The New IITian

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How a changing India is re-engineering the DNA of its fabled nerd: a little too fast for some and much too slowly for others

There is a reason that Shruthy Suresh, 21, a final-year student of Biotechnology at Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, is going abroad for a PhD in cancer research: some years ago, she suffered a blood cancer scare. A series of tests turned out positive, and then a few weeks later, another set of tests contradicted the previous reports. “Something must have gone wrong earlier,” she says, “but it shook me enough to decide what I would pursue.”

Shruthy will soon be heading for University of Texas in the US. It was hard to get her parents’ permission. Her family is conservative, and she had joined IIT-Madras simply because it is in Chennai and 15 minutes away from her home. Her parents are letting her go to the US on the condition that she returns to India and gets married by 25. She would have to marry a suitable boy of the same caste. However, she says, “I am not going to let anything ruin my PhD.”

The Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) to get admission to an IIT is extremely hard to crack, given that there are only 9,000 seats available each year for about half a million aspirants. Students who get into an IIT as undergrads usually start preparing for the test right after class 10, some even before that, and then spend all their waking hours on it. Rakesh Meena was late to this bleary-eyed party. He only found out about the IITs when he was in class 12. Of a Scheduled Tribe in Sakrawada in Kota, Rajasthan, he is the son of a farmer who had only studied up till class 10 and had battled a mental illness for years. Rakesh was spotted by a coaching institute that conducted a test in his school to award scholarships and train students for the JEE. He took a year off just to study for it, and was ranked No 38 all-India on the Scheduled Tribe list, which secured him a seat at IIT-Kanpur.

In his final year now, Rakesh’s progress towards a BTech degree has been steady, his first year’s Cumulative Performance Index of 5.2/10 having risen to nearly 7 today. He has already landed a job at IBM Global Business Services that will pay him Rs 4 lakh per annum. It is money he is in dire need of. His family is heavily in debt. It began with a loan of Rs 1 lakh taken for his sister’s marriage. “After that,” he says, “it was droughts, then my tuition fees here at IIT-Kanpur, then the fees for the coaching of my younger brother, who managed to get into IIT-Roorkee, and then some money for our house.” And yet, when he told his family about the job offer, they were disappointed that he did not get a government job.

Shruthy and Rakesh represent groups whose presence at IITs was once nearly negligible. Girls, once so few that the heads they turned were a major hazard in labs, are now almost 10 per cent of all students. And reserved category students, once hardly noticeable, are now present in numbers large enough for caste tension to make itself felt on campus. “Especially after the [Other Backward Class] reservation four years ago, I have seen students staring at those from reserved categories as if they’re outsiders,” says an IIT student. The unsaid assumption, he says, is that “these are people who have kataoed (overturned) you, there is less space in hostels, there are fewer books, there are fewer faculty members to give them attention, [and that] the quality of the class has gone down”.

Almost every aspect of IIT life has changed, be it social, cultural, economic or academic. In some ways, students are no different from those in earlier times. They are still the most intelligent of India, at least when it comes to their IQ. They choose IIT because they have the brains to get in, and not necessarily because they have an interest in engineering. Most do it to satisfy their parents. Even after they get in, a majority see the institute as a placement agency.

Underriding all this is the single overwhelming idea that once you get into an IIT, the world will roll out a lifelong red carpet for you. And it does.

According to Shiva Prasad, a professor of physics who is also the Dean of Academic Programmes at IIT-Bombay, one of the reasons IITs got this aura was the decline of university education in India. When he was doing his higher secondary in Varanasi in the late 60s, only one student of his class took the IIT entrance test. “There were many students in that batch who were better than him,” he says, “But they never appeared because they thought the engineering college in Varanasi was equally good. IITs were well known but people were not dying to get in.”

Anubhav Mangal, a fourth-year student at IIT-Bombay, belongs to a family of IITians. His father is an IIT-Delhi engineer, and his sister an IIT-Roorkee degree holder. Anubhav was ranked around No 4,000 in the JEE, which he says was way below his expectation; anxiety had got the better of him on the day of the test. In IIT-Bombay’s hierarchy of academic pursuits, an MSc in Chemistry is right at the bottom. He had done very well in all the other engineering entrance tests he took and could have had his pick of streams. But when he started asking around, everyone told him that IIT was the best insititute to join not just for academic excellence but for the overall environment: the research that takes place, for example, and the quality of peers. “Now, after three years here and knowing what friends do in other engineering colleges,” he says, “I know what they were saying was actually true.”

When Anubhav’s father got admission to IIT-Delhi in the early 70s, he went for the mandatory counselling at the institute to find out which subject he could take. He wanted electrical engineering, but the counsellor said that he wouldn’t get it. His father said, ‘Thank you’ and got up to leave. “By then, about one minute had passed,” recounts the son, “That counsellor told him to wait and then it became a long conversation... The point is that IITs were a lot less serious and hyped at that time. Now, no one is going to walk out of that room.”

