Guest Article: Lament for IITs

Posted on June 6, 2011

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Author:  Prof M N Faruqui   (1952 -56 IIT Kharagpur student; 1958 – 1990 Faculty at IIT Kharagpur)

The lament that the IITs, IIMs and the Universities are not world class is not justified when one measures the low output, of at least the five original IITs, in terms of Research and Development over the past six decades or so. I joined IIT Kharagpur in 1952 as a student when that first IIT was only one year old and was functioning from an abandoned jail building. The WWII had ended a few years back and even the mighty American Universities and Colleges did not have much of engineering research. The “enforced” advances and developments in engineering, manufacturing and production made during the war were ready for use for general industrial growth The Industries were also driving them hard to try and catch up with the Europeans especially the Germans. The desire of the American leaders and people to dominate the world in engineering and technology gave a fillip to the industries to support indigenous research and the fruits of that were lapped up by them.

Around the same time India became independent and looking around our political leadership found that the country needs ‘world class’ engineering colleges to produce Engineers that would drive the country forward. The British at the end of WWII thought that their prized possession India should be given some “inaam” for the sacrifices of the Indian soldiers who fought gallantly along with the ‘gora’ army. They suggested the establishment of four Government Engineering Colleges in the four corners of the country. The central universities Calcutta, Bombay, Banaras Hindu University, Aligarh Muslim University, Indian Institute of Science Bangalore, and Madras universities were there for the Scientific research and had an engineering college attached to them.  The Arts faculties were thriving in these places though Tagore also was encouraged to establish Shantiniketan. They were not planning to establish Oxford or Cambridge here despite the two Nobel Laureates,  both from Calcutta.

Our Government took out the British time Sarkar Committee report eaten by moth balls and established four and on demand five Engineering colleges called by the pompous name of Indian Institute of Technology. The world organisations and powers like UNO, Russia, USA, Germany and UK came forward in that order to help in establishing these five dream colleges. There was no emphasis on research and all the effort was to teach things that would be useful to the industries. In the initial stages teachers were recruited from the industries and there were practically no Doctorates in engineering departments at Kharagpur. We had Professors from UK, Germany, Russia, France and USA in engineering departments but all the research was confined to the Science Departments. Things started changing from 1964 onwards when the first Indian PhD in Civil Engineering was awarded by IIT Kharagpur.

It is possibly forgotten that in the decades of 1960-80 there was no Internet, no Xeroxing facility and only a very cumbersome cyclostyling facility was available in offices. Very few journals existed and even in IITs there was no funding for research by the Government till 1970-1 when the first good research grant was given by the Ministry of Defense to all the five IITs . The IITs and the government expected that the IITs would produce B Tech graduates comparable to the best in the world and everybody was proud of our product all around. From personal experience I can say that whenever we reviewed our performance the benchmark was acceptance by “our industries” – a fiction no doubt. Our students were highly successful in research and development orqanisations world over, something that made all of us Indians happy. We were blamed off and on for “brain drain” and that we were producing graduates that did extremely well in the USA and UK. Teaching and curricula had to suit the requirements of the Indian industries there. Despite all of this the faculty at the IITs did commendable research and we did exceedingly well there. In certain areas the publications in esteemed foreign journals from the IITs was higher than those produced by MIT, UCLA and Stanford. The Indian industry by and large was NOT interested in these research outcomes.

If the requirement was research then we did a colossal blunder in concentrating on Under Graduate education  and that is persisting even today. The industry said we are good and the measure used for judging was “placement”.  Do we serve the industry or do some “not wanted” research. Our industry-controlled and run for the profit motif is full of “so called” industrialists who buy CKD and SKD goods from abroad and sell it in India. Where were the famous “industrialists” who are interested in any technical development? Research had become purely abstract like in science research and no industry was wanting it or bothered about it and actually had any use for it. It is easier to import the product and sell it rather spend money on developing it where the success rate of 10 percent return on investment is extremely good. Even if we take mass produced and consumed items like cell phone, fridge, refrigerators television sets, computers, laptops etc. we find that they are all foreign make. It appears that we have taken a vow and resolved that we will never produce mass consumption items like the ones cited above in our country. Naturally there is no need to do any research in items where major profits are made by Europeans, Americans, Koreans, Japanese, and lately Chinese. Maybe the Swiss Bank odyssey of our people is kept alive by such policies.

