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'IIT-ians can do wonders if they want'

Last updated on: December 04, 2006 18:13 IST
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Former IIT-ian Shailesh Gandhi is sure to take you by surprise. His visiting card carries an interesting tag: Mera Bharat Mahan. . . Nahin Hain / Par Yeh Dosh Mera Hain (My India is not great but I am to blame for it). Completely bereft of the IIT tag, Gandhi wears an avuncular look and sports an infectious smile.

The former chairman-cum-managing director of Clear Plastics Ltd and former chairman of the IITB Alumni Association, Gandhi is now a full time Right to Information activist and convenor of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information.

While speaking on the Pan-IIT Global Conference 2006 to Senior Associate Editor (features) Indrani Roy Mitra, Gandhi did not mince his words. It was but natural for a man for whom Right to Information is a mission.


'Inspire, Involve and Transform India.' Can you dwell upon the significance of the theme for this year's Pan-IIT global conference?

When does anyone do anything. . . when one is convinced. On the issue of transforming India, what you generally find -- very few people think about it as an objective at all. This includes every section of society. And for lack of transformation, we don't waste a minute to pass the buck on to the system.

We must remember that to transform we first need to be inspired and involved in a particular cause. Inspiration alone cannot bring about a change. You have to be inspired and at the same time involved in a particular cause-to-effect a revolution.

You listen to a great concert, watch a great play and come out of the auditorium with a contented look. But will that help anyone? No. Unless you take a cue from that particular cultural event and use it to bring about a transformation for the better, then only you are said to be involved in the cause.

The Pan-IIT Conference 2006 will dwell upon this factor -- transformation -- which is supposed to be brought about by the IIT-ians. IIT-ians think they are God's own creation but the acid test is how much they do for India. Without that, their feeling that they contribute anything is meaningless.

And if there are about a lakh of IIT-ians across the world, they can really do wonders. This conference may initiate the important process of change. But the real test of the meet lies in what happens in the post-conference euphoria period.

Many IIT-ians have preferred to go abroad rather than work in India. This trend, it is said, is changing now. Tell us about this reverse brain drain.

With respect to India, it's irrelevant whether you stayed in the country or not. What is relevant is what you did for India. Individuals will always keep going to different places. I don't look at this phenomenon as a brain drain or anything.

Would it matter if IIT-ians stayed in India and sold socks? (Incidentally, many IIT-ians sell soaps). What matters is your contribution towards making India a better place.

For me, it was a very conscious decision to stay here and serve my country. I wanted to be in a country which is mine.

How can India retain its talent?

If we have a better society, we can definitely retain its talent. I asked my US-residing daughter if she wants to come back to India. Her response was in the negative. She said, "Dad, I want to lead an honest, decent life and that's just not possible in India."

I think if we can convince the existing talents of our country that we have a reasonably honest and decent state, we can make them stay in India.

What advice would you give today's IIT-ians who are tomorrow's entrepreneurs?

Although Shiv Khera says, 'Leaders don't do different things, they do things differently,' I disagree with him. I think leaders do different things and differently.

Understanding technology is very important and so is comprehending how to make the best use of it. Money cannot and should not be the only motivating factor. Each IIT-ian should have a vision -- that of creating a better India.

What role can IIT-ians play to develop India as a knowledge economy?

The problem solving training that you can get in IITs is fantastic. Now IIT-ians need to convert it into knowledge that is relevant. I will dwell on the relevant issue constantly. Research into subjects, which are of importance to India is absolutely essential. Often IIT-ians are inspired by a single motive -- that of presenting a paper in the US.

I don't have anything against that only if the paper speaks about certain subject, which has some significance for our country. When this becomes the usual norm, we can be sure of IIT-ians playing a perfect role to develop India as a knowledge economy.

How do the IIT-alumni think of transforming India?
In what ways have the earlier Pan IIT events helped?

There is a potential and there is a promise. Whether we fail or succeed, time alone can tell. These conferences are a systematic approach towards transforming India. Meetings of this kind throw several issues upfront -- that leads to discussions and discussions in turn lead to probable solutions. So, apart from bringing IIT-ians across the globe under one umbrella, such conferences help develop strategy towards making India a better place to live in. 

Will it help if India has more IITs?

Of course. The job will certainly not be a cakewalk but it can be done. Can the alumni build a new IIT? Certainly not. That will be national tragedy. The Indian government must take on its shoulder the task of building institutes of the stature of IITs.

Tell us about the Right to Information Act. What significance is it going to have in transforming India?

This Act empowers people's right to know about the government and governance. The Right to Information is derived from our fundamental right of expression under Article 19 of the Constitution of India. If we do not have information on how our government and public institutions function, we cannot express any informed opinion on it. This has been clearly stated by various Supreme Court judgements since 1977. This Act reaches to every stratum of the society.

Mahatma Gandhi had said: "Real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of capacity to resist authority when abused."

A few did acquire the authority and retained it but the capacity to resist misuse of authority eluded the average citizen of India. Right to Information Act now empowers him to do that. Thanks to RTI Act, the state's response to non-entities and general people goes up considerably.

Remember how Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was thrown out of the first class compartment of a train? Even at that time (a century back) a letter of complaint was replied to and a railway official actually intervened and put him in the compartment. I find that mind-boggling. This is something one can't imagine in India. However, RTI is a great ray of hope in this respect. Because of the RTI Act, an individual citizen becomes the monitor of the government.

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