For the bulk of the student population nowadays, the objective of an IIT education is a good placement in a high-paying job—consultancy, finance and other stuff that requires no training as an engineer—at a private firm in need of smart people. Anubhav says he has recently grown fond of his focal subject of study, Materials Science, and wants to continue with it. Even so, he says one part of him is bent on taking the campus placement route to a good job. It would depend on a lot of factors. He is doing an internship at Deutsche Bank and this will tell him whether finance interests him. He will also see whether his Masters of Science applications get accepted by some prestigious institute like MIT or Stanford in the US. If they do not, he will probably give up Materials Science for a non-core career (in IIT lingo, ‘core’ is one’s subject of specialisation). Also, he doesn’t like the idea of going abroad—which is unavoidable if he wants to stick to his core.

But most students, says Anubhav, are not like him. “Typically, by third year, people are clear whether they want core or non-core,” he says, “There are very few who switch from core to non-core and vice versa.”

Students also exhibit a degree of cynicism towards their academic environment. The reasons they cite for this are falling academic standards, dissatisfaction with professors and an overall lack of practical relevance of their course material. The student intake of India’s five original IITs has gone up from 200-250 in the 1980s to 800-1,000 per institute today. The faculty and facilities have not been able to keep pace. The student-teacher ratio has worsened over the years and nothing has been done to reverse it.

Dr Vivek Verma, assistant professor at IIT-Kanpur, is alarmed by the level of indifference on display in his class. “After all the effort I put in to prepare [my teaching] material,” he says, “the least I look forward to is an enthusiastic and interactive session.” It disappoints him. Students often come late and he occasionally finds them asleep or busy with mobile phones. “They’re quite unapologetic about it.”

After four years of academic life, Suneet Choudhary, 22, a fourth-year student in IIT-Delhi’s Department of Mathematics, is certain that his education will have no role to play in his career. “There is no practical application of whatever I have studied in the kind of work I am interested in doing later,” he says. “I don’t really care about my department any longer. IIT-Delhi has given me what it could.”

Choudhary’s father is a lecturer at MNIT, Jaipur; his brother, an alumnus of IIM-Lucknow. He took up Mathematics after a budding interest in the subject and his family’s insistence that he study in Delhi. As the semesters rolled by, he found his department biased towards research and out of tune with the demands of companies that make campus visits to hire Maths students. This lack of utility explains his loss of interest in studies, he says. His attendance has dropped sharply. In this, he risks flouting IIT-Delhi’s 75 per cent minimum attendance rule and being penalised for it (a grade point loss). But Choudhary considers it a risk worth taking, since it also grants him time to pursue other dreams. “I am an entrepreneur,” he says. “I am working on a venture with two of my batchmates, and we are in the process of having it funded.”

Bhilai is a small town. Everyone usually knows what everyone else’s kids are doing, and there is fierce competition among parents and kids alike. Monika Shukla, who is from a middle-class Bhilai family of nine, says this phenomenon is what turned her competitive. She was interested in both Biology and Mathematics. Her JEE rank was above No 1,000, and it got her into IIT-Kharagpur’s Department of Biotechnology. “I loved Biology, but I wasn’t entirely sure of the next step to be taken at that point,” she says, “And my father wanted me to take up engineering, so I went that way.”

Over the four years of her BTech, Monika kept up her determination to outperform others. She landed a couple of well-paying internships—at Dublin City University after her second year and Goldman Sachs after her third. Goldman also offered her a job, which she accepted. The money that she earned during her internships and her two-year tenure at Goldman paid a part of her own tuition fees at IIT and also the fees of her younger siblings. That aside, she has bought her family a new air-conditioner, among other things. The past few years have been the proudest of her life. She is currently a fellow at Young India Fellowship Program, a one-year Delhi-based postgraduate programme in Liberal Arts and Leadership run in collaboration with University of Pennsylvania.

From engineering and biology to liberal arts, what explains her switch? “At Goldman, I felt I was getting typecast as a coder, and I wasn’t really interested in it,” says Monika, “Also, my professional and personal growth was not as satisfactory as it once was. Since I was good at my work, my manager wouldn’t be very keen to approve of any interdepartmental transfers that I wanted, which made progress difficult for me. The [liberal arts] programme seemed promising because I felt it could give me a broader set of career options to choose from.”

Dr Pramath Sinha, founding dean of the Indian School of Business (ISB) and an alumnus of IIT-Kanpur, says that today’s students are more confident of what they can achieve because they have super-successful role models among the IIT alumni. “During my time at IIT-Kanpur, the first IITians were just in their forties,” he says, “Today, when you look around, you see plenty of IITians who have gone on to do really good work across different fields. My guess is that this has played a huge role in opening the minds of students.”

