At an all-India rank of No 888 in the ‘reserved’ category of the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) for admission to an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Rahul Verma found it impossible to get Electrical Engineering— one of the most sought after disciplines—at any of the older IITs. So he joined one of the new institutes, IIT Indore. This was three years ago. He did not want to consider other engineering colleges of national stature. The ‘IIT’ tag was everything.
IIT Indore is one of eight new Indian Institutes of Technology that came up in 2008 and 2009. Even five years after they were conceived, these institutes are hobbling along to live up to the reputations that foreshadow the name IIT, but that is no secret. The important questions are what led to this mess, how deep this mess is, and what lies next.
Rahul lives in a four-bedroom cottage with eight of his batchmates at Silver Springs, a residential township on the Indore bypass road. This is because IIT Indore has no hostels. They are yet to be built. So every morning, he gets up before 7 am to reach class at 9 am held 30 km away at a location rented by IIT from Industrial Training Institute (ITI) for its School of Engineering. The IIT does not have its own campus yet and uses three disjointed locations instead. To ferry students around town, IIT Indore has hired buses. Rahul’s bus takes half an hour, and since he must go to yet another building in the township that serves as a dining hall for breakfast, it’s always a rush. If he misses his bus, he might as well call it a holiday and go back. There is no way he can reach class without leaving his wallet lighter than he’d like.
“We tried getting a place within the city itself,” says Dr Amod Umarikar, who heads IIT Indore’s School of Engineering. “People were only interested in extracting the maximum amount of cash from us. Nobody cared that it was an IIT they were talking about.” The institute pays ITI an annual rent of Rs 2 crore for the use of its Mhow campus that lies even beyond the outskirts of Indore. “The time wasted in travelling from one location to another is one of the biggest headaches that students and faculty have,” says Dr Umarikar.
Rahul is taught mostly by assistant professors, many of whom are in their first jobs and appear equally excited by the idea of having an ‘IIT’ on their CVs. Thankfully, he has no core science lab work, or else he’d have an additional half-hour ride to another campus rented by IIT Indore for its School of Science.
Once he is back home, he has little access to the usual facilities that residential students expect of such an institute. Cricket, he says, can be played anywhere and Silver Springs has a badminton court, but for any other sport, students must use facilities elsewhere in town (for which the IIT administration pays).
However, with placement season upon them, lack of amenities is one of the last things on Rahul’s mind. His is only the second batch of IIT Indore students trying to land jobs via campus placement, and he must convince recruiters that he is worthy of the IIT tag as a candidate.
WHOSE IDEA WAS IT ANYWAY?
One day in 2007, Dr CNR Rao rushed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a worried man. As the head of the PM’s scientific advisory council and chairman of a standing committee responsible for decisions on IITs under the then HRD Minister Arjun Singh, Dr Rao was shocked by what he had just heard. He had heard that eight new IITs were to come up all at once, and nobody had bothered to tell him, let alone consult him. Hadn’t they been planning three new IITs all along? Wasn’t it clear that there weren’t enough resources to build any more? And whose call was it, if not his?
Manmohan Singh, it turned out, was clueless about the eight IITs. “The PM didn’t know about it, and he immediately called the Ministry of HRD to find out who was responsible,” says Dr Rao. “No satisfactory reply ever came from the Ministry. What is amazing is that when I talked to Arjun Singh, the poor man was not aware of many things. Somewhere the decision was taken by one or two over-enthusiastic people who had met with the Planning Commission on this issue and gone ahead to make the announcement without telling anyone else. RP Agrawal [then the secretary of Science and Higher education] was present in the meeting, and he even talked to some director of one of the IITs about this. I never heard anything, even though all the directors were involved in planning the three new IITs.”
All that planning was rendered pointless once the Centre set up eight institutes behind the committee’s back. “Even today, I don’t know who the people responsible for this mess are,” says Dr Rao, “The education committee of the scientific advisory council called in Mr Agrawal for questioning and we asked how he could do what he did. After that, he just got very upset with us and that was the end of it.”
