Why more IITs are a bad idea
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More than eighty years ago, Subhash Chandra Bose came to the Hilji detention camp outside Kharagpur in West Bengal to collect the bodies of two unarmed freedom fighters martyred there. That act served as one spark among many in catalysing India’s Independence movement.
After Independence, the first Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kharagpur was set up at the very site of the detention camp. It was born on the back of the report written in 1946 on higher technical institutions by the Nalini Ranjan Sarkar Committee. Noted educationists Humayun Kabir and Jogendra Singh constituted the Sarkar Committee. Partly because West Bengal had many industries then and partly because Kabir and Sarkar were from West Bengal, the two were able to persuade prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and B.C. Roy, then chief minister of West Bengal, to establish the first IIT there. The report suggested major institutions in the four regions of the country. In rapid succession, IITs were established with foreign collaboration in Bombay (Soviet Union, 1958), Kanpur (US, 1959) and Madras (Germany, 1959). The Germans were initially planning to establish the IIT in Bangalore but chose Madras instead when C. Subramaniam, then education minister of Madras state, impressed them with 630 acres of verdant forestland on the governor’s estate. The fifth and last IIT of the first phase was established a few years later in Delhi with the justification that Kanpur represented central India, not the North. Eleven other IITs were born anew or upgraded since then in: Guwahati, Roorkee, Varanasi, Bhubaneswar, Gandhinagar, Hyderabad, Jodhpur, Patna, Ropar, Mandi and Indore.
These 16 institutes have historically been built on the rationale of building human capital for a newly independent, industrializing India and on providing geographically diversified access. The government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared its intention, based on a research and development (R&D) view, of building an IIT and Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in every state. For a host of reasons, this is unnecessarily geographically focused, extravagant and wrong-headed.
Recent estimates and the experience of setting up eight institutes (all except Mandi are still on rented premises) suggests that establishment costs are likely to range from Rs.1,500 to Rs.2,000 crore per institute. Just the initial capital expenditure to build another dozen IITs could, therefore, be well over Rs.18,000 crore. When location, land acquisition and putting up the physical infrastructure are major issues for the recent IITs, it seems ill conceived to announce new ones before solving those issues.
The IITs have succeeded until now for three reasons: 1) they have functioned autonomously without too much interference; 2) the entrance gate has permitted only the best students in the country; and 3) the faculty has been good enough to turn this group into employable engineers. This has allowed a brand to be built over the years that stands for excellence, which in turn allows for employment, career paths and success. This success has reinforced the brand. A material increase in the number of IITs threatens all three success factors and this virtuous circle. A larger system will open up flanks for interference, the threshold for entrance will have to be lowered to admit more students and most importantly, faculty openings, many of which lie vacant today, will become even more difficult to fill.
At the very least the government must reimagine the priority in the higher education sector to be a challenge in “software” not “hardware”. The Soviet-inspired model of research conducted by central laboratories, and students trained by technical institutes such as the IITs has to be fully re-examined to help prepare India for the next 50 years. The focus on setting up the innovation and R&D vision for the future is better placed on the structure, talent pool and compensation for researchers than on the physical infrastructure of newer institutes.
A good place to start will be to merge the various laboratories of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research into these technical institutes so that the flow of new ideas is fresh and continual and the opportunity to work in applied research areas is available in an academic context. Another vital area of focus should be on allowing compensation to be flexible enough to attract the best and the brightest in the world. South Korea, Hong Kong and China have followed an excellent model of incentivizing world-class diaspora from the academia to return and contribute.
Rather than undertake an ambitious and ultimately wasteful programme of setting up several new IITs, the government will do better to completely revamp the structure of research in the country and place it back in technical institutes and universities. Sixty-seven years after independence we must put our focus on getting R&D out of the detention camps rather than on building newer camps.
P.S. “Dare to be free, dare to go as far as your thought leads, and dare to carry that out in your life”, said Swami Vivekananda.
Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs.
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