Sunday, January 15, 2006

IITs: Invaluable institutions by Prof Inderesan Ex IITM Director

This is an article written by Prof Inderesan Ex Director IITM. Though written in 2003 it is worth a read now in Jan 2006 with the imminent conversion of seven existing campuses to deemed IITs.
Thanks to Dominic for bringing this article to life one more time.

IITs: Invaluable institutions

P. V. Indiresan

Great institutions are not planned, they just happen. So with the IITs. Even the most trenchant critic of IITs would concede that academically, they are the best. Have they served the country well? On balance, yes. It is because of the IITs that India has made the mark it has in a number of areas, especially software. On their golden jubilee year, P. V. Indiresan chronicles the setting up of the IITs and explains why they are great.

IT has often been said that the camel is an elephant designed by a committee. That is an unfair criticism of committees: The camel may not be as glamorous as an elephant, but it is definitely the more useful, and the more successful animal. Though I cannot swear by it, my hunch is that when the idea of an Indian Institute of Technology was first mooted, what Dr B. C. Roy, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, wanted was probably an elephant, the whiter the better. Instead, he got the likes of a camel that has demonstrated that it can survive and flourish even in the intellectual desert that India is.

The concept of the IITs originated not fifty years ago but a good seven years earlier, at a time when India was yet to gain Independence. The Second World War was over; Independence was in the offing. At that crucial juncture, we were lucky to have on the Viceroy's Executive Council a visionary in Sir Ardeshir Dalal. With rare foresight, Sir Ardeshir foresaw that the future prosperity of India would depend not so much on capital as on technology. He, therefore, proposed the setting up of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. To man those laboratories, he persuaded the US government to offer hundreds of doctoral fellowships under the Technology Cooperation Mission (TCM) programme. He knew that such assistance would not help us forever and we should learn to train our own technologists. That is how the Indian Institute of Technology was conceptualised. He did not live to see his vision fulfilled. He died young and was on the Viceroy's Executive Council for barely two years.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was Independent India's first Minister of Education but Dr Humayun Kabir was the real Tsar of education. Dr Kabir sold Sir Ardeshir's proposal for an IIT to Dr B. C. Roy, the Chief Minister of his state. It is also possible that Sir J. C. Ghosh, the then Director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, prompted him to do so. As was usual in government, Dr Kabir appointed a committee to prepare a proposal, and made Sir N. Sarkar the chairman. It was a virtually all-Bengali clique but a respectable one. Like all committees, the Sarkar Committee too was taking its own time, but Dr Roy was in a hurry. He did not wait for the Committee to finalise its report. On the ground Bengal had the highest concentration of engineering industries, the Committee suggested in Its first draft that an IIT may be set up in that state. That much was enough for Dr. Roy. He used that fragment of a report to persuade Nehru to push through a special Act to establish an IIT in Bengal. He offered as a sweetener, the Hijli Jail in Kharagpur as a readymade location for the Institute. Thus, was born the IIT at Kharagpur.

The Sarkar Committee never completed its task, never submitted the final report. Thus, the IIT at Kharagpur was born premature. Yet, it was lucky; it had some remarkable midwives to assist its birth. L. S. Chandrakant and Biman Sen in the Education Ministry should be given credit for making the IIT Act as progressive as it is. Unlike the usual run of bureaucrats, they did not want to hold on to power. They produced a blueprint for a truly autonomous educational institution, the likes of which have not been seen since then in our country.

Credit should go also to Sir J. C. Ghosh, the first Director of IIT Kharagpur. He used his high stature to put to good use the liberal provisions of the IIT Act. He made the IIT truly free from nitpicking interference from the babudom. Thanks to him, to this day, IIT directors exercise authority to an extent unheard of almost anywhere else in the government. They are virtually free to select faculty, apportion the budget, and make purchases as they judge best. Except for a couple of aberrant occasions, they have been left free to manage academic programmes without political or bureaucratic interference. However, there has been some political interference in admitting students. Even then, to a large extent, the IITs have been allowed to admit students strictly on merit, and in the manner decided by the IITs themselves.

There must have been some resistance within the Sarcar Committee about the recommendation to locate the IIT in Bengal. To counter such criticism, the Draft Report suggested that, later on, a second IIT may be located in the Western Region to serve the process industries concentrated there. The Draft Report contains a few pages of sensible proposals and a hundred pages of how a hydraulic laboratory should be set up! Apparently, at the instance of this erudite expert, it added that a third IIT should be considered for the North to promote the vast irrigation potential of the Gangetic basin. As an afterthought, not willing to leave South out, the Draft Report hinted that a fourth one might be considered for the South too. However, it offered no specific economic justification for the same.

