Book Review - The IITiansThe IITians
celebrates the institution that has created a name for itself worldwide and has produced some of the most successful people to come out of India. Its a must read for those of you who were in the IIT (Indian Institute of Technology), but it will make very interesting reading for non IITians (like me) as well.The IITians
has been written by Sandipan Deb, an IITian himself, and now the managing editor of Outlook
and the editor of Outlook Money.
He is married to an IITian as well. The book was first published in Dec. '04.The IITians
traces the evolution of the IIT as an institute and as a brand from the time it was set up in the late '50s. Deb tells us that the impression that IITs were Jawaharlal Nehru's dream is not entirely correct, they were the brainchild of a Parsi technocrat Ardeshir Dalal. However, Nehru deserves credit for recognizing a good idea and backing it to the hilt. Also, the IITs were modeled after the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in the US rather than a British institution like the Imperial College. India was already casting aside the legacy of the Raj
Deb meets and talks to the many successful alumni of the IITs about their lives while at the IITs and what they learnt most in those four or five years. One thread that can be picked up from most of these interactions is that hardly any of these superachievers remember what exactly they learnt in the classroom. Its the learning outside the class that matters, they say. The experience of staying and working on a daily basis with some of the best minds in the country, is what is cherished most. The extra-curricular activities were most instrumental in their development. If one can get through the IIT system, one can then face anything. And it also gives an opportunity to get to know people and cultures from other parts of India and opens their mind to a whole new world. These last two facts resonate with those of us, who have been in institutes although not as reputed as the IITs, yet follow a similar tough regimen.
Another facet that is often discussed in the same breath as IIT's superachievers is that of brain drain. The IITs are heavily subsidized by the tax-payers' money. So doesn't it make sense to put in place safeguards to ensure that these elite graduates serve their own country rather than see the IITs as a one-way ticket to the US?
The book cites many examples of IITians doing great work within India like Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala at IIT Madras and Sam Pitroda, Rajiv Gandhi's point man and visionary telecom czar. Prof. Jhunjhunwala has done astonishing work in the area of rural connectivity. He has also successfully created an acedeme-entrepreneurship linkage while declining to take a stake in any of the companies he has incubated. Sam Pitroda is the man we have to thank for the ubiquitous PCO phone booths all over the country. This is the single most important contribution he made towards the penetration of telephone use in India.
However, the most talked about IITians all seem to be abroad, mostly in the US. Vinod Khosla, Purnendu Chatterjee, Kanwal Rekhi, Gururaj Deshpande, Rajat Gupta, Arun Sarin, Shailesh Mehta, the list goes on. But the sense one gets from the book is that there is no point trying to stop someone who wants to go abroad. When you choose the brightest minds in the country and give them the best possible education, its essential that when they get out of the IITs they get to work on challenges that will interest them. Unfortunately, India, atleast in the past, did not have such challenging work to offer. So we produced some of the best people, but did not know what to do with them. Naturally they went abroad. The vast majority though, got stuck in some mundane job or the other and got lost in the obscurity of the American dream; they were successful in that they bought a house in the suburbs of some American city and settled down for the rest of their lives, but did not fulfill their potential in terms of achievements that are expected from an IITian. Only a few, like the names I mentioned earlier made it big.
But there have been innumerable others who have stayed back in India and done a lot of good work. We may not hear about them often or they may not be as popular, but they are spread over various companies, both in the private sector and in the public sector, and have done a lot of good work over the years. Some of the names that come to mind are Nandan Nilekani of Infosys, R. Gopalakrishnan of Tata Sons, social activist Dunu Roy, and so on. There are astute IITians in politics as well, commerce minister Jairam Ramesh and former Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar. The book offers some interesting trivia as well, for example, Nandan Nilekani and Jairam Ramesh together formed a formidable quiz team at IIT Bombay!
Talking about IITians doing good work in India, its not necessary that all of them need to be popular and well-known, because media hype and merit do not always go together. One specific example cited in the book fascinated me, that of Arvind Gupta. Gupta makes toys out of everything that we would throw as useless: empty boxes, film-roll cans, bicycle tubes, old newspapers, used pen refills, matchsticks and so on. He does it so that underprivileged children, or for that matter even privileged children, can make their own toys they can have fun with, and at the same time learn the principles of science, aerodynamics, hydraulics, electromagnetism, acoustics, etc. His story is well worth reading, particularly for those of us who are eternally obsessed with doing well in the corporate world and earning loads on money.
