was turned off, deliberately.
She remembers that some exams had ended that day. And now suddenly, there were no lights and no WiFi, so instead of sitting in their rooms and working as they usually did, students came out of their hostels in large numbers and spent their time doing nothing in particular. Some were playing antakshari. Many of them were walking around campus, and some were sitting in small groups outside their hostels, chatting and laughing loudly. Kesarwani walked around the stadium with her friends, listening to a DJ who was playing music there. “There was big junta there and it was fun,” she says laughing.
This decision for a deliberate blackout came after the painfully sad stories of three students from the campus committing suicide this year (there have been two more suicides at IIT Delhi), obviously telling of a deep problem in educational institutions that we’ve known exists, but have never stopped to seriously address, perhaps until this year.When the electricity was turned on 40 minutes later, everyone went back to their hostels and continued with what was left of their day. But Kesarwani remembers thinking that being outside like that felt different. She had got caught up on other things, other than assignments and reading.
The perceived success of this one-day event at IIT Kharagpur convinced authorities that they should bust out impromptu decisions like this more often. The institute, in what is being seen as an unusual move, has decided to make these blackouts a regular practice.
Students say that the blackout/digital Sabbath is not yet an everyday session as a lot of websites have reported. But hostel wardens are going to turn the power off for an hour occasionally (“not to save electricity or cut costs,” Hindustan Timessaid helpfully), encouraging students to leave their rooms, devices and books and go out and talk to their friends. As Manish Bhattacharya, the dean of student affairs at IIT Kharagpur put it, this rule is for every student. “Once the lights are turned off, all the students are expected to come out of their room. Normally those students who spend maximum time in their room and do not interact with others, they are also forced to come out of their room and mingle with others,” he told Quartz.
When I first told friends about IIT Kharagpur’s new idea, most of them laughed. Some of the comedy came from us not having any idea what these sessions would be like — would students simply be forced to sit in the courtyard of their hostels and talk to each other while their warden watched over them? Would they go to sleep? Would they rather work?
Satinder Kaur, who is in her second year at the college clears up quite a bit of my confusion about the logistics. She says the blackout happened once (in April), where students were encouraged to go to the stadium on their campus while a DJ played music there. It hasn’t happened again since then, but Kaur has heard this is going to be done once a month, starting in the new academic year.
To Kesarwani, her college’s decision to have such sessions instinctively seems like a good idea. “When you start talking to your friends, there’s a very high chance you’ll realise that they’re going through something similar, or that they’re facing the same kind of pressures. It’s a reminder that these things will pass too,” she says. She believes they’re important conversations, especially when you’re in such a competitive place with hardly ever a moment when you don’t come under pressure. And that pressure doesn’t have to be only academic. We saw this in the disturbing death of Manjula Devak, a 29 year-old IIT-Delhi PhD scholar who killed herself late last month, who was harangued for dowry by her in-laws. But the Kharagpur initiative hasn’t necessarily found a lot of takers.
The idea of being encouraged to go listen to a DJ at the college stadium makes Kaur uncomfortable. “There are too many people,” she says, and that’s not her idea of fun. At the April event, she had stayed back in the hostel courtyard with her friends and had her own fun there. What was nice was having that alone time with them.
Kaur doesn’t think having an evening like this, where there is a DJ night, is necessarily a solution to depression and stress; she says people who are depressed aren’t going to go for the DJ night, and seeing a counsellor on campus would work better. Kesarwani herself knows students who say that they’d much rather be finishing their work, since the assignment deadlines aren’t going to go away. Even at the one day event in April, some people were irritated because the electricity was turned on after 40 minutes (rather than 30, like they’d been informed).
“It’s (the blackout) something we’ve been thinking about too,” says Prerna Singh, who’s in her final year at IIT Gandhinagar and will graduate later this year. But like Kaur, Singh isn’t so sure, and nor are her friends. “Most students were concerned about the time to finish their submissions,” Singh says. Then, after a pause, she adds to what has seemed a bit comical to everyone outside of the IITs reading about the enforced socialising aspect of this rule, “We aren’t so sure about this idea of a forced interaction either. What if someone just prefers keeping to themselves?” What they would like to see are more open spaces for people to interact in, places that they’d automatically add to their daily rhythm and visit with friends.
According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, there were 8,934 student suicides in 2015. Of these, 2.8 percent were at the graduate level (including IITs). Back in April, various IITs across the country had suddenly woken up to the growing number of student suicides when an IIT Council met to discuss new initiatives that would help students deal with stress and depression.
The solutions ranged from the more standard parent-teacher meetings and counselling at IIT Delhi, to the setting up of centres for music, dance and art at IIT Guwahati, and then extended to less common initiatives like tree hugging, alternative therapy, and Reiki (with courses on the “theory and practice of happiness”) at IIT Kharagpur. They’re different from initiatives that some institutions abroad have taken — following multiple suicides in 2015, University of Pennsylvania for instance started a blog for students to discuss problems related to mental health, started a peer counselling programme, and encouraged the posting on “ugly selfies” on Instagram as a response to the perfectionism otherwise expected of students. In the same year, many colleges in the United States also showed a travelling exhibit to students, where over a 1,000 empty backpacks were arranged with stories and photographs of students who had committed suicide.
I went to a boarding school that had what we called ‘Asthachal’ every evening. We’d all climb up to a spot, and everybody would sit down, some on rocks and some under trees, and we would all watch the sunset in silence. It was calming in a way that not many other things were. IIT Kharagpur is probably right in choosing to give its students breaks like these, but perhaps institutions need to think beyond them. Colleges would do better if they asked students what they’d like, because they’re the ones dealing with the pressure to stay afloat and appear like they have every aspect of their lives together. And to most, IIT Kharagpur’s plan is welcome but not enough.