In due course, pressure built up for starting a second IIT in the West. In response, Nehru had the interesting idea of seeking Soviet assistance. Krishna Menon, who was closest to the Russians, was then Defence Minister. He got Brig Bose appointed the first Director of IIT Bombay, superseding the local expert Dr Kelkar. Dr Kelkar was naturally miffed. Fortunately, as a fallout of the prevailing Cold War, the Americans offered to help to set up yet another IIT. The way the Sarcar Committee had suggested, it was located in the North, in Kanpur, with Dr Kelkar as its first Director.

Naturally, the South could not be left out. At that time, the Germans had run up large trade surpluses, and they were persuaded to support an IIT in the South. The Germans had all but decided on Bangalore as the location, and purely, as a matter of form, visited Madras. There, they were in for a surprise. C. Subramaniam, the Education Minister, took them round the Governor's estate with frolicking deer roaming among hundreds of venerable banyan trees, and offered the space across the table. The visiting German team was bowled over. Bangalore was forgotten; Madras got the fourth IIT.

That was not all. Chandigarh was coming up as a fully planned city with R. N. Dogra as its Chief Engineer. Upright and honest, Dogra fell foul of Chief Minister Pratap Singh Kairon. Hence, Dogra grabbed at the chance of shifting to the new College of Engineering that was coming up in Delhi. He soon realised that a college was an inferior breed; the IITs were a class above. He persuaded Prof M. S. Thacker, then Member of the Planning Commission to set up an IIT at Delhi on the ground that the country was divided into five regions, and all but the Northhad an IIT each. (UP and Madhya Pradesh constituted the Central Region. Hence, officially, Kanpur was located in the Central Region, not the North.)

Two other IITs have emerged recently. Both are curious cases. Students of Assam spearheaded a major agitation forcing Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to yield. One of their demands was an IIT in Assam. Rajiv Gandhi agreed to it on the spot considering it a minor request — not knowing that it would cost over Rs 1,500 crore.

Recently, when Dr Murali Manohar Joshi became Education Minister, and his native area became the new state of Uttaranchal, he conceded a plea from the much neglected Roorkee University, and converted it into an IIT, making it the latest and the seventh IIT.

What lessons do we draw from this history? One, great institutions are not planned; they just happen. Two, they often happen because of royal patronage. Three, more often than not, they emerge because somebody or other was scorned. Hell may have no fury like a woman scorned, but the earth has no persuasive force like an academic scorned. Four, great institutions do not evolve in the manner described by Darwin; they are mutations. The IIT Act was not an evolution of the Indian Universities Act. It is unique.

Admittedly, the best of IIT alumni have migrated. If they have not migrated from India, they have migrated from technology to management. In the Indian environment, migration is more glamorous than staying at home; management careers are far more lucrative than the pursuit of technology. IIT students have merely moved over where the rewards are highest. Even now, IIT graduates are much sought after abroad with preferential offers but not so in India. In our country, democracy is equated to discounting merit.

Even the worst critics of IITs would concede that academically, the IITs are great. Have they served the country well? On balance, yes! Most teachers in engineering colleges have been trained in IITs, admittedly at the master's level, yet by the IITs.

Through such teachers and otherwise, the IITs have set standards for all other engineering institutions to follow, have made engineering education across the length and breadth of India as good as it is. It is because of IITs that India has made the mark it has in software and in a number of other technologies.

Sixteen State governments have sought Central help to set up new IITs. That is proof enough that IITs are valuable. They are invaluable.

(The author is former Director, IIT Madras.)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Why fix JEE if it’s not broken?

Why fix JEE if it’s not broken?
Ram Krishnaswamy

The changes suggested to reform the JEE may create more problems than they set out to solve.

JEE has stood the test of time for 50 years yet there were some problems “associated with JEE”. A committee was formed on the initiative of Prof Ananth Director of IIT Madras but the final outcome is quite different from what was expected.

JEE has become a national obsession with coaching schools mushrooming all over India and meeting the demand and charging exhorbitant fees and some even have pre selections. These coaching schools which are legitimate in preparing students for JEE, are out of reach for the not so rich but clever students especially from rural India. Hence the IIT Global Free JEE coaching initiative

Senior IIT professors have been complaining that the current crop of students were less creative and more Spartan like drilled into solving numerical problems that help them breeze through a JEE exam. Most often it is the high speed in answering the JEE questions that gave students from coaching schools the edge.

