Levelling the playing field for needy in India's tough uni entrance exams

When the results of India's biggest engineering entrance exams came out last week, eight of the top 24 scorers were from the southern state of Telangana, the most for any region.

But quieter celebrations marked a more historic achievement: An unprecedented 709 students from tribal and poor communities in Telangana passed the exam.

They are first-generation learners - children of farm labourers, domestic workers, drivers, security guards and roadside tea sellers. Last year, about 500 passed the exam.

When Naini Mamatha, 17, called her parents from her hostel to say she had scored in the 89.11 percentile, her mother, who had never gone to school, cried for a few minutes. She blessed her, and then went back to work in the farms in her forest village in Mancherial district in Telangana.

A member of the Korwa community, recognised by the government as a particularly vulnerable tribal group, Mamatha is the first in her family to go to school and will now be the first in her village to pursue an engineering degree.

Every year, tens of thousands of Indian high schoolers take the Joint Entrance Examinations (JEE) for admission to engineering courses in 1,650 government-run colleges. This year, to compete for about 39,000 places, over 635,000 students took the JEE, held in January and this month, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The JEE is a prerequisite for the JEE Advanced, which further sifts candidates for a mere 11,000 places in 23 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), premier engineering colleges whose graduates often secure the highest-paying jobs.

"I want to be an IITian, and do computer science engineering," Mamatha said, listing her tickets out of poverty.

Candidates who can afford to often prepare for the three-hour multiple-choice entrance test from the age of 14 - when they are in 10th grade - in order to take the test after the 12th grade.

They spend at least half a million rupees (S$9,200) a year on coaching and do sample tests every day for two years. As a result, engineering colleges are dominated by upper-caste and high-and-middle income students.

Dr R.S. Praveen Kumar, 53, secretary of the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society, said: "The poorest of the poor are not exposed to this world and even if they are, they can't afford coaching."

A police officer from a poor family himself, Dr Kumar convinced the Telangana government to enhance its 158 state-run residential tribal and social welfare schools in 2013.

The schools, in rural and urban areas, now offer about 30,000 places a year, and have committed science and English teachers, computer labs, sports, music and cultural activities. Selected students get focused coaching, free of charge, to sit competitive professional exams like the JEE.

"When we arm them with information, self-confidence and support, tribal and poor children lose their feelings of inferiority and dream big," Dr Kumar added.

Mamatha left her school-run hostel for home during the Covid-19 lockdown, but without a smartphone and Internet, she could not attend online classes.

Her school principal, Mrs. P. Arunasree, rushed her back to the hostel 15 days before the exam to resume coaching. Mrs Arunasree said: "If she did not have all these hardships, Mamatha would have scored more than 90."

Recalling PhD student Rohith Vemula who hanged himself in 2016 because he felt marginalised at the University of Hyderabad, Dr Kumar said the social welfare schools run an "acclimatisation" course before their students enter prestigious universities, to help them cope with any culture shock. They also have a helpline.

Such support networks were a big help to Malothu Lachiramnaik, 19, a third-year civil engineering student at IIT Hyderabad whose parents are paddy farmers

"I used to be nervous initially, but after three years, my spoken English is better, I've got good friends, I do lots of sports, dance and fun college things. You know, anyone who gets real opportunities can have all this," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2020, with the headline 'Levelling the playing field for needy in India's tough uni entrance exams'. Print Edition | Subscribe