More about the alumni - there is also a detailed account in the book, of how they have contributed immensely to the progress of their respective alma mater
. There is a feeling among the IIT professors and the administrators that it would be like going around with a begging bowl to ask the alumni for donations, but the alumni are trying to change that perception. The alumni want to help, and its evident from the monetary contributions they have made. The IIT Bombay alumni have raised $15m, IIT Kharagpur alumni have raised $10m, followed by Chennai and Kanpur with $5m each and Delhi with $1m. This money has helped create management schools, research laboratories, technology centers, auditoriums and sport facilities.
Deb explains how the IIT dream still gives hope to the many parents in the country, who have the feeling that they were not able to fulfill their potential for various reasons beyond their control, and now want to ensure that their children get the best shot possible at making it big in life. IITs are seen as the passport to a successful life.
Deb also discusses how tough it actually is to make it into an IIT and how much pressure there is on the children to crack the JEE (Joint Entrance Exam). No surprise then, that there are so many coaching classes that have mushroomed all over the country. A typical IIT aspirant starts preparing in Class IX and continues until he takes the JEE at the end of Class XII. By sheer statistical probability most of the aspirants do not make it on the first attempt and then they spend another year to give it a second shot. And a vast majority fail to make it yet again. So there are thousands of youngsters who end up spending five years preparing for the IIT JEE and are then forced to take a painful decision to look at other options.
The author asks a very relevant question, is getting into the IITs really worth spending so much time and energy on? A young person, who spent the most part of five years cramming math, physics and chemistry and spent little time on other things, would most likely be low on knowledge of the world, on confidence and on attitude. How useful will it be to provide him a top-class education, when his attitude is not in the right place?
Also, its not that if one misses the IIT bus, there is nothing else worth going for in life. Some of the most successful people today in technical fields and in business are not from the IITs. People from rural and lesser colleges have also made it big. Its all within oneself and the environment can only help.
I mentioned earlier that the author is also married to an IITian. And that in itself is an achievement! Because the ratio is so much skewed towards the boys, even to this day, that there are too few girls on campus. The gender ratio has been improving from 40:1 some years ago to today's 24:1, but its still a big problem for the boys in the IITs today! And that is perhaps one reason why, just out of IIT, the graduates struggle to work alongside women and seem completely out of depth when dealing with women. Ofcourse, this also reflects on our society which gives the girls a feeling that there is no need for them to make it big in life as long as they marry well.
Deb also talks about the future of IITs. There is a need for IITs to decrease their dependence on government funding and eventually become economically independent. This is important for two reasons - one, the government funds will be far more useful in primary education and rural education rather than subsidizing higher education for a few hundred elite students; and two, this way the IITs will be free to take their own decisions and be releived from the interference of the babus
of the HRD ministry and the AICTE (All India Council for Technical Education). But one factor the author points out is the reluctance of the IIT professors themselves who are wary to move to a new order. They are not too keen on doing cutting edge research but are satisfied with the teaching role and the salary they earn. This attitude may also be going too far to the extent that they get jealous of their own students who earn more than them, as soon as they graduate. So there is an impression that they try to bring their students down in those four years when they can control them.
So how best to describe the IITians? As "Midnight's Brahmins". This is the suggestion of IITian, commerce minister and a key member of the economic cell of the Congress party, Jairam Ramesh. The IIT was the first educational institute set up by India after its tryst with destiny at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947. And created with the specific purpose of creating a new elite, the new Brahmins, except that they wouldn't be reading the scriptures, they would be technocrats. And also, the IITians have got the respect of society that was historically reserved for the Brahmins in India. But the Brahmins were often accused of not passing on their knowledge for the society's greater good. Are the IITians like the Brahmins in this respect too? The author says no, because of the many IITians who are not necessarily famous but have done so much good work in India across manufacturing companies, in scientific research, in the government, in the social sector and so on.The IITians
is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of modern India and the place of the IITs in today's scheme of things.