December 26, 2008

A Renaissance of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs)

by Kalyan Singhal, University of Baltimore,


Fifty eight years after the first Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) was founded in Kharagpur, the IITs at Chennai, Delhi, Guwahati, Kanpur, Kharagpur, Mumbai, and Roorkee have a lot to be proud of. The IITs are known for dedication of their faculties and for the strong motivation and work ethic of their graduates. Many IIT graduates hold important positions in academia and industry in India and abroad. 60 Minutes, an American TV newsmagazine, focused on undergraduate education at the IITs and hyperbolically described them as "Harvard, MIT, and Princeton" put together, and Business Week ran a cover story on undergraduate education at the IITs. The 50th anniversary of IIT Bombay at Mumbai prompts us to see how well they have met their goals and to discuss the opportunities ahead.


1.1 The Legacy and the Curse of the British Raj: A Descent into Poverty

In 1757, just before the beginning of the British military occupation, India’s shareof world manufacturing was 24.5 percent while the share of Europe and the United States combined was 21.4 percent. India was the world’s largest exporter of manufactured goods, and it had developed advanced crucible steel (wootz), shipping, and textile industries that were developed after decades of experimentation. Half of India’s agriculture output was surplus. Although this prosperous India was not egalitarian with its feudal polity, caste system, and apartheid against the Dalits, there is no evidence of large-scale extreme poverty.

The ecosystem and productivity of India’s land deteriorated because the British did not maintain India’s irrigation networks and imposed land taxes of about 50 percent of the agriculture output, which they collected by force. The popularity of Indian cotton fabrics in Britain, which did not have a textile industry, motivated several simple British inventions – the fly shuttle, the spinning jenny, the water frame, and the mule – that constituted the foundations of Britain’s textile industry and it’s Industrial Revolution. The British exported textiles to India but imposed heavy duties on imported Indian textiles. The decrease in India’s agriculture output and Britain’s protectionist policies caused India’s manufacturing output to fall by 72 percent between 1750 and 1880. The resulting massive poverty was accompanied by intense and pervasive inequalities, poor health, loss of land, unemployment, and labor bondage as people became unable to pay off loans borrowed at high interest rates. In the mid-1800s, when the British started building new infrastructure in India, it was focused on goods the British were exporting. Although some indigenous capitalism developed in India, the resulting economic growth benefited only a small fraction of the population. (See endnote 1.)

This history provides clues to approaches to India’s development. India should pursue a reversal of many of the things that happened during the British Raj. Science and technology have a central role in making this process more effective and in expediting it.

1.2 A New Dawn: The IITs and India’s Destiny

Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of modern India and the creator of the IITs, outlined his vision for India in Discovery of India (1945) and sharpened it further in his “tryst-with-destiny” speech minutes before India became free on August 15, 1947 []:

“We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers itself again. The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. … The ambition of the greatest man of our generation (Mahatma Gandhi) has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over…. The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.”

In leading India into uncharted waters where mistakes would be inevitable, Nehru focused on the long-term economic and spiritual well-being of all Indians. Creation of the IITs, which the Indian parliament declared to be the “Institutes of National Importance,” was a necessary element in this long-term strategy because India needed knowledge in science and technology to build up a “prosperous” nation and to “wipe every tear from every eye”. Nehru made clear the importance of the IITs in his observations at the first convocation of IIT Kharagpur, "Here in the place of that Hijli Detention Camp stands the fine monument of India, representing India's urges, India's future in the making. This picture seems to me symbolical of the changes that are coming to India."

The IITs were created after a committee headed by Nalini Ranjan Sarkar recommended establishing “higher technical institutions” in various parts of India along the lines of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The IITs were to focus on research and postgraduate education that would keep India on the leading edge of knowledge in science and technology for building a prosperous India. Since over 80 percent of India’s population was poor or nearly poor, the only way to build a prosperous India was to raise people’s incomes by using science and technology to improve the products, processes, and infrastructure they used as producers and consumers and to improve their skills and expertise. Building a prosperous India meant raising the incomes of the poor and near poor.


President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, while addressing the first convocation of the second IIT, IIT Bombay at Mumbai, on December 22, 1962, warned both India and the IITs against drifting from their original promise, “The strength of a country is judged not by the number of millionaires it has created, but by the poverty it has eliminated.” And yet, both India and the IITs have drifted away from their original goals.

