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How IITs became heart of India’s growth story over past 70 years

Aug 03, 2022

The IITs are key to India’s rise as a knowledge economy. Today, they produce more engineering masters and doctorates than graduates. By some accounts, IIT alumni have the power to influence $10 trillion of the global economy. Hemali Chhapia and Yogita Rao trace the IIT story from its modest beginnings in the 1950s

Classes at the first Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur started 70 years ago, in 1951, but the underlying idea for a top-notch engineering college in India had been floated in British times. Ardeshir Dalal from the Viceroy’s Executive Council put it down in a note foreseeing the future prosperity of India depended on technology. Soon after WW-II, the Nalini Ranjan Sarkar committee recommended setting up technical institutes, in its interim report submitted in 1946.

After Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru pushed for the establishment of the Indian Institutes of Technology, which “would over time provide scientists and technologists of the highest calibre who would engage in research, design and development to help build the nation towards self-reliance in her technological needs.” The first IIT came up in Kharagpur at the site of the Hijli Detention Camp, in 1951.

IIT Kharagpur started classes in 1951 but the Parliament passed the IIT Act only in September 1956 — just in time for the first batch to get their degrees

Cultivating minds

Finding highly qualified engineering teachers was difficult in a country rising up after years of colonial oppression. Padma Shri awardee professor Deepak Phatak recalls: “I was appointed after my masters and faced the wrath of senior peers who said, ‘anpadh log padha rahe hai (illiterates are teaching)’.” Phatak’s not possessing a doctorate rendered him ineligible in their eyes.

In the 1960s, faculty from several foreign universities also taught at the IITs. IIT-K archives speak of professor Harry Huskey of UC Berkeley who stoked interest in computers and took an international workshop on computation in 1964. There is a picture of professor Clay Perry of UCSD on an elephant excursion, as well as photos of the American faculty committee visiting Khajuraho.

Phatak painstakingly completed his PhD while teaching. “There were few PhD holders in the country. Earlier, several faculty members travelled to partner nations to pursue their PhD and returned to teach.” He says the government had to look for foreign partners because “it was soon realised that the setting up (of institutes) was too costly.”

The erstwhile USSR was the first to offer help, and IIT Bombay was set up with its assistance in 1958. The US and Germany helped set up the IITs in Kanpur and Chennai, respectively, in 1959. IIT Delhi, built with British help in 1961, was the last of the first-generation IITs.

Faculty interviews at the IITs tested candidates’ ingenuity. Professor S Narsimhan, among the first batch of teachers to be appointed, was asked: “If an unlimited amount of energy is available at zero cost, can the water problems of this country be solved?”

Today, there are 23 IITs, including second-generation (older than 10 years) and third-generation (from 2015/16) institutes.

From teaching to research

Undergraduate teaching colleges once, the IITs are now deeply into research. More graduates today pursue a master’s on campus, instead of going abroad for higher studies. In 2006, merely 21 of 3,989 graduates flew out.

“Many came back with higher order skills. Even those abroad have connected back with India,” says former IIT-Bombay director Ashok Misra. In 2015, the seven old IIT campuses graduated a total of 6,002 undergraduate students, 6,168 master’s students and 1,902 PhD candidates.

It’s a far cry from the 1980s when politicians lamented the “brain drain” from these institutes to foreign countries, and graduates responded with the wisecrack: “brain drain is better than brain in the drain”.

What’s still lacking on the research front, though, is industry collaboration. “Unfortunately, in India, academic- industry collaboration never picked up. We wrote proposals, went to a ministry, defended them, carried out research and published a paper, but no one applied that research. We were inventing our problem. I categorise all our research as solutions looking for a problem,” says IIT Delhi director V Ramgopal Rao.

Narendra Lal Arora, a local carpenter and faculty member of IIT Kanpur, built the first wind tunnel of India

That could change with the proposed National Research Foundation, which will push ministries to submit their problems and provide funds for related research. Changes in CSR rules also allow industry to invest in the IITs. Internally, the institutes have mooted the idea of an industry fair. Tech parks have been set up on campus and the institutes are moving towards allowing faculty to launch startups. The IITs have also contributed to indigenous technologies for the navy, DRDO and Isro.

Tuition fee up 400 times

The annual undergraduate fee at the IITs used to be Rs 500. It’s been revised only thrice: in 1998, 2008 and 2016. In 2008, the fee was doubled from Rs 25,000 to Rs 50,000; it’s now Rs 2 lakh. But IIT director V Ramgopal Rao says, “Student fees make up only 7% of our revenue; 93% of IIT education is subsidised.”

Bakul Desai from IIT-B’s class of 1982, remembers paying Rs 25 a month as tuition fee and Rs 12 as hostel charges. In those days, students managed the hostel mess, and mess secretary Manohar Parrikar (former defence minister) would source supplies from the Byculla wholesale market to keep costs down, Desai says

No Kota rush for JEE

IIT aspirants today spend 2-4 years being coached to crack the all-important JEE, but in the 1960s most students relied on self-study. Juzer Vasi, professor emeritus at IIT-Bombay, recollects spending a couple of weeks preparing for the 1964 common test. “We just revised our school syllabus and looked up some topics recommended by the IIT.” From being a subjective paper to an objective one, and now a two-level test, the JEE has come a long way.

Slow rise of quotas

In 1972, a committee recommended reservation for SC/ST candidates, and the OBC quota was implemented in 2008 despite opposition from students. Indranil Manna, former IIT-Kanpur director, says the IITs introduced extra seats to keep the ratio between reserved and unreserved seats intact. To implement the 27% OBC quota, they increased intake by 54% in a staggered manner. “It was a tough time for all IITs, as our classrooms, laboratories, and hostels were not large enough to accommodate these numbers,” says Manna.

In the 1970s, women students were rare at the IITs, but that has changed now. Reserving 20% of the additional seats for them has helped increase their numbers

Crorepati placements

The 2000s saw graduates walk out with crore-plus packages. Although only a handful got such offers, they caused quite a stir. Over the years, the placement process at the IITs has also become streamlined. Earlier, companies recruited throughout the year, and there was an imbalance between the profiles and packages offered to students from different institutes. But in the early-2000s they set up the All-IITs Placement Committee and decided to have a common Day One across the board, says Anishya Madan, head, office of career services, IIT-Delhi.

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