New Delhi: Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras, professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala, who was listed in BusinessWeek’s 50 most powerful Indians this year for the companies he helps incubate, has raised his voice against the IIT faculty’s protests over pay. In an interview, he talks about the freedom at IITs and the road to greater independence. Edited excerpts:

You wrote a letter to the IIT Faculty Federation speaking against the issues they have raised. What about the larger issue of autonomy? IIM Bangalore director Pankaj Chandra talked about autonomy to Mint.

Freedom galore: Ashok Jhunjhunwala says compared to the money that IITs get from the government, the Centre’s interference is negligible. Sharp Image / Mint

I have had plenty of conversations with IIT directors. In some issues, government has acted Big Brother with us—in terms of increasing number of students (because of reservations) we were not given much choice. There is some very loose kind of thing on faculty reservations. There are some national-level policy issues on which government will have a say.

I don’t think beyond this government tells IITs anything.

I really think there is significant amount of autonomy. Government gives us money, we have to have salary structure in tune with government pay. MHRD (ministry of human resource development) gives each IIT Rs120-180 crore per year. Compared to the money we get, interference is negligible. How they are run, what is the promotion policy, things are fairly flexible.

The IIT faculty has said that issues of promotion are being dictated.

There are two clauses to the revised salary structure. 10% of faculty—PhDs with no experience—to be taken on contract. Then we regularize them. This is not something that makes a huge difference. It is a guideline, we can promote them early.

Second clause is: Only 40% (of) professors can get a higher salary slot or additional grade pay. This is the creation of some kind of senior professor (level). Only if we begin looking at it can we decide that 40% needs to be changed. (Minister for HRD) Kapil Sibal has very categorically said these are guidelines.

An additional incentive based on excellence has to be limited. If we let our administration deal with MHRD, it can be resolved.

Can IITs become financially independent?

I don’t think so. I have tried to work it out in terms of fees. Some of the alumni talk big, but no IIT has been able to create that kind of corpus. Unless you are ready to charge Rs5-6 lakh per student in which case there will be a lot of problem. I don’t mind moving in that direction, but it is going to be tough. People are not used to taking this loan and then paying heavily.

We can charge this fees only to undergraduates. Even with this fees, (we will) not even come close to one-third of our budget.

You said IITs enjoy a great amount of freedom.

There is huge autonomy at the faculty level. You are required to teach one-and-a-half hours a day. There are faculty who spend three-four hours a day in office and then go back, and faculty who work 14-16 hours a day. We cannot allow autonomy to be misused, in this whole protest we have been misusing autonomy.

IIT Madras has a beautiful campus, where I have free housing. There is a hospital, which my family can use. There are two schools. My children can go to these schools. Maintainance of the house is free. Five days a month I can build consultancy capability. I am allowed to go on boards of companies and retain board fees. For 60 days a year, I can go abroad on a fellowship. After six years, I can go for a sabbatical for a year, three times in my career. Of course, we have to excel. Industry will give us consultancy only if we excel.

That autonomy is very precious to us. Nobody can force us to do anything.