There was a definite need to introduce some form of psychometric evaluation in JEE to separate clever and creative students from the book worms.

Getting rid of the screening test may be good, yet linking JEE with a minimum 60% at the Board exam is not very logical considering we have such a vast range of board exams in India and valuation processes are very strict in some States and very lax in others…so students from some States could have an unfair advantage over others in qualifying for the JEE. Board exams are not a level playing field nationally hence is a very bad recommendation.

To even suggest that the committee looked into JEE induced stress makes one wonder. Why should administrators, government and faculty worry about stress? Afterall once into an IIT it is a pressure cooker anyway !!

The new JEE Stress Buster is a myth. There is increased stress now as 1.Students now have to study harder to score a minimum of 60% in the school Board exams to qualify besides studying for JEE; 2.Students have to study for one more subject for JEE; 3.Eventually coaching schools will have one more subject for coaching with increased revenue — meaning more financial stress for students and parents. So where is the relief in stress?

Does it not make sense to brain storm IIT alumni who have been through the JEE system for 50 years ?

Reforms can be meaningful when we think outside the box. Unfortunately the committees that looked at improving JEE were all inside the box plus may be, have yielded to political pressures as the final outcome bears no resemblance to original recommendations.

Do proposed reforms reduce stress in the highly competitive exam, or reduce the influence of coaching classes, or restore the sanctity of the school system?

How does it improve the quality of students getting into IITs ?

The answer is a BIG ‘NO’ to all questions plus they do not in any way improve the situation for the already disadvantaged poor students from cities and rural India and non English medium schools.

A maximum of two attempts and maximum age 21 years ……Can some one explain why?? What is wrong in some one deciding at age 25 to give JEE a shot? What is wrong in encouraging tenacity to succeed? A student who has tried three times to get into IIT is more likely to be a Bill Gates or a Narayanamurthy in real life.

The best way to dilute and downgrade the quality of a brand like IIT

Preserving the IIT brand
Ram Krishnaswamy, IITM 1970
Sydney Australia

The best way to dilute and downgrade the quality of any brand achieved over time is to just add other lower grade products to it..

The best way to dilute and downgrade the quality of any brand achieved over time is to just add other lower grade products to it..

As an analogy, take the Ambassador car manufactured in India, that has served millions since Independence and has been a work horse and an icon on its own merits.

Spend lavishly, give it a new look and put the BMW Badge on it?? Will it fool the market? What is in a name without Quality ?

It may not hurt the BMW brand but will definitely hurt Ambassador. Roorkee University that has thousands of alumni who have treasured the Roorkee University Brand status has suffered this fate and alumni are still struggling to come to grips with the IIT tag.

Yes there is nothing stopping the government from renaming a dozen more engineering colleges as IITs. The result will be that we would have created a two tier IIT system.. We do not have to look too far to find answers. Each Year we have 4,00,000 students in India who take the JEE exam. Guess which IITs they select in their application ? Top five of course.. Market forces cannot be fooled or manipulated. Rather than building many more quality engineering colleges from the ground up, which the government cannot truly afford, just changing the names of a few colleges that have been around longer than IITs, just to please political factions, without the rigorous process of recruitment and training, was a bad move even a few years ago. Why continue the process ?

A new public petition to Preserve the IIT Brand and build Complementary Brands to serve India has been created by a team of IIT Alumni who are concerned that there could be seven more IITs announced in a couple of months, by HRD Minister, based on media reports.

In less than 48 hours there have been 1000 endorsements of the petition from Indians all over the world. It is time for the public to say "No More IITs" in the interests of the esteemed institutions and the nation . The petition url is

If you believe that India should have more quality engineering colleges, please sign the attached petition. Please endorse whole heartedly and express your views freely.

* / A Blog has also been created for you to preview comments.. / * * /*
* *

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Lakshmi Mittal's article on visit to Jharkhand...Jamshedpur (TATA)

Lakshmi Mittal's article on visit to Jharkhand...Jamshedpur (TATA)

A nice piece of article about TATAs, from one of the richest person in the world.

I visited Jamshedpur over the weekend to see for myself an India that is fast disappearing despite all the wolf-cries of people like Narayanamurthy and his ilk. It is one thing to talk and quite another to do and I am delighted to tell you that Ratan Tata has kept alive the legacy of perhaps Indias finest

Industrialist Ratan Tata: Something that some people doubted when Ratan took over the House of the Tatas but in hindsight, the best thing to have happened to the Tatas is unquestionably Ratan. I was amazed to see the extent of corporate philanthropy and this is no exaggeration.

