Thursday, December 29, 2005

Guru-Dakshina: Prof. G,S, Sanyal of IIT, Kharagpur


The IIT of receiving and giving
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 13, 2002 01:39:57 PM


In the Hindu tradition it is customary for people to trace their ancestors through the system of gothra, India’s ambassador to US Lalit Mansingh told a reception he
was hosting for IIT alumni at his residence on Friday. So who did they think would qualify as the common IIT ancestor?

"Sengupta?" a tremulous voice piped up from the audience in classic classroom fashion. Old habits die hard. Titters broke out in the gathering that must have averaged age 40.

"No," Mansingh continued. "I think it should be Pandit Nehru, who planned and founded
the IIT system." Everyone nodded gravely.

Prof. GS Sanyal of IIT, Kharagpur

But it wasn’t the mythical Sengupta or magisterial Nehru that the IIT alumni of USA had gathered to honour this weekend in Washington. In a "East Coast Pan-IIT Conference" that had "Giving Back" to India as its central theme, scores of IIT-ians
came together to pay tribute to their teachers from back home.

The first honour, dubbed Oscar-style as the Lifetime Award, went to Prof G S Sanyal, a 81-year young telecommunications teacher from IIT Kharagpur who is so venerated that alumni led by Techspan’s Arjun Malhotra gave a $ 2.5 million guru dakshina to establish a school named after him.

"They managed to do it while I’m still alive," Prof Sanyal joked later in his gravelly voice, chuffing on a cigarette.

None of the alumni smoked. Presumably, they had finished their quota of cigarettes and bidis on the campuses in India and were now "smokin'" in a different sense in the United States.

Asked to say a few words, Prof Sanyal kidded, "How can you ask me to be brief? I’m used to giving one hour lectures…"

Thusly, amid laughter and remembrance, the IITians began the more serious task of how to organise themselves better to give back to India.

It hasn’t been easy lately. After committing millions of dollars in the late 1990s at the height of the bubble economy, many of India’s – and mainly IIT’s – tech czars are finding it tough to put their money where their mouth was.

But to be fair, they haven’t shirked. IIT Kharagpur’s Arjun Malhotra, Purnendu Chatterjee, Sunil Muchani, Suhas Patil and Vinod Gupta, who had promised a combined $ 25 million, have already given more than half the amount despite much of their notional stock fortunes being wiped out in the meltdown.

"They have been generous beyond call. Not once have they cited the meltdown as an excuse to renege on their commitments," says M M Faruqui, Chair Professor of the IIT Foundation USA.

The five-some bankrolled a $ 5.5 million project that has wired each of Kharagpur’s 3500 rooms with high speed Internet access and gifted a PC to 3000 students who graduated in the institute’s golden jubilee year.

(That’s the good news. The bad news is that this year’s students are also asking for the freebie PC).

"When there’s a good wind blowing even chickens will fly. The test is to do it when there is no wind," says Muchani about the meltdown that has rendered many IIT billionaires into mere millionaires.

But after a surge of high-profile, big-moolah donations, the IIT-ians are now broadening the scope of giving back through a more grassroots effort. And the giving back need not be through just financial contributions. Alumni can now volunteer their time and knowledge through guidance and mentoring.

Also, instead of focusing more narrowly on specific IITs they passed from, alumni are being encouraged to adopt a pan-IIT approach.

"The needs of the IITs are very similar and they face the same fundamental challenges," says Ranjan Pant, the Conference Co-Chair who founded the healthcare security firm Ignite Corporation. "The best practices developed for one IIT will apply equally well for other IITs."

At Washington’s pan-IIT meet, the pledge card sought modest amounts of $ 100, $ 250, $ 500, $ 1000, besides "other." The "Other" category is well-known, but the new system gives a chance to many IIT-ians who have attained more moderate success.

Since it was founded in the 1950s and after, the IIT system has graduated more than 100,000 engineers. About half of them are outside India, mostly in the United States.