16 June 2012

The IITs, The IITians and Elitism - A Personal Reflection

You dream of belonging to an IIT Campus. A member of that revered band of engineers-in-the-making – each one determined to blaze a trail somewhere in the future.

Thus spake one of the advertisements of Messers Brilliant Tutorials. (I am surprised to find that content of their ads have remained unchanged over past 17 years.)

In any case, there used to be a time in my life when I, like millions of my contemporaries, was fascinated with the IITs. The reverence was to such a degree that I used collect any trivia associated with the IITs – from cultural to academic. Any scrap of information – from achievements of their alumni to hostel ethos to that much-aped IIT jargon – was welcome. I was enamoured by the so-called camaraderie shared by ‘wingmates’ (another of those unique IIT terminology) and institutions like Nair’s tea stall at IIT-Madras. All this went on till such a point that during my own half-hearted preparations for JEE in 11th standard, I was mouthing the glory of IITs more than working on fluid mechanics problems. All this was, of course, before Chetan Bhagat & 3 Idiots came on scene and the Indian middle-class realized that wildlife photography is an equally ‘cool’ career choice. As is the case with most adolescent infatuations, I feel – to put it mildly – stupid when I look back.

Then, came that uneventful summer of 1999 when I wrote (or rather pretended to write) three papers – one each on Physics, Chemistry & Mathematics on a hot and sultry Sunday in May. They say that people who crack the JEE can recall – even after decades – each and every problem they 'struggled' with as seventeen/eighteen year olds. (you see no one has ever, ever ‘breezed’ through the JEE – not even hawa 1. For the uninitiated, Hawa stands for AIR a.k.a. All India Rank.) My only memories are quite hazy because of obvious reasons. But I recall having ‘pretensions’ of being able to solve a stoichiometry problem (those were the days when I knew only one meaning of the word ‘mole’ and it meant a huge, huge number) in the Chemistry paper and some classic wedge and pulley problem in Physics. It is no surprise that my limitations with quantitative skills have haunted me till my late twenties. Another vivid memory from that afternoon is that of an acquaintance from a different school – who I had met at an Inter-School Science Fair and who had got the same JEE test centre and room as mine – wildly gesticulating me to submit the answer sheet and leave the exam hall so that both of us can go around the city instead of wasting our time pretending to crack JEE problems. Such was the farce.

The leak of IIT-JEE papers in 1997 was probably the beginning of mainstream media’s infatuation with IITs and IIMs. 15 years of unabashed hero-worshipping, Businessweek Cover Stories, Thomas Friedman’s Flat World and Pan-IIT meets ensured that Indian mainstream media has a story to report on every time an IITian farts. The Khoslas, The Dhams, The Guptas (even the discredited ones), The Mehtas, The Rekhis, The Nilekanis have entered the popular imagination in a manner which Resnick-Halliday or Igor Irodov never could.

When Brilliant Tutorials say that they are serving the youth of the country and when a once-sleepy town in eastern Rajasthan becomes a phenomenon to reckon with, you know that the madness has only increased – exponentially – from your times and it will take much more than Raju Hirani’s films to set things right. And when our good old sarkar, with an HRD minister who has a penchant (and ignorance) for attempting to police that beast called ‘The Internet’ opens seven new IITs and eight new IIMs (never mind the numbers) instead of focusing on primary education, you wonder whether we are heading towards an academia-coaching industry complex (on the lines of military-industrial complex of the US). Wonder whether Bansals is contributing to Sibal’s election funds. OK. I am just musing.

Rewinding back to 2003 (You see one of the few indulgences of old men is nostalgia). In the final semester of my own engineering course, I attended Techfest (the annual technical festival of IIT-Bombay) – not to present any paper or demonstrate my non-existent skills at robotics – but to experience first-hand how does the congregation of crème de la crème of Indian engineering education look like. One thing which made it easier for me to visit IIT-B was that two of my close friends were doing their final semester project at Media Labs Asia at IIT-B. And what I saw surely impressed the 21 year old me. The infrastructure, the quality of extra-curricular activities, impromptu performances and even the creativity of slogans used for booing people blew us away. Even the food in their mess was light years ahead of the fare which we had been having since past 4 years.

Further down in my journey of beguilement with The IITs, I read Sandipan Deb’s “The IITians” sometime in 2004. The book is extremely well-researched and makes a delightful read – touching upon history of the institution, many now-forgotten men from the initial days of the IITs with a vision of creating a world class institution, darker aspects like ragging and the rat-race for JEE. What makes the book even more interesting is the wealth of anecdotes it offers – both from author’s own experiences and otherwise.

My personal experience with this hallowed tribe has been quite chequered. Most of them came with a chip on their shoulders – supremely arrogant, aloof, having little patience with established systems and procedures and a certain inability to suffer fools i.e. anyone with poorer quantitative skills than theirs. In my first job, there were two gentlemen from IIT-Roorkee who joined with us. (Since they joined the company which I joined, it was quite self-evident that they were not the best of their crop.) I landed with one of them in our first project. The project was pretty badly managed resulting in people putting in unnecessary number of long hours. When the Project Manager once asked our IITian friend to stay back after 8 pm, he refused point blank and walked out of the office. We, the lesser mortals, could only admire his courage and confidence. His friend from Roorkee was even better. He was put in charge of some dull and repetitive sort of job. He suffered for a fortnight and so. Then one day when the things reached their limit, he simply walked up to the project manager and told him, “Hum yeh clerk wala kaam karne ke liye nahi aaye hai” (I haven't come here to do such clerical jobs) and walked out of the office, only to never return. Damn the professional niceties.

