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AIIMS suicide pointer to plight of poor students

- Boy from rural Rajasthan had problems with lectures in English & had tried to speak to director

New Delhi, March 5: The struggles of the MBBS student who hanged himself at AIIMS represent the plight of pupils from poor or rural backgrounds propelled into elite institutions insensitive to their special needs, faculty and students said.

Anil Meena, a 22-year-old tribal student from rural Rajasthan, committed suicide in his hostel room on Sunday after spending a year at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, struggling to cope up with lessons in English.

In his final days, according to sections of faculty and students, he tried to reach out to the AIIMS authorities, questioning an abrupt change in exam rules introduced after he had taken his tests.

“It was like changing the rules in the middle of the game,” said a senior doctor. “He appeared to have tried to meet the AIIMS director but was repeatedly turned away by his office,” said a faculty member at AIIMS familiar with details of the case.

Anil, the son of a farmer from Baran district near Kota, had obtained 75 per cent in his Class XII exam and had cleared the AIIMS entrance test through a reserved quota.

His knowledge of biology, chemistry and physics would have helped him clear the entrance test, said a senior faculty member.

But the first-year classes, the practicals and the theory exams would have challenged him, the faculty member said.

Faculty and students said AIIMS had not yet implemented a recommendation made by a government panel five years ago that the institution should introduce “remedial coaching” for Scheduled Caste/Tribe students to improve their language skills.

“We’re told there are lessons in English for first-year students but they appear to be only on paper. Most students haven’t heard of this,” an intern at AIIMS said.

“I’ve never seen a faculty member reach out to a student to help with poor language skills,” the intern said.

Anil failed his first-year exam and took a supplementary exam. “But before the results were out, the AIIMS authorities abruptly changed the weightage given to internal assessments and the supplementary exam,” another medical intern at AIIMS said.

In the earlier scheme, internal assessment carried 25 per cent weightage and the supplementary exam 75 per cent. In the new one, both had an equal 50 per cent weightage.

“Anil spent his final days trying to meet academic faculty, questioning how the exam rules could be changed mid-way,” said an AIIMS faculty member. “This is so tragic, he was desperate to be heard and there was no one to listen to him,” he said.

Two years ago, another backward-class student in his MBBS final year committed suicide after failing a paper. “These cases shouldn’t be seen as caste issues, this could happen to any student from a poor or rural background with poor English language skills,” said a junior resident at AIIMS.

“During practical exams, faculty treat all students as equal without taking into account their backgrounds,” said a faculty member. “Is this right?”

Only six weeks before Anil committed suicide, politicians and health administrators in the AIIMS governing body had decided to condone the institute’s inaction against faculty members implicated in caste-based discrimination about five years ago.

The National Commission for Scheduled Castes had called for action against the guilty after a government probe had confirmed allegations that sections of backward-class students were ghettoised in hostels, abused, mistreated by some faculty members and denied opportunities in college teams.

The probe also confirmed that the AIIMS administration did not intervene despite repeated complaints from victimised students.

But the AIIMS governing body Union health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and BJP leader Sushma Swaraj are among its members accepted during its January 16, 2012, meeting the institute’s claim that it was not feasible to take action against the guilty.

According to the minutes of the meeting available with The Telegraph, Azad pointed out that the institute had overcome the phase of unrest, a congenial atmosphere now prevailed in the institute and most people against whom allegations had been levelled had either retired or left.

Supporting these views, Swaraj said the accused officials had retired, grievances had been redressed and normality restored.

Swaraj also said that a congenial atmosphere had been created ever since R.C. Deka had taken over as director and any action would only disturb the harmony of the institute, according to the minutes of the meeting.

A senior faculty member today said that the governing body’s decision and Anil’s suicide were not connected, but both represent insensitivity to discrimination against backward classes or students from rural or poor backgrounds who need special help.