"This has become an exercise much more in memorization rather than helping independent thinking," said N.R. Narayana Murthy, founder of high-tech pioneer Infosys, who says 80% of IIT graduates leave much to be desired.
The grueling process carries another price. "People who miss passing by one-tenth of a percent think they're failures," said Shiv Visvanathan, a sociology professor at O.P. Jindal Global University in Sonipat. "It's mass production of engineers, many of whom don't want to be engineers. The dream has become a nightmare."
Some of the ambivalence was captured in the 2009 Bollywood blockbuster "Three Idiots," about three engineering students, only one of whom enjoys engineering. "I will curse you the rest of my life if you force me" to become an engineer, one character tells his father. "Please, let me do what I want."
Coaching institutes deny they foster an over-reliance on rote and argue that the IITs are a means to an end. Only 20% to 25% "of people end up in engineering," said Career Point founder Maheshwari. "But you essentially go through a process and become logical and creative."
Tiwari, Bansal's technology head, pops into classrooms on an overcast afternoon where as many as 140 students at narrow desks watch teachers solve problems on overhead projectors. "If the government schools were doing their jobs, there'd be no need for coaching," he said.
Although Ahmad's family is very poor, his brother Nizamuddin, 28, a doctor's assistant, wanted him to dream big. When other family members balked at Kota's steep fees, the brother lobbied relentlessly, helping secure a $1,100 loan backed by the farm.
"He's been like a father to me, hellbent on finding a way for me to study," Ahmad said. "I owe him everything."
Even so, Ahmad arrived in Kota $950 short for the two-year cram course. Administrators denigrated him for being poor, Ahmad said, urging him to quit and barring him from classes. But his brother eventually scrounged together most of the shortfall.
Ahmad says his studying is coming along, although living in Kota is expensive. "The rich students spend money like water," he said. "Some laugh at me for being poor, but I ignore them."
Rising at 5 a.m., he studies chemistry and physics until noon, takes classes all afternoon, then studies until midnight, knowing how much depends on his results. He dreams of getting a good job, buying a laptop and supporting his parents.
"For engineers, the sky is the limit," he said. "It's a risk, but I'd never forgive myself for staying in the village and never trying."
Tanvi Sharma of The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.