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.)