Till we come to the late nineties and early twenties. Profit motif at all costs finally hit like Tsunami when people of Murthy guild built empires on “false” premises. Did Indian Science and Technology become subservient to the interests of American Industry? All of us lauded their great achievements of Infosys, WIPRO, TCS like empires. Yes we should be proud of serving the Masters, making money, giving jobs, do Technical “thekedari” and strut around. Yes we were happy with the second hand development – Tatas possibly are the only exception. Defense and Space had no way out but to “indulge” in research but even then happily import the series of Fighters MIG 17, MIG 21, MIG 23, MIG 27 and Sukhois every time with a fresh contract of developing them indigenously. Wonderful. After getting, say, MIG 21 did we put 5000 engineers and scientists to develop, copy, modify and have our own 1000 MIG 21**s. we could have had a MIG 35 (India design) selling in the market. And why not. BUT who wanted it? The money our babus, officers and politicians make and stash in Swiss banks in making the deals much more profitable than the pride of Indian science and technology. AND now that an IITan by fact and by heart admits that IITs went wrong somewhere along the line everybody is jumping around. What hypocrisies.

AND now suddenly we discover that we are nowhere in the Industrial development scene in the world and that IITs should have been doing industrial R &D but pray for whom. This Indian nation governed by a corruption ridden social strata of society is looking for reasons of non-performance in the field of Industrial research and development comparable to the best of USA. Let us not forget that even they are not very old in this field. Given a chance and opportunity Indian scientists and engineers have done exceedingly well. Jairam Ramesh is bothered about it but our bosses are sanguine. The writing was on the wall but then we were all singing Hosanna to Murthy and party and we did not look up and see the world go by in applied engineering research. Our boys at a pittance of salary and allowance, solved the problems of USA and it was wonderful for the Indian powers that be that it solved the problems of job creation at a large scale.

The question is what steps have the government taken to improve the population of Masters and Doctorate degree programmes and re-orient at least the IITs to do more research. Unfortunately the question still remains, for whom. I hope it is understood that large number of B Tech would never take us forward in R & D.  We were busy getting our children admissions in IIT failing that in other look- alike and sending them abroad later if possible.  More than one hundred thousand students go abroad for education and not brain drain. ‘Satyanas’ of education was written when “Coaching” stopped all creativity avenues for a 14 year old Indian. His Nose to the grind of 4 hours coaching over and above the school hours and learning by mugging has taken away fun from school. His total focus is in getting admission into IIT or a good Medical College – failing that in a good engineering college. Again despite this urge the ordinary Indian family dreams of Indian Administrative Service because of “power”, money and prestige it gives to a society accustomed to a “ruler”. Professionals, Industrialists and Politicians take a back seat in our society compared to an IAS officer compared to other advanced countries.

Let us see what could have been done or done even now – usual after the horse has bolted. Late Arjun Singh thought that IITs are the future and created eight more of them. If we want quality – why it is easy — go and get American universities to come here and make all of us brilliant and on the forefront of research and knowledge. WHAT FUN? The other “Indians” are bread to be technical “”Coolies” for the white masters. CHANGE the IIT system at least if required.

An out of the box suggestion for making major changes in the IIT system is as follows.

  1. We change our system and make IITs to offer a 5 year M Tech (no B Tech) and an option of 7 year PhD programme for students who qualify in JEE. It should be attractive enough to get the best into it by offering good scholarships and freeships. If a student chooses the 7 year programme his entire 7 years should be tuition free plus a good fellowship. The IITs do not offer a B Tech programme but other colleges are free to do so. They could offer a five year M Tech plus PhD programme after the B Tech with attractive fellowships and freeships.
  2. Good number students getting in this IIT system should be given free tuition for all the seven years. Scholarship / fellowships of say 25,000 rupees or better to start with. (Medical education in USA follows this pattern) .
  3. Teachers in the IITs should have no fixed pay scale. Salaries to depend on his total commitment to research, publications, teaching ability, projects handled and consultancy. Such a Professor is treated as an asset.
  4. All industries are forced by legislation to spend 2 percent of their profit on relevant R and D.  Tax relief be built in the legislation. They be asked to fund for research in R & D areas of their activities.
  5. Like most of the countries that have a ‘certification for engineers’ we should have a compulsory legislation for certification of our B Tech qualified engineers. M Tech may be exempt.

In India the BIG question remains – research for what. “research kar darya mein daal”. Publication should not be end of research but rather a bye-product. It should lead to something worthwhile. Recently I came across a marvel created by Chinese railway engineers when they connected Tibet with the main land by rail, totally indigenous and considered impossible. This was a total Chinese ingenuity and design since nobody had done something like it elsewhere.

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