2.1 Today’s Troubling National Priorities

India’s household-savings rate is 22 percent, its economy has been growing at the annual rate of nine percent, India created billionaires faster than any country in the world in 2007, and the Indian government pays more than 80 percent of the cost of IIT education for the students, who came largely from the top 10 percent income group in India. Furthermore, India can afford to pay oil consumers subsidies of 2,000 billion rupees this year (Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyer, Times of India, 25 May 2008). Yet, the government is spending only 160 billion rupees on its flagship employment guarantee scheme, and according to India’s National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector, 77 per cent of the population lives below or near the poverty line on a meager 20 rupees per day.

2.2 Today’s IITs

The IITs were supposed to lead the nation in R&D by focusing on ways to build a prosperous India by raising the incomes of the poor. And they were supposed to educate PhD students who would lead R&D in India’s industries and serve on the faculties of India’s other technical institutions. The IITs would thus have created a multiplier effect and a culture of innovation throughout the country. Despite the kudos showered on the IITs’ undergraduate education and the ensuing euphoria, none of the IITs rank in the top 100 institutions in the world in research based on any measure, and IIT professors and graduates hold few significant patents in India. MIT’s annual research output dwarfs that of all the IITs combined. Most of India’s public- and private-sector organizations continue to rely on off-the-shelf technologies.

Nor are the IITs graduating enough PhD students to meet the faculty needs of their sister IITs and other engineering colleges and technical institutions, let alone create a national culture of innovation. About 25 percent of the faculty positions in the IITs and 50 percent of the faculty positions in other engineering colleges remain vacant. Several IIT professors reported that they were unable to attract students with high academic credentials for postgraduate work and that those who get their undergraduate degrees from the IITs almost never pursue postgraduate engineering degrees in India.

Had the IITs followed their original mission and had their work raised the productivity of the adults in the 77 percent of the population that are unorganized laborers to even half of the level of the leading industrialized countries with improvements in products, processes, and infrastructure, supported by education and training, India’s gross national product would have increased over ten times. This goal was central to the IITs’ mission of creating a prosperous nation.

Although IIT professors and graduates have improved the economic well-being of the richest 10 percent of Indians and the economy in the United States and Canada, they have had little impact on the rest of India. The exceptions are a few professors and graduates who have pursued individual initiatives and about 200 IIT graduates who have been working with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). (See endnote 2.)

One could argue that the IITs have not realized their promise because the external environment, which continues to serve the elite, did not support the IITs’ goal of focusing on research and building a prosperous India by improving conditions of the poor.

2.3 A Comparison with China’s Elite Universities

Most Indians understandably like to compare China and India because they have almost the same size populations, they were both prosperous around 1750, they both had their economies destroyed during 200 years of dominance of Europe’s military power, and they had the same level of economic development in 1950. Although Nehru started building elite institutions of research and higher education in 1950, China made a similar move only in the 1990s and the Chinese institutions have been moving full speed. In April 2008, Li et al.[] observed,

“Elite universities are the top ten universities in China, which receive the largest education funds from central and local governments. They have priority in selecting students through national entrance exams and have the best faculty and research resources in China. …. High priority is placed on international rankings, taken as publications in international journals, citations, and international cooperation.”

While India’s IITs, in spite of the recognized value of their undergraduate education, have yet to meet their original goals of conducting research and building a prosperous India by raising the incomes of the poor, the Chinese elite universities are racing ahead to match the records of schools like CalTech and MIT in research and to pursue R&D on all fronts to build a strong and prosperous China. China’s poverty rate and infant mortality rate are now less than half of India’s. The two rates are directly correlated, and the infant mortality rate is now universally regarded as the fundamental measure of a nation’s economic well-being.

2.4 A Plan to Pursue the Continuing Promise of the IITs

I argue that the IITs could still become a force to lead India’s social, economic, and technological transformation. I humbly suggest a plan the IITs could follow to pursue this original goal mainly to provide a starting point for debate. First, the IITs should support themselves financially and have full autonomy in selecting directors and making financial and operational decisions. They could then control their own destinies and play major roles in shaping India’s.

Second, the IITs could focus on research and development (R&D) in three interdependent domains: sustainability, partnerships with public and private organizations, and rural areas and slums to improve the economy of the unorganized sector. R&D in rural areas and slums could be pursued in partnership with IIT alumni. The research on sustainability would be valuable to the organized sector and in improvements in villages and slums. The partnerships with companies in the organized sector could lead to innovations in rural areas and slums, and the companies could undertake large-scale commercialization of successful prototypes developed and tested in the field labs in villages and slums.

Third, the IITs could expand postgraduate education, include field training and community engagement in undergraduate education, provide leadership to other technical institutions, and collaborate with other external entities. I respectfully invite you to imagine the possibilities and join the debate.


