Over the years, the city of Kota has transitioned from being an industrial nerve centre to the country's best-known hub of coaching centres for all kinds of competitive and other exams. But COVID-19 has brought the city to a screeching halt.
Kota was once known for its flourishing manufacturing units. But its economy suffered greatly after the closure of its biggest unit JK Synthetics in 1997, which rendered 5,000 people jobless. Other units like Oriental Power cables, Rajasthan metals and Samtel Group soon followed suit.
With the shutdown of government-owned Instrumentation Ltd in 2017 came the final blow. The company's once bustling colony now lies abandoned, a forlorn reminder of Kota's industrial past.
Beena, a resident of Kota who runs a student's hotel, says life has come full circle from the city's days as a manufacturing centre. "When JK Synthetics closed, there were no jobs. In much the same way, Kota's economy is in tatters once more," she said.
Beena is managing with 30 percent of her former salary, and is worried about the rents and loans she has to repay. She noted that the livelihood of almost every local resident was dependent to some extent on the presence of outstation students. Even if someone were jobless, they could subsist by renting out one or two rooms if they had a house. Kota has six localities where coaching institutes, hostels and related facilities are concentrated.
Arijeet Acharya, a science graduate working as a warden in Kohinoor hostel, is in a similar situation as Beena. Though his salary was cut from Rs 16,000 to Rs 5,000, the native of Odisha does not want to return to the small shop back in his village, as he does not want to disrupt the good education his son is getting in Kota.
"I will wait for the crisis to pass," said Acharya. "Everyone is jobless or just managing. Students spending Rs 100-200 daily on study material and food and snacks were the main contributors to the city's economy. Now everyone is suffering, from the mechanic to the hostel, shop and restaurant owner".
Many local residents used to advertise on websites offering hostel accommodation. For instance, beinghome has hostels in prime coaching centre locations, renting rooms from Rs 8,000-Rs 12,000 per month. Hostels offering facilities like AC, geyser in bathrooms, elevators and recreational facilities attracted rents of around Rs 17,000. Rooms and hostels located far from the coaching hub used to charge rents between Rs 3,000 and Rs 5,000.
Investments in PG accommodation, hostels and studio apartments were a steady source of income," said Acharya. "Most investments in Kota real estate in the last two decades was directly or indirectly supporting coaching institutes and students".
"Every year an estimated 1.65 " 1.75 lakh students come to Kota from across the country, mostly from North India, to enrol in IIT-JEE and NEET (Medical) exam preparatory coaching" said Pramod Mewara, a former journalist, now working at a coaching institute. Though no official data is available, a 2018 survey done by Urban Improvement Trust, a state-run institution, estimated that the town has 2,800 registered hostels, though unofficial estimates put it at 3,000 hostels and 1,500 mess facilities (including in-house hostel ones).
Roadside dhabas and tiffin centres too flourished with students flocking to them. "Students come here as most mess facilities do not provide quality and tasty food," said Gaurav Madan of Punjabi Dhaba in Indraprastha Industrial area. Now he relies on truck drivers for some business. No such luck for dhabas and cafÃ©s near the coaching centres that are either shut or doing minimal business.
"There is not even 10 percent business in town," said Anant Jain of Rajasthan stationery shop in Landmark city. He recalls previous years, when the streets would be chock-a-block with students and parents during June-July. The owner of two stationery shops, Anant had to shut one and sits in other from 10 am " 8 pm just to pass the long boring hours. "There were 500 shops/vans/vendors selling stationery items."
In fact, it was the students that ran Kota's economy. The average expenses of a student per year were around Rs 2-2.5 lakh.
Today Jain rues that the city has no other industry. This sentiment found an echo during the 2019 election when locals demanded steps to revive industries. With big industries shut, the Kota small scale industries association blamed the government for not creating a business-friendly environment.
With little hope that things will go back to the way they were, the coaching institutes are going digital to try and keep their business running. During normal times, classroom courses would run from April to February. So the 2019-2020 year-long courses were over before COVID-19 hit.