For the breed that talks about corporate social responsibility and talks about the role of corporate India, a visit to Jamshedpur is a must. Go there and see the amount of money they pump into keeping the town going; see the smiling faces of workers in a region known for industrial unrest; see the standard of living in a city that is almost isolated from the mess in the rest of the country.

This is not meant to be a puff piece. I have nothing to do with Tata Steel, but I strongly believe the message of hope and the message of goodness that they are spreading is worth sharing. The fact that you do have companies in India which look at workers as human beings and who do not blow their software trumpet of having changed lives. In fact, I asked Mr Muthurman, the managing director, as to why he was so quiet about all they had done and all he could offer in return was a smile wrapped in humility, which said it all.

They have done so much more since I last visited Jamshedpur, which was in 1992. The town has obviously got busier but the values thankfully haven't changed. The food is still as amazing as it always was and I gorged, as I would normally do. I visited the plant and the last time I did that was with Russi Mody.

But the plant this time was gleaming and far from what it used to be. Greener and cleaner and a tribute to environment management. You could have been in the mountains. Such was the quality of air I inhaled! There was no belching smoke; no tired faces and so many more women workers, even on the shop floor. This is true gender equality and not the kind that is often espoused at seminars organised by angry activists. I met so many old friends. Most of them have aged but not grown old. There was a spring in the air which came from a certain calmness which has always been the hallmark of Jamshedpur and something I savoured for a full two days in between receiving messages of how boring and decrepit the Lacklustre Fashion Weak was.

It is at times such as this that our city lives seem so meaningless. Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata had created an edifice that is today a robust company and it is not about profits and about valuation. It is not about who becomes a millionaire and who doesnt'. It is about getting the job done with dignity and respect keeping the age-old values intact and this is what I learnt.

I jokingly asked someone as to whether they ever thought of joining an Infosys or a Wipro and pat came the reply: "We are not interested in becoming crorepatis but in making others crorepatis."

Which is exactly what the Tatas have done for years in and around Jamshedpur. Very few people know that Jamshedpur has been selected as a UN Global Compact City, edging out the other nominee from India, Bangalore. Selected because of the quality of life, because of the conditions of sanitation and roads and welfare. If this is not a tribute to industrial India, then what is? Today, Indian needs several Jamshedpurs but it also needs this Jamshedpur to be given its fair due, its recognition. I am tired of campus visits being publicised to the Infosys and the Wipros of the world. Modern India is being built in Jamshedpur as we speak. An India built on the strength of core convictions and nothing was more apparent about that than the experiment with truth and reality that Tata Steel is conducting at Pipla.

Forty-eight tribal girls (yes, tribal girls who these corrupt and evil politicians only talk about but do nothing for) are being educated through a residential program over nine months. I went to visit them and I spoke to them in a language that they have just learnt: Bengali. Eight weeks ago, they could only speak in Sainthali, their local dialect. But today, they are brimming with a confidence that will bring tears to your eyes. It did to mine.

One of them has just been selected to represent Jharkand in the state archery competition. They have their own womens football team and whats more they are now fond of education. It is a passion and not a burden. This was possible because I guess people like Ratan Tata and Muthurman havent sold their souls to some business management drivel, which tells us that we must only do business and nothing else. The fact that not one Tata executive has been touched by the Naxalites in that area talks about the social respect that the Tatas have earned.

The Tatas do not need this piece to be praised and lauded. My intent is to share the larger picture that we so often miss in the haze of the slime and sleaze that politics imparts. My submission to those who use phrases such as "feel-good" and "India Shining" is first visit Jamshedpur to understand what it all means. See Tata Steel in action to know what companies can do if they wish to. And what corporate India needs to do. Murli Manohar Joshi would be better off seeing what Tata Steel has done by creating the Xavier Institute of Tribal Education rather than by proffering excuses for the imbroglio in the IIMs. This is where the Advanis and Vajpayees need to pay homage. Not to all the Sai Babas and the Hugging saints that they are so busy with. India is changing inspite of them and they need to realise that.

I couldn't have spent a more humane and wonderful weekend. Jamshedpur is an eye-opener and a role model, which should be made mandatory for replication. I saw corporate India actually participate in basic nation-building, for when these tribal girls go back to their villages, they will return with knowledge that will truly be life-altering.

Corporate India can do it but most of the time is willing to shy away. For those corporate leaders who are happier winning awards and being interviewed on their choice of clothes, my advise is visit Tata Steel, spend some days at Jamshedpur and see a nation's transformation. That is true service and true nationalism.