Back in 2003, the HRD Ministry under the NDA Government had set up a committee headed by physicist Dr Shri Krishna Joshi to shortlist technical institutions that could be upgraded to IIT status. Entirely new IITs would have been too costly. In 2005, after the UPA took over at the Centre, the Joshi Committee’s report was dumped and another plan surfaced to start new IITs. “Upgrading institutions to IITs is a stupid idea, whoever recommends it,” says Dr Rao, who was also chairman of IIT Kanpur at the time, “You cannot turn Mysore University into Harvard by upgrading it.”
The committee headed by Dr Rao recommended that three entirely new IITs be set up: one each in Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka in the South, Rajasthan or Gujarat in the West, and Orissa or Bihar in the east. The three new IITs, according to Dr Sanjay Dhande, a former director of IIT Kanpur who authored such a proposal submitted to the Planning Commission, were to be set up in response to increased demand for an IIT education, as well as for engineers, especially from India’s infotech sector. If it worked, the idea was to be scaled up.
However, instead of three, six new IITs burst onto the scene in 2008, and two more in 2009 just before the General Election. State governments, asked to set aside around 500 acres of contiguous land for an IIT campus in case one was approved there, rushed to meet the criterion. A committee hurriedly approved IITs in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Odisha, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh. “But you can’t create a good IIT by the stroke of a pen and a newspaper announcement,” says Dr Rao.
Five years since, none of those IITs has a proper campus, and despite sufficient funds and big-ticket purchases of lab equipment, they operate in haphazard ways with makeshift laboratories. And it’s not just a space crunch that cripples them, there is enough to show that for all the talk of digital-era needs, they have been unable to break sufficiently free of outdated notions of an education in engineering.
LAWS OF THE LAND
The 205 inhabitants of Kamand, a settlement 15 km from Mandi in the hills of Himachal Pradesh, are a hopeful bunch these days because the south campus of an IIT is coming up in town (the other is 3 km apart). The place is abuzz with activity. Labs and classrooms are being built, with a few hostels already in place. The site of the other campus up ahead is bare. Currently, IIT Mandi runs its operations partly from temporary premises in Kamand and partly from a rented campus shared with Vallabh Government College.
The state government has allotted about 530 acres to this project, but the terrain renders almost 350 acres of it unbuildable. The master plan was drawn to cater to 6,000 students, but housing just 3,500-4,000 students may prove difficult. The settlement’s general infractructure seems grossly inadequate. “There was no other land available,” says Dr SP Gupta of IIT Roorkee, who has been closely associated with IIT Mandi as Dean of Planning. “Mr Ashok Thakur, who himself is a Himachali, and Dr SC Saxena [former director of IIT Roorkee] were on the committee that visited and approved the site.” Ironically, in spite of the odd location and being the youngest of the lot, IIT Mandi is the only one to have partly begun operations on its own campus. The others have only just begun construction or are stuck in red tape.
For its permanent campus, IIT Indore was promised 500 acres of land near Simrol, a village about 25 km away from Indore city, in 2009. About 200 acres of that land was under the state forest department, which is yet to clear its use for the purpose; besides, a village at the site is resisting the project in fear of losing direct access to a main road. The local clout of villagers has stalled the construction of even a boundary wall. About 30 acres of land is under dispute.
Dr Pradeep Mathur, director of IIT Indore, looks a tired man when I see him at the end of his day, but his eyes flare at the mention of the Madhya Pradesh government’s role. “One of the worst states in terms of governance, education and treatment of women,” he seethes. “They are not ready for an IIT yet.”
Land acquisition is proving difficult even for IIT Ropar in Punjab. According to a senior staff member, the site at Birla Farms 8 km away from Ropar town is squashed in a couple of lawsuits, with local villagers refusing to vacate the land earmarked for the institute.
Even in Gujarat, construction at IIT Gandhinagar was delayed by four years because the tract of land that the Modi government originally zeroed in on was too far away from the city and director Sudhir Jain refused to accept it. The land he got after that was closer home, but a large portion of it was under the Union Ministry of Agriculture, which took two years to vacate it.
