Once ruled by the Hara kings, the historic city of Kota — known for its stone industry and the famous Doria saris — was transformed into the industrial hub of Rajasthan after independence and of recent vintage, has emerged as the coaching capital of the country. It has three universities set up by the government and when the Centre wanted to start an Indian Institute of Technology in Rajasthan, Kota staked a claim to play host on the strength of its being the centre that produces the highest number of IITans. Kota&’s coaching institutes attract about 50,000 students from across the country each year that churn out more than 10,000 IITans and over 5,000 students in the All India Pre-Medical Test.

This year, Kota&’s various institutes conducted more than 10,000 selections in the IIT-JEE — no other single city has contributed so much to the cause of aspiring students — and today it&’s the go-to place for every student seeking a career in technical education or medicine. Each of its top coaching institutes, like Bansal Classes, Allen Career, Resonance Eduventures, Career Point and Vibrant Academy, has more than 20,000 students and over 600 staff members.

In the USA and Europe, coaching schools are generally referred to as cram schools or specialised schools that train students to meet particular goals, most commonly to pass the entrance examination, but given Kota&’s success, these are now also called coaching institutes.

Kota&’s various coaching institutes have really made their mark in an increasingly cut-throat market where the only testimony is the success rate of pupils. In what were once small coaching centres with students drawn from the state and taught in hired residential buildings, these institutes now comprise sprawling campuses, hi-tech buildings and air-conditioned classrooms that draw aspiring students particularly from the north, west and east of the country. There was a time when there would be fewer students from the south and east for various reasons, particularly food, but no longer.

“I travelled all the way from Kharagpur to study in Kota and took admission in a Central Board of Secondary Education-affiliated course. A lot of Bengali and Oriya boys and girls wouldn’t come because of the food problem but now we get food of our choice in Kota. The singular aim is to make it to the IIT and AIPMT list,” says Anik Maity.

Seven years ago, when Bill Gates, who&’s Microsoft includes a large number of IIT alumnus, praised the institutes for producing talented people, the US media was surprised to learn that IIT coffers were filled by students from Kota. The Wall Street Journal sent its Delhi-based correspondent to Kota and reported that the “cram schools have become a magnet for tens of thousands of mostly middle class families in a country where two decades of rapid economic growth have failed to improve a dysfunctional state education system and a shortage of good universities”.

Such cram schools coach students for fiercely competitive entrance tests to a handful of premier technical and medical colleges — the modus operandi being rote learning. The two-year coaching programmes in Kota cost anything between Rs.3.40-5 lakh, in addition to which students have to pay for their regular schools and spend at least Rs.1.50 lakh a year on accommodation. A large number of IITans who could have landed jobs in IT or multinational companies prefer to join Kota institutes where they earn between Rs.4-8 lakh per month or even twice as much in certain cases. There are some who draw an annual package of Rs.1 crore and one of them, Vinod Kumawat of Bansal Classes, admitted it. “Yes, I get that kind of package, but I have to work very hard for it. The teachers get a big packet because of their research and innovations. If we succeed in our innovations, the package gets better. The ultimate result is the number of students an institute sends to the IIT and AIIMS. There are also a large number of teachers who get Rs.50-60 lakh per annum,” he said.

“The difference between a coaching school and other similar institutions is the focus on teaching pupils how to compete with quality. Students from government and private schools make a beeline for coaching institutes in Kota to get quality education. Here we train them to compete and excel, which is not taught in other schools,” said Pramod Bansal, a mathematics teacher at a top rated coaching centre.

Every year more than 50,000 students from across the country enrol in Kota, many of them under parental pressure. The riverside town has become the capital of a multi-crore rupee coaching industry, thanks to the success of Bansal Classes, set up by Vinod Kumar Bansal, a former engineer who held the first classes across a table in his dining room. However, while the coaching institutes may literally be minting money, the people of Kota give the coaching industry full credit for infusing life in the town&’s economy when it was needed the most. “We owe our survival to the coaching institutes. Most of them came into being in the early 1990s when JK Synthetics, a big industrial unit that employed more than 2,000 persons, downed its shutters, rendering many jobless here,” said Mahendra Jain.

There are thousands of families that earn their bread and butter from these coaching institutes. For instance, one will be amazed to find 15 girls’ hostels in a row opposite Allen Institute in Indra Vihar. And who are running these hostels? Not businessmen but simple housewives. When the new academic sessions begin, people from across the country bring their children to Kota where a large number of “To Let — Only for students” billboards adorn houses with a room or two to spare, greet them. The town is dotted with a huge number of tiffin centres and cyber cafes that are patronised by IIT aspirants. Billboards at the railway station proudly flash photographs of teachers and also students who were successful in getting IIT and AIIMS admissions.

There is another boom. Even as the world was facing a recession, real estate prices were soaring in Kota, courtesy the burgeoning coaching industry. The rates of residential plots have gone up in areas like Indra Vihar, Mahaveer Nagar and Vigyan Nagar — from Rs.1,800 to Rs.4,000 per square foot in the last couple of years. The downside, of course, lies in students always being under pressure to excel. Parents spend a fortune on their children&’s education and in recent years a large number of students who could not cope with the pressure and failed to achieve targets committed suicide. A girl from Jharkhand recently took her life failing to match the requirements of the institute where she was studying.

Bansal founded his school in the 1980s, leaving his job at a nylon-making firm after being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and it was his success that bred Kota&’s coaching juggernaut. This year, more than 500,000 students took the IIT entrance exam, making admission statistically harder.

Each institute is known for its faculty, which says a lot for a country where the poor quality of teaching in government and private schools has resulted in a generation where about two-thirds of 10-year-olds cannot solve a simple division problem.