The question of taking up a job versus going for higher studies is a major point of deliberation for students. Over the past few years, an increasingly large proportion have opted against higher studies. Or even going abroad. In the early 2000s, Professor Prasad left IIT-Bombay to go on deputation for five years to head the Indo French Centre for the Promotion of Advanced Research in Delhi. When he returned, one of the things he noticed was that the number of students going abroad had fallen. Earlier, he would write seven or eight recommendations a year for those who wanted to study overseas. Over the past three years, he has not written a single one. “A larger fraction of students are looking for jobs within the country,” he says.

Professor Prasad observes that first-year students often ask him what they should pursue to get a larger salary or why they should take up a course with no job-market utility. “I tell them that everything you do in life is not business,” he says, “For example, you don’t go to a movie asking what it’s use is; you go just for entertainment. Similarly, education has to be done for education, because there is a pleasure in learning new things.”

The lure of the job market, however, is hard for students to resist. Many of them take up jobs right after they graduate. The annual pay packets offered by consultancies, banks or companies such as Schlumberger and ITC Ltd go into seven figures. This, rather than overseas, is where the money is.

Those who do go abroad now go chiefly for academics. Anant Govind Rajan, a final-year student at IIT-Delhi, will leave for MIT in a few months to pursue his PhD. “It isn’t the research facilities so much as the lack of infrastructure in our institutes that bugs people,” he says. “Look at our hostels. Is an improvement in my living conditions while I pursue my PhD too much to ask for?”

Shruthy Suresh, who wants to do cancer research, says that although Indian institutions such as the IITs or Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology are good places to work, she wants to pursue research at the best place possible. “I am not saying that such facilities aren’t available here, but the limited funding for this kind of research and lack of flexibility and freedom with respect to research work... are why I want to go to the US.”

Anubhav is the editor of IIT-Bombay’s campus magazine Insight. The most popular article ever published in its history, he claims, was about a new gay support group called Saathi. “We got 20,000 unique views or something like that,” he says, “A lot of students were fine with the support group, a lot of students were like ‘Kya chal raha hai’ (what’s going on)? Some faculty members were also against it at a personal level, but they did not oppose it because they realised it was important for it to be there.”

While IIT students are still apolitical, debates on campus issues have been pushing old boundaries. Recently, something interesting happened with Mood Indigo, IIT-Bombay’s cultural festival. Usually, there are two overall coordinators of the festival who are selected from the Mood Indigo team. They always win because no one else contests. Last year, however, a third person stood for election to a post. “He had done nothing and knew nothing about Mood Indigo,” says Anubhav, “I had made his manifesto for him. Even I knew nothing about Mood Indigo. We just randomly picked up good points to put in. He didn’t do any campaigning and just went to one wing to canvass votes. He still got huge support. He lost, but got a lot of votes for no effort whatsoever.”

The election sparked off a debate within the Mood Indigo team. Usually, the team decides what events would feature in the festival. This time, they have sent out a questionnaire across campus to survey the opinions of IITians on what the festival’s aim should be and what kind of events it should have. “For example, a lot of its budget goes into getting a foreign music band to play. A lot of people felt you can get better and cheaper Indian bands,” says Anubhav, “Now debates like that have started.”

A big debate across all IITs in recent times has been the policy of restricting boys and girls from entering each others’ hostels. At IIT-Madras, previously, girls were allowed into boys’ hostels from 9 am to 9 pm, and boys weren’t permitted into girls’ hostels at all. After a few reports of harassment and complaints from parents, interaction between boys and girls was restricted last year to the visitor’s lounges, and that too only from 9 am to 9 pm. A blanket ban was not imposed only because of stiff student opposition to such a harsh measure.

Things are no better at IIT-Delhi and IIT-Kharagpur, where gender mingling is still discouraged by the authorities, an attitude that students say is utterly anachronistic in a fast-changing world off campus.

That is not to say that students can be relied upon to promote gender equality and be liberal. Being female on such a heavily male-dominated campus—with ratios as poor as one girl to 14 boys—is sometimes difficult. Sarneet Broca, a final-year student at IIT-Delhi, was the first female president of its indoor sports club, which had an even worse gender ratio than the rest of the campus. “That in itself was difficult enough,” she says, “When I tried to contest for the position of Institute Secretary for Sports Council, I faced a lot of informal opposition just on account of my being a girl. Of course, they didn’t let me take the post.”

“Trophy treatment” by boys is “almost an unspoken law” on the campus of IIT-Madras, says Shruthy. “I just can’t seem to get rid of the stares,” she says, “But I don’t really care anymore. I have been seeing this for four years now.”

So even as things change for IITians, they often stay the same. Consider the choices in Shruthy life. They are paradoxical. She has an uncompromising ambition to study the most modern advancements in science related to cancer, even as orthodox concepts like caste and parental approval for marriage shadow her personal life. Progress that races ahead with remnants of the past in tow.