IIT Patna was delayed because villagers at the site refused to vacate the land unless given more money. The state government asked the IIT to take the 200 acres that were available, saying that the rest would come later. IIT Patna refused, asking for the entire lot together. “Maybe the Government did not envisage all these problems in land acquisition,” says Dr Gautam Barua, former director of IIT Guwahati, mentor of IIT Patna.
All of it smacks of a tearing hurry. A state government ought to be aware of the status of land being earmarked for an IIT campus and not expect an IIT administration to fight for land procurement.
“The IITs have a second-rate faculty and first rate students. It has always been the case,” asserts Dr CNR Rao, who was among the first batch of professors at IIT Kanpur. “There are a few good faculty members, but they are not producing enough research, not doing enough development work,” he says.
All IITs have had a faculty crunch all along, but the new ones are under criticism for lack of academic experience in all spheres of work; about 80 per cent of their faculty members are young. “The faculty at IIT Indore needs to be looked into,” says Dr Anand Khanna, a professor at IIT Bombay who was deputy director at IIT Indore for six months last year. “They have just been given lot of money [for their work],” he says, “but they don’t have sufficient credentials and are not up to the mark as teachers.”
Seasoned professors of old IITs are reluctant to join the new ones. Not only do they stand to lose some benefits of their old contracts, they may also find their research work disrupted as they leave their well established labs and students behind. Some do not fancy administrative roles, which they may be saddled with. Moreover, as a professor at IIT Ropar says, the administrations of new IITs prefer younger professors who are that much less likely to challenge their authority.
India’s system of academic appointments is also rather too rigid. Institutions in China and the US, for example, allow faculty members to take up foreign assignments while retaining their academic positions at home. Indian institutes do not allow it. And the IIT Act does not let non-citizens hold permanent faculty positions. Also, IIT professors are paid salaries that are too low to attract talent from across the world.
“The faculty problem is also a testimony to the failed post-graduate education system of the IITs. There is a direct correlation between the two,” says Dr Dhande. “The public and media are obsessed with the BTech programme, which has been a failure of IITs as much as a success. The newer IITs must therefore focus more on strengthening post-graduate education.” Dr Rao is pessimistic about this. “No, I don’t think we will have a solution to the faculty problem in the near future. Very few people work hard in India, the IITs included. Somehow there is no motivation. It’s the Indian story.”
HAS BRAND IIT BEEN TARNISHED?
Professors and students of the new IITs don’t share Dr Rao’s pessimism. “Brand IIT does not get diluted easily,” says Dr Surendra Prasad, former director of IIT Delhi. The students and faculty at the new IITs share a sense of pride in what they see as a collective effort to earn their institutes a reputation.
“It is not fair to judge brand IIT so soon and compare it with the Stanfords or Harvards of the world that have been around for hundreds of years,” says Dr Dhande, “But yes, the new IITs should be aiming to break away and experiment with different strategies and not just copy the older IITs and do the same things, as they are presently doing.”
Some innovation can indeed be seen in these institutes. The IITs at Gandhinagar, Mandi and Indore, for instance, are laying emphasis on interdisciplinary research and teaching. Their school system, which aims to blur boundaries between departments and give students greater freedom to plan their education, has some advantages over the rigidities of the older IITs. Those at Gandhinagar and Mandi are keen on academic diversity and the humanities, with courses on journalism, music, arts, theatre and the like.
Even the placement statistics at most of these institutes are not too disappointing, given how new they are. On average, graduates looking for jobs secure pay packets of Rs 8-9 lakh per annum. Drawing recruiters to campus is not as easy as it is for older IITs, but once their graduates prove their worth as professionals, this problem could vanish. In any case, the new IITs hardly have 120 odd students to place every year, as opposed to 1,000 or so in older IITs.
“This is a unique opportunity to shake things up because the older IITs have become too big and hierarchical over time,” says Dr Dhande. “What has been happening in the new IITs over the past four-five years is unfortunate, but still, all is not lost.”