LSR Student Aishwarya Reddy’s Suicide Reminds Us That in Crisis, the Most Vulnerable are Left Behind

Social Commentary

LSR Student Aishwarya Reddy’s Suicide Reminds Us That in Crisis, the Most Vulnerable are Left Behind

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

India has spent the better part of this year living with coronavirus, and through the months, a resigned sense of familiarity has set in for most of the country. Yet, the impact of the pandemic and accompanying economic fallout has hit the many vulnerable families in India starkly, and the suicide of student Aishwarya Reddy earlier this month was a harsh reminder of that reality. Reddy used to attend Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi on a government scholarship. However, the combination of financial duress faced by her family during lockdown, a change in LSR’s hostel policy, and a delay in receiving her scholarship funds pushed Reddy into depression. On November 2, at her family home in Telangana, she committed suicide.

In her suicide note, the 19-year-old Reddy called herself a “burden to her family”. However, the circumstances that led to her needing funds to continue her education were not of her or her family’s making. She was a brilliant student, reportedly scoring 98.5 per cent in her 12th state board exams, placing second in Telangana. Her impressive academic performance continued at LSR, where she was pursuing her Bachelors of Science (Honors) in mathematics. She returned to her home before the nationwide lockdown was announced, but soon fell into the widening digital divide between privileged and under-privileged students as LSR began conducting online classes. Lacking access to a laptop, her inability to fully participate in her lessons caused her anguish.

Her father, a mechanic, and her mother, a tailor, were both in dire straits financially as their businesses had taken a hit during lockdown. They were trying to arrange a second-hand laptop for Reddy before she killed herself. In October, when LSR announced a change in its hostel policy that meant Reddy would have to find accommodation outside the hostel, the additional costs overwhelmed the family’s finances. Reddy’s SHE (Secondary Higher Education) Scholarship was to kick in a year after it was announced, so there was no relief forthcoming there. When her parents began discussing selling their house to keep their daughter in college, Reddy committed suicide.

LSR has been criticised by student unions, including its own, for implementing a strict hostel policy that disadvantages students. The college has also come under fire for not having safeguards to protect vulnerable students like Reddy from being left behind as classes went digital. However, LSR principal Suman Sharma has refuted the allegations, telling NDTV, “She never approached her faculty, hostel authorities or counsellor for any kind of help. We have a certified counsellor to talk to students to address their mental health issues as well. Organisations talking against the college have vested interests.”

The abstract figures of economic contraction and Covid-19 cases are full of tragic stories like Aishwarya Reddy’s.