The IITs might establish a system in which (a) undergraduate students would eventually pay the costs of their education and (b) the government, public and private organizations, and the alumni would support targeted research and postgraduate education. The IITs would treat the costs for IIT undergraduate students as loans and the students would pay a percentage of their incomes until they paid off the loans or until they reached a certain age. The IITs would provide additional loans to students from low-income families who could not afford incidental expenses. The Government of India should willingly approve such an arrangement, grant administrative autonomy to the IITs, and institute a system for their long-term accountability. The autonomy should allow each IIT’s board of governors to select its director and make financial and operational decisions, including replacement of current salary scales with market- and performance-based criteria. The approach I propose could also become a model for higher education in India.


The Western model of economic development has served Western countries well until recently because the Western European countries militarily occupied more than two thirds of the world for about 200 years and consumed the occupied countries’ natural resources and because their citizens emigrated to the Americas and Australia with their unexploited land and abundant resources. Now the Western model of development has become obsolete and threatens the survival of the planet for three reasons:

• With Western Europe’s military occupation ended, the European countries have less control over the rest of the world’s resources;

• With the first mover’s advantage, Western economies have developed rapidly during the last 60 years and are expanding their need for natural resources; and

• 60 years after military occupation ended, the rapidly industrializing countries also need more of the same natural resources.

Clearly, human beings and their economies depend on sustainable supplies of six basic environmental components: air, energy, forest cover, materials, soil, and water, and the supply of all six is threatened. Long before the current debate on sustainability and global warming began, Arnold J. Toynbee in his 12-volume treatise on the rise and fall of civilizations (A Study of History, 1934-1961) concluded that most of the vanished civilizations succumbed to environmental disasters.

Sustainability is far more important for low-income countries than for high-income countries because the later can more readily pay for at least some of the six components. The IITs could conduct research in three interdependent areas: Sustainable supplies of the six basic components, basic and applied research on topics of interest to private and public organizations, and R&D in rural areas and slums to be conducted in collaboration with the IIT alumni. The IITs could also work to integrate the economies of the organized and unorganized sectors so that both could develop sustainably.

4.1 Research on Sustainability

The IITs can become world leaders in research on sustainability. Their work can reduce costs and improve the quality of products, reduce air and water pollution, and give India an economic advantage in the global market for sustainable technologies. The IITs could help India to carve out a more effective path to economic development than that followed by Western countries.

Because of the potential benefits, the Indian government should welcome a national quota on emission instead of opposing it (Times of India, 9 July 2008). The direct benefits to the nation alone justify the quota without considering its impact on global warming.

Air: In spite of its low level of economic development, India has a very high level of air pollution. The IITs could conduct research on ways to simultaneously reduce pollution, recycle wasted by-products, decrease the use of scarce or toxic resources, cut costs, and improve quality. In addition to the direct economic benefits, achieving these goals would also reduce disease, suffering, and health care costs. India is world’s third largest producer of coal, and India’s coal is of poor quality with high ash content. Coal-based power plants pollute air, water, and soil because they emit carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides and generate ash. The result is that tens of millions of people suffer from a variety of ailments, tens to hundreds of thousands of people die prematurely each year, and there are staggering health care and other economic costs.

Energy: India has shortage of commercial energy. About 75 million of its 120 million rural households lack electricity. The amount of energy needed by the rural population for basic needs is small, and appropriate technologies are available but require further R&D to make them operationally and economically viable for rural use. India could leapfrog over the high-income countries by developing new and renewable sources of energy. The alternatives it develops would be useful anywhere.

Materials: The IITs could conduct research on all aspects of material science: creation of new materials and composites, use of new materials, and improvements and new uses for existing materials. Although materials, much like energy, computer chips, and the Internet, are basic drivers of innovation, India continues to depend on other countries for many materials. Admirably, the IITs have initiated work on nanotechnology, but they have yet to fully explore and develop the material resources that are unique to India, are abundant in India, or are renewable. For housing in villages, the IITs could improve such local materials as wood, straw, locally made bricks, and chunam (lime stone) and the technologies for using them. With improvement, some of these materials might become useful in urban building.

Soil, water, and forest cover: Water is necessary in urban and rural areas to meet industrial needs, to support agriculture, and to conserve soil. The IITs could conduct research on rainwater harvesting, collection, storage, and use. With climate change and indiscriminate use, water tables in India are dropping rapidly and are dangerously low in many places. The IITs could improve technologies for building water tanks, storage ponds, reservoirs, and gully plugs to raise the groundwater table. Such technologies would help India to address such calamities as the melting mountain Himalayan glaciers that supply water to major rivers in China and India. Improved water management would also help in planting trees and in better management of forests, and thus facilitating soil conservation. Rainwater harvesting and resulting water percolation in designated forest areas would help in increasing tree density and protect against uneven growth caused by year-to-year variations in rainfall. The resulting increase in the forest cover would reduce occurrences of droughts and floods, and reverse the process of environment degradation that has became progressively worse after 1757. They would also mitigate the effects of global warming.