Enrolment for the current academic year has been hit as the coaching centres have had to refund the admission fees paid by students, who had enrolled during February or adjusted it if the student joined online classes from June/July. Most repeater one-year courses will start only after the IIT-JEE results are declared. But since that has not happened yet, there has been no enrolment in this segment in any of the centres.
However, most centres have started online admission tests for all classes. While the websites of coaching institutes show no increase in fees, they are not offering any discounts either. The institutes are, however accepting payments in instalments and offering scholarship tests online.
For instance, the help line at Resonance Institute informs that for its classroom course 'Vikaas', the first instalment is Rs 87,800 (out of the annual fee of Rs 1,45,000), but parents could pay Rs 60,000 only. A decision on total fees will be taken later, it says. Another institute, Reliable Coaching is asking students to pay only 10% of fees now and secure direct admission online.
Many students who would otherwise have come to Kota are now opting for online classes on Byju's and Unacademy. Noting this trend, coaching institutes like Motion Academy in Kota have entered into a tie-up with Byju's and some faculty of Nucleus has joined Unacademy.
Shift to online classes to trigger positive change?
Hopefully, the shift to online admissions and classes will eliminate some of the unsavoury aspects of Kota's coaching classes boom. For instance, the single-point agenda of the centres for showing high success rates in the entrance exams took a toll on students. Anxiety attacks and depression were some of the issues that students have openly spoken out about, on various online forums.
In 2015 when student suicides in Kota reached 30, the town was dubbed the 'killer coaching hub'. All stakeholders got a rude wake-up call and institutes added yoga and meditation sessions and hired psychological counsellors.
There were also unpleasant incidents, with institutes blaming their competitors for poaching teachers.
Later, as the coaching business became highly competitive, a few institutes became notorious for poaching teachers by offering them high annual packages. The teachers, most of whom had engineering, science, or medical degrees, were usually hired on one-year contracts with average pay packets of Rs 8-10 lakh per annum. The same teachers are now mostly curating digital courses for their institutes or joining other digital education platforms.
History of transformation
When manufacturing units in Kota began to shut down, the city adapted fast, and rebuilt itself into a new avatar: as a much sought-after centre of coaching classes. The transformation was begun by one man, VK Bansal, a retired mechanical engineer from JK Synthetics. Bansal started home tuitions with one student in 1983, which he built into a reputed coaching center, 'Bansal Classes', coaching thousands of students. It was a name to reckon with during the nineties in IIT-JEE coaching.
The coaching centre, however, was closed later, an eventuality that was attributed to a high attrition rate among its teachers, which led to a dwindling success rate among its students. Nevertheless, Bansal's legacy still holds strong in the city.
Kota's economy has for years now has been totally dependent on the large number of coaching centers, that had sprung up in the years following Bansal's success. Some of those who came back to start their own coaching centres, such as Vibrant Academy, Resonance, Rao IIT academy and Vyas Edification, were once teachers at the Bansal centre.
For instance, reputed Physics teacher Nitin Jain, along with six other ex-Bansal teachers, founded Vibrant academy. Another stalwart physics teacher R K Verma started Resonance. Top Chemistry faculty Shishir Mittal and B V Rao founded Vyas Edification and Rao IIT Academy, respectively.
One of the most sought-after coaching institutes in Kota in recent years has been Allen Career Institute, started in 1988 by Rajesh Maheshwari, a former teacher.
All the coaching institutes that started in Kota have expanded into other cities, with Allen alone having branches in over 25 cities.
However, the COVID-19 outbreak and the resultant lockdown disrupted the functioning of these coaching centres. The city of 10 lakh (Census 2011) is now having to deal with the closure of the coaching centres, with all students having returned to their hometowns.
A once vibrant Kota now wears a deserted look, as most of the allied businesses, like hostels and eating joints which had catered to the thousands of students thronging the city, have had to shut shop.