Tata Steel will celebrate 100 years of existence in 2007. It won't be just a milestone in this company's history. It will be a milestone, to my mind of corporate transparency and generosity in this country. It is indeed fitting that Ratan Tata today heads a group which has people who are committed to nation-building than just building inflluence and power. JRD must be smiling wherever he is. And so must Jamsetji Nusserwanji. These people today, have literally climbed every last blue mountain. And continue to do so with vigour and passion. Thank god for the Tatas.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

From IIT to MIT

Many of the Indian students and faculty members who make a splash at MIT are IIT
ex-students. Yet, the IITs have a long way to go before they can actually be
considered at par with MIT.

“I think IITs have produced some outstanding scholars and practitioners. If we had one IIT rather than seven and admitted only the top 1% of the students, we too could build an aura of technological sophistication much like MIT. Having said that, let me add that there are other factors that make MIT a superb institution of higher learning. One, the steady flow of brilliant international students and faculty to MIT makes it a great university with very hard working researchers.

Second, once a faculty is hired by MIT, no one tries to control the research agenda and methodology of that faculty member. There is truly a sense of intellectual autonomy which is a prerequisite for path breaking research. Third, the level of funding available for research is quite high at MIT, and the teaching load is reasonable. One can also buy one’s time with research funding and not teach while conducting full time research,” says Sanyal.

Others feel that executive level salaries are also important to draw top faculty
members. “IITs have to attract top faculty and pay them well at executive salary
rates and set up labs and facilities that make it attractive to be there. Also,
there should be more emphasis on experimentation rather than on theory,” says Sarpeshkar who chose to go to MIT for his undergrad degrees in electrical engineering and physics though he was also accepted at IIT.

Even IIT ex-students like Sur feel that though the IITs are great undergrad engineering colleges, they still have a long way to go before they become centres of cutting edge research. “The IITs are undergrad powerhouses but they need to add value in terms of research,” he says.

Monday, January 02, 2006

An IITian unravels his world

An IITian unravels his world

The following is an interesting article about one of my class-mates who dreams to take a different route after his IIT days - and the first step towards this has already been taken.
BTME 2005.

*An IITian unravels his world*
Friday December 23 2005 10:10 IST
CHENNAI: While his fellow IITians ran the rat race for the best grades and projects, and laboured over perilously tall stacks of engineering books, Rabi Kisku, armed with a copy of Film Directing: Shot by Shot and a video camera, set about his dream of making films. ''I didn't have any other way to learn, and I thought: If I can learn engineering through books, why can't I do this thing?''

And three years later, ''this thing'' has led to his becoming director, script-writer and co-producer of Silicon Jungle, a docu-drama on what life is like for IITians, behind the imposing walls within which their precious brains incubate. And it's really a strange life they lead, assures 24-year-old Kisku (who admits, bashfully, that many of his friends call him Kukunoor, after he drunkenly declared himself to be the famous director's successor one night).

''A completely different world! The academic pressure is very high and there's lots of competition! People don't get time to come out of that 12ft wall; they're isolated, lost in those four academic years. They live on a different frequency! You ask them anything about the outside world and they won't know!'' What's more, their bio-rhythm and, well, personal hygiene, do tend to take quite a beating! ''Many people study, get up, hardly bathe, sleep in class, come back, play games in the night, then study again. Sometimes we'd even play cricket from 11 to 4 in the morning!'' he says, himself incredulous, in retrospect.

So how do they ever pass? ''Inherently, they're very good at their subjects when they come here,'' he explains.

If you think this is just another listless popcorn-muncher of a campus flick, with routine cycles of melodrama and heartbreak, Kisku begs to differ. ''Uh! No! There are no usual film elements. In time and intensity, it's not like a commercial film, it's more realistic; a four-year journey of the dreams, desires and failures of four friends.''

As the members of Studio Vaibhava, who composed the soundtrack (''a fusion of blues, rock, and country with a little Indian thrown in'') point out, ''It has got a lot of emotional scenes, there's a lot of scope for music in first-time experiences, like first moments in the college, first date, first love, first time he meets the seniors, and they're, like, ragging him!''

Silicon Jungle, unlike a popcorn movie, addresses itself to quite a particular audience: ''Those who passed out, and the 2 lakh students who write the entrance exam every year. They have no picture of IIT, no idea what students go through. They believe in a lot of myths.''

And it's taken one dream, and a whole lot of money (much of it drawn from the stipends of his friends; the rest from corporate sponsors like Honeywell, Airtel, AMD) to bring the reality behind these myths to our screens this coming March.