It’s been over forty years since I graduated B.Tech. (Met) from IIT Bombay in 1974. I still remember cycling on the old rickety hand-me-down cycle from H7 to the cycle stand near Y-Point, locking the bike (as though anyone would like to steal it) and then coming out to wait for the ever-elusive bus to Vikhroli station.
IIT was located in the second biggest metropolis and the commercial capital of our country, but in our campus we may as well have been in Timbuktu considering the facilities, connectivity, and interaction with the city. We had a pay-phone in our hostel which would at best work for about ten days in the month, and those ten days there was a queue to make the rare call with a one rupee coin. And that also was the privilege of the selected few who had family or friend in Bombay, as outstation calls were not possible.
Yet IIT Bombay produced innumerable super-achievers who went on to win laurels, contribute in many ways to the world, country and society. They often overtook their counterparts from the prestigious Harvard, Stanford and MIT (Massachusetts, not Manipal) and made inroads into fields as diverse as administration, banking, marketing, HR, etc., and of course some in technology too.
I do not recollect very many classmates being from Mumbai, or even from the entire Maharashtra state. We had a healthy mix of students from every part of the country, and of course some very interesting ones from countries like Jordan and Tonga. It was a melting pot of sorts, and so was the teaching staff – from Russians to Bengalis, South Indians (‘Madrasis’ to all of us) to Punjabis, they were all there. And it made no difference to us what caste or creed they belonged to. Similarly, I do not recollect any employee of IIT who was from Powai or its vicinity. The entire area outside the gates was as rustic as it probably was before IIT stepped in – one small Udipi restaurant ‘Ramakrishna Refreshments’ (RK in our lingo), a couple of cycle and puncture repair shops, not even a shelter for our two bus stops at main gate and Y Point.
It was a melting pot of sorts, and so was the teaching staff – from Russians to Bengalis, South Indians (‘Madrasis’ to all of us) to Punjabis, they were all there.
Karnataka has been allotted an IIT, and politicians are falling over each other trying to get it into their constituency, as though all youngsters in their region will become IITians, or that hundreds of their poor will get employed. Considering the above factors, I wonder why there is so much debate about which part of Karnataka the latest IIT should be located.
To set at rest the vigorous lobbying, let us get a few facts straight. An IIT, regardless of where it is located, admits students on an all-India basis. Hence ideally the new IIT should be located away from all major cities, preferably in a calm and serene location, connected by a good road to a railhead which is less than an hour or two away. There is no need for the institution to be near an international airport. It will help if the area has some tourist interest though.
When the land is allotted, there should be a 10-12 year plan before undergraduate classes start. Tree planting and water harvesting schemes should first begin. An artificial lake should be created and fed through rainwater. Road to the nearest station should be improved and a regular bus service should be started.
An IIT, regardless of where it is located, admits students on an all-India basis.
If 25 to 50 acres could be acquired opposite the campus, the government could set up a tourist holiday resort, which can also act as a guest house for the institution. If an ITI or polytechnic can be established, it will be a feeder for the technicians who will be required in the coming years, and degree students will get an exposure to the practical side.
The next step would be to start building small but comfortable and picturesque bungalows for the teaching and non-teaching staff. A Kendriya Vidyalaya can be established, initially admitting all students from the vicinity, and gradually moving on to providing education on priority to children of IIT staff.
At this stage one hostel could be constructed, and periodic workshops and short-term training programs could begin, with professors being invited to come with family and stay in the resort. An exclusive air-conditioned shuttle service could connect participants to the railway or bus station nearby. Taking things forward at this stage, a few shops selling basic essentials, some sports facilities, summer camps for students from any part of the country, and trekking activities could commence.
During this phase, more than airport connections, the campus should have excellent wi-fi connectivity and good maintenance of all hardware. An industrial estate can also be set up nearby to cater to the needs of the institution and also give direct exposure to students who could do internships in the small industries. Please note that investment in all the above can be recovered in a few years since they will be generating their own revenue.
There is much talk about industry-interface, and that the institute should be located at a place where IT companies, MNCs, etc. are located. I beg to differ. Students will have ample time to interact with industry if they graduate with a good foundation. What they need is interaction with the common man, the rural sector. If they can be encouraged to go out to neighbouring villages on weekends, they will learn a great deal about life, and their attitude will be much more positive. In our days there was hardly any industry interface, and no campus recruitment, but I don’t believe we were any poorer because of that.
Also, IITs should not be reduced to IIITs (i.e. Indian Institutes of Information Technology), and they should encourage all branches of engineering which may in fact grow and become more popular in the years to come.
A long term plan could be to have a small runway or helipad so that when the institute starts generating sufficient funds, a small aircraft or helicopter can connect residents to the nearest airport.
All the above can become reality only if we understand that IITs are primarily meant for good fundamental education in all areas of technology, and that industry-interface or incubation of start-ups is only secondary, which a student can go to the city and acquire after getting a strong and relevant education. Also, IITs should not be reduced to IIITs (i.e. Indian Institutes of Information Technology), and they should encourage all branches of engineering which may in fact grow and become more popular in the years to come. Many branches of engineering have seen their ups and downs in demand, whereas an IIT should cater to the needs of the nation for at least half a century or more.
If there is no distraction of city life, both teachers and students will spend all their time in the campus, interact closely, build better relationships, participate in meaningful extra-curricular activities, and go back into the urban world having not only learnt their subject, but also having become mature, balanced and focused human beings.