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21st century: Best time for an Indian

By Smarak Swain
December 11, 2006 18:46 IST
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Nineteenth century, it is said, was the best time to be a British and 20th century to be an American. No doubt, 21st century is the best period to be an Indian. Never before was the level of confidence in us so high, in spite of the rich heritage and past glories, as it is today.

With budgets at an all time high, capital being pumped in at a dizzying pace by foreign investors, Indian companies reaching out to and buying out iconic business firms and India making a huge presence in every international political equation, there are no doubts that India is the next big superpower.

Gone are the days when India was seen as a country of snake charmers, rope tricks and pompous maharajas; it is now being seen as a country producing entrepreneurs, efficient doctors and IIT-ians.

IIT-ians have, by and large, been the biggest brand in recent times to reach out to the world and herald the coming-of-age of Indians. While pondering over the role of  'the titans' in nation building, we must first ask to ourselves, is the situation in India as rosy as it is painted?

India ranks 126th on human development index (HDI) index prepared by UN this year, has a high incidence of starvation deaths and an ever-increasing number of educated unemployed youth. There hasn't been much improvement in civic facilities and quality of education and research in the country.

IIT-ians can, and have, helped in nation building in many ways. We have set new benchmarks in the fields of technology and management and have made significant contributions to the IT revolution in the country.

The Indian diaspora, led by IITians, have become a huge presence in the world over and have helped in making huge bargains in the country's interests, so much so that both democrats and republicans came out in support of the Indo-US nuclear deal.

However, most of the problems India faces stay unattended to. Hats off to the likes of Shishir Bhaduri who have left lucrative jobs to start NGOs and are working for the downtrodden, to the likes of Arvind Kejriwal who are agitating for a just civil society and to the ones who are investing their money on the education of those who aren't fortunate enough to have the same opportunities as us.

How can IITians help in nation building?

There are multifarious ways in which IIT-ians can help in nation-building, but I would like to discuss on a singular one: IITians' role in providing quality technical education.

India still has to face immense challenges in the field of education, both primary education, secondary education and higher specialised fields of study. In spite of major executive policies on education, opening up primary schools easily accessible to most rural masses, investing generously in higher education and heavily subsidizing such, the fact remains that much remains to be done.

Improvement in primary education to meet the challenge of 100 per cent literacy can be achieved by joint efforts of all citizens but the mantle of improving quality of higher technical education and bringing it to world-class status lies on us - the IIT-ians.

A closer look at IITs and other premier institutes in India will let us know that academics and research are in a bad state in these institutes. Known for their qualities, IITs have a stringent recruitment process for professors and other faculty. Unfortunately, there aren't many post-doctorates in this country with the required qualifications and acumen to guide academic excellence.

As a result there is a huge shortage of faculty member in IITs. Due to this, the student to faculty ratio is unusually high in India. This has prevented good teacher-pupil interaction and led to deterioration of academics.

The recent government policy of increasing student intake to make room for candidates coming by backward caste quota has aggrieved the situation. With this comes the challenge to maintain a reasonable student-faculty ratio without compromising with faculty quality at the same time working out a module to provide special attention to students coming by various quotas so that they attain the same technical skills as merit students do.

Secondly, due to the high ratio, a professor has more academic responsibilities than he should ideally have, thereby compromising the time he can give for research. Thirdly, the quality of research is not at par with research in other countries, because of both low infrastructure and less number of quality faculty.

What are the reasons for this? Many IIT graduates go to top foreign university every year for higher studies and most pursue an academic career after completing studies but very few come back to India. As a matter of fact, their reasons for not coming back are rational.

Indian institutes have low infrastructure and there is low funding for research in India. Besides, a salary of 30,000/month can't attract the best minds of the country.

Besides, the research culture in India isn't the same as in the states. Due to the pressure to perform and low funding, many professors here in India are motivated to publish research papers than to do anything novel.

What's worrying is that this is a dangerous trend. Education is the flagship of any country's development but our country is seeing a reverse trend. How researchers and academicians can be induced to come back is a complex issue.

I remember how Prof. S.Banerjee of IIT Kharagpur, a Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award winner, used to make his students take an oath that they would return to India once their education is over before recommending the students' name for PhD.

At the risk of becoming too preachy, I would like to say that only a noble commitment towards improving research and teaching in India can help in luring our talented alumni back to India. At the same time, various handicaps in the field of research like funding and infrastructure have to be removed through generous funding for research by IITians who head various organisations abroad. The good thing is that India is fast becoming a R&D hub and infrastructural facilities are in fact improving, albeit at a slow pace.

Education is one of the major factors in the economic development of a country. Same is true for India. Creating benchmarks in higher learning is the first step in making India a knowledge economy and who else but IIT-ians can take the initiative in making this happen?

Smarak Swain is Manager (Power systems) Tata Steel.   He graduated in 2006 with in Electrical Engineering from Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.

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