New Delhi: Exacerbating a growing shortage of engineers for India’s booming information technology industry, the ministry of human resource development has stonewalled a proposal by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay to set up a satellite campus in Gujarat.
The proposal came after Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi offered to mobilize Rs500 crore in start-up funding as well provide a free, 300-acre site in Gandhinagar for an IIT satellite campus in the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state. The project was hoping to enrol around 200 degree-course engineering students by July and had expected to graduate 4,000 engineers within eight to 10 years.
While the ministry hasn’t formally shut the door, it has made it clear that the plan is a non-starter, say people familiar with the matter. “They have not been saying no, but essentially are saying ‘forget it,’” said one person familiar with the ministry’s thinking. Ministry officials, including R.P. Agrawal, secretary, higher education, declined to comment.
The ministry has told the IIT that opening a satellite campus would be same as opening a new IIT, and that can only be done at the discretion of the Central government. The ministry has suggested that the IIT consider an extension centre offering short-term courses instead of a satellite campus offering degree courses.
“I see no reason for the project to be held up if IIT Bombay is ready to open a satellite campus and the Gujarat government is willing to support it,” said P.M. Bhargava, vice-chairman of the National Knowledge Commission, a high-level advisory body to the prime minister. “IIT Bombay is a fine institution and we need such institutions to expand. There is no other way to address one of India’s basic challenges: we produce thousands of engineering graduates but as many as 90% of them are unemployable.”
The state government says it continues to stand by its original offer and points the fingers at politics. Gujarat is likely to go to polls at the end of this year, and Modi and his party are frequently at loggerheads with the ruling party at the Centre.
“If the HRD ministry wants to play petty politics with higher education, it’s a real pity,” said BJP spokesman Prakash Javdekar. “More than two lakh Indian students went abroad for higher education last year. We can stem the tide only if we encourage innovative proposals like the one mooted by IIT Bombay and the Gujarat government.”
According to the US Embassy data, India was the leading place of origin for international students, with 76,503 students landing in that country between October 2005 and last September. While the US remains the most popular higher-education destination for Indian students, more than 20,000 Indians are currently studying in British universities.
Some private estimates have about 1.4 lakh students heading out of India each year with associated foreign exchange outflow of a few billion dollars, as many of these students end up paying for much of their overseas education. To be sure, many of these students leave after getting a first degree from an IIT.
Meanwhile, the seven IITs together churn out 3,500-4,000 elite engineering graduates every year, but the demand for their graduates is many times higher. India produces nearly four lakh engineering graduates every year, but most of them need to go through further training before they can be gainfully deployed.
As a result, industry lobby Nasscom, or the National Association of Software and Services Companies, projects a shortfall of 1.5 lakh engineers in the domestic IT industry by 2010 if the government doesn’t take steps to address quality gaps in engineering education. By 2010, domestic information technology companies will have an estimated staff strength of 8.5 lakh, though many of these jobs will not necessarily require IIT degrees.
The Gujarat government first approached the IIT a year ago when it heard that the institute was mulling a similar campus in Goa. A team from IIT Bombay, led by its director Ashok Misra, went to Gujarat in July to discuss the offer in a meeting chaired by Modi.
Shortly thereafter, the Gujarat government prepared a memorandum of understanding, going to the extent of earmarking a site on the banks of the Sabarmati river in Gandhinagar.
The IIT’s 13-member board discussed the offer in August following which it formally approached the HRD ministry. Shortly after it received the proposal, the ministry announced three greenfield IITs, to be set up during the 11th Plan period, which begins this year, in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan.
Typically it takes many years to get a new IIT fully operational.
“I feel setting up satellite campuses makes a lot more sense than new IITs,” said Misra, while declining to comment on the specific Gujarat proposal. “It is far easier to replicate our established practices in a satellite campus. If we open a satellite campus, the onus to make it function just like the parent institution will be upon us. A new IIT, on the other hand, will take much longer as it will have a new board, senate and, perhaps, even curricula.”
IIT Bombay currently has 5,300 students. Over the next three years, it will need to increase the number of seats by 54% in order to fulfil the government’s directive of admitting 27% students from other backward classes.
What is puzzling to those following the HRD decision is the fact that IIT Bombay was always conceived as a regional institute that would try and serve several states. The IIT’s board currently has representatives from three states: Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa. Until recently, there was also a representative from Madhya Pradesh.
Says one person familiar with the saga: “There is no reason why anybody should oppose it. This is classic Indian politics at play.”
Aparna Kalra contributed to this story