Then, there is my good friend A, who attended Roorkee at a time when it was considered more tough to get in than even the remaining 6 IITs, and is an anti-thesis of the IITian stereotype – at least behaviourally.

Finally, there are IITians who took the path less trodden – from Anubrotto ‘Dunu’ Roy to Rahul Banerjee – in an endeavour to make this world a little less violent, a little less ruthless and little better place to live. Some leveraged certain organizational skills learnt at IITs in their social work while some of them admitted that their years at IIT didn’t teach them anything which can be valuable in real life.

I had once heard this statement, second hand, from an IITian – B. Techs are products of IITs, M. Techs are by-products of IITs and Ph. Ds are waste-products of IITs. While this is obviously the ranting of a cocky and swaggering young man, any IITian worth his salt will vouch that the halo, the brand, the exclusivity of the IITs is solely due to their B. Tech. graduates. As critics of IITs will agree, the quality of research and global rankings of IITs is also a telling statement on the post graduates from IITs.


Going back to my first brush with the brand IIT, I think it was in 1993 or 1994 when I visited the IIT – KGP where one of my uncles used to teach. I still remember the hall of the main administrative building with its “Roll of Honour” listing the recipients of Presidents’ Gold Medal for every year dating back to the year of inception of IIT – Kharagpur (1956, I guess).

IIMs are a fish of different kettle. I have plenty of close friends who went there and are doing jobs not immensely different from what I do but those three letters on their CVs open some doors for them much more easily than they will for me – not just today but probably for the rest of our lives. The halo of IIMs has more to do with India’s economic liberalization of past 2 decades than anything else.

In a society where education is often the only means of upward social and cultural mobility, Indian Middle Class’ obsession with education is understandable. As human beings, in general and citizens of a country with pathetic standards of primary and higher education, in particular, the fascination with elitism is equally comprehensible. What is unfathomable to me is this infatuation with an elitism as narrowly defined as in the context of engineering and management education. This biased and lopsided view extends everywhere – from matrimony market to regular daily interactions when the mere mention of a person’s alma mater results in a hushed silence descending on the room. One reason is of course the role which media has played. Another is the fact that apart from some islands of excellence, non-engineering educational institutions in India can’t even be counted as mediocre by world standards – a testimony to an utter systemic failure.

So, it is unfortunate when our dear Mr. Sibal spends more time and energy to fix something which is not yet broken, than in creating world class institutions of higher learning in non-engineering and non-business fields. Jaya Jha makes an interesting case of not diluting the excellence of IITs by doing away with JEE but creating more such avenues of excellence for bright, young people. In any case, most of the students getting into IITs these days have scant interest in engineering – both as a subject of study as well as a profession. Lamentably, our deaf and blind sarkar is hell-bent on screwing up the few things which this country is genuinely proud of.

In the final analysis, what I consider the greatest achievement of IITs, the institution, is the fact that they gave – at least till a decade back – a poor but brilliant student from rural hinterlands an equally good shot at succeeding in life as their city-bred, Doon School attending counterparts. Only thing which mattered is their talent and hard work. I think this particular anecdote from Sandipan Deb’s ‘The IITians’ sums up what I am trying to say here. Deb in his book talks about an IIT KGP alumnus who hailed from an extremely poor family from the hinterlands of Punjab. No one had ever heard of IIT in that part of the country. But this young man was fascinated by ships and wanted to design and build ships. He heard from somewhere that Naval Architecture is taught at IIT KGP. There was no JEE in those days. (We are talking about 1960s here.) He fared very well in his board exams, applied and got an interview call. He went to Delhi to appear for the interview but not having a place to stay in Delhi, he spent the night on a bench outside a dhaba. Back in his village, he instructed the local postman to keep a look-out for any letter bearing the stamp of a lion figure (That ubiquitous lion emblem on all govt. communications). That was the backwardness of the place he came from. He studied Naval Architecture at IIT-KGP, went to the US, designed many ships and vessels and eventually retired as the head honcho of an international maritime organization (I don’t recall the name).

There are numerous such incidences where IITs changed the life of people from extremely humble background. To me, therein lies the power of an institution and meaning of its elitism. Sadly, that is a kind of success which one may no longer be able to associate with IITs anymore with not only the fees being jacked up but the near mandatory need for professional coaching to get in. In a country, where chances of one’s material success are more or less defined by their circumstances of birth, such systems are not only admirable but essential. Sadly, such systems – few and far between – are disappearing with every passing day. IIMs by their very nature and purpose were never concerned about such issues. In this respect, IIMs are more close to Harvards and Yales in building a system which thrives on exclusivity. There are different ways of excluding a certain section of population from entering the hallowed precincts of these institutions. Until 1948, Cambridge used to do this by requiring the knowledge of Classical (Ancient) Greek as a pre-requisite for admission. Knowledge of Greek was a screening device to keep out the less affluent, who attended British state schools, where Greek was less likely to be taught than in private schools. I am not saying that IIMs are as exclusive as Cambridge of 1948 but you get the drift?

In this respect, IITs are definitely different, even today – with question papers in vernacular languages et al. And I hope that they remain so, in the years to come, providing a young woman – with only a passion for projectiles and flying objects but no means to pay the 2 lakh rupees fees for a 2 year course at Kota which will increase her chances of seeking admission into the Aeronautical Engineering course at IIT-Madras – a fair opportunity to make a career out of designing & building rockets. Now, is it really a rocket science to build such a system?

3 comments:

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