While India’s entire population must pay the opportunity costs of ignoring sustainable development, low-income families face the greatest risks because they cannot afford to pay for items that become expensive because of scarcity or for items needed to mitigate the effects of poor sustainability, such as air conditioning, health care, and automobiles.

4.2 Partnerships with the Organized Private and Public Sectors

India’s private and public sector organizations can help the IITs’ to create scientific innovations and thus increase the benefits they receive from the IITs. The IITs could develop long-term strategic alliances with organizations that have R&D facilities, for example multinational corporations, Indian companies, the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), nuclear energy plants, and the space program. The IITs can act on many interesting opportunities and needs. For example, India is planning to spend $75 billion dollars in defense acquisitions in the next five years, and DRDO has lost 1,500 scientists to the greener pastures of the corporate world since 2002 (Times of India 13 May 2008).

Most organizations in the private and public sectors, including public works, thermal power generators, railways, and road transportation, which have budgets of trillions of rupees, rely on off-the-shelf technologies, some of which are obsolete. They could recruit a large number of IIT PhD students each year to conduct research and thus modernize these organizations and increase their productivity and value.

Alliances with outside organizations would give professors and postgraduate students opportunities to pursue research on potential applications and provide financial resources for the IITs and their faculties through research grants and consulting opportunities. The IITs could develop clean technologies for plants that currently emit harmful gaseous, liquid or solid waste.

4.3. R&D-Driven Integrated Solutions for the Problems of Rural Areas and Slums: The Rationale

Building a prosperous India by raising the incomes of the poor requires the use of science and technology to improve the products, processes, and infrastructure they use as producers and consumers and increasing their skills and expertise. Almost all of the poor and near poor belong to the unorganized sector, and they work and live in villages or live in slums. India’s villages provide ideal settings in which to create a sustainable model of economic development that can also be replicated throughout the world.

The rural areas and slums need R&D-driven integrated solutions to their problems that would require the entire spectrum of managerial tasks: basic research; commercialization of goods and services; and pursuit of the learning curve for improving processes, products, and the infrastructure. Such integrated solutions would require a zeal for entrepreneurship and a wide range of managerial skills. They should be a shared responsibility of the IITs and IIT alumni. The IIT community is uniquely qualified to work in this area because IIT graduates are among the world’s leading entrepreneurs and have demonstrable managerial skills.

The creation of MIT in 1861 was a landmark in the history of higher education that included such landmarks as ancient Indian universities of Takhashila (6th century BC to 5th century AD) and Nalanda (427 AD – 1197 AD), Oxford (since 1167) and Cambridge (since 1209), and Harvard (since 1636). These landmark institutions were created to meet administrative, economic, and social needs of great economic powers of their time. MIT was created to meet the needs of rapidly industrializing United States in the later part of the 19th century.

MIT’s website [] includes the following statement: “MIT has a long tradition of working on practical problems affecting the society and the economy, and in recent years has become a leader in developing collaborative partnerships with industry. These partnerships and the research activities of our faculty have resulted in the creation of jobs, companies and even new industries, based on new technologies. They are part of this country's innovation system – a loosely coupled alliance of industry, universities, government and labor – that develops new knowledge and technologies, educates a highly skilled work force to apply these new technologies, and produces the next generation of researchers to carry on the process of discovery and development. This system turns out a continuous stream of new products and services, which in turn advance our economy and improve our quality of life.”

Several of the universities such as John Hopkins University, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, and Stanford University are also conducting large-scale collaborative research and entrepreneurship. Even Cambridge, Harvard, and Oxford, MIT’s venerable predecessors and historic leaders in “curiosity-driven research,” are now following MIT’s lead. Harvard has built a multibillion-dollar campus for making itself “a powerhouse in collaborative research and a hotbed of entrepreneurship” (Science, 11 July 2008). The need for field-based research is far greater in India than in the U.S. or Britain because R&D in Indian companies is still in its infancy, the unorganized sector is almost untouched by R&D, and no other Indian university conducts much field research.

The IITs could extend MIT’s “long tradition of working on practical problems affecting the society and the economy”. What the IITs need to do is to include India’s poor and near poor and their economy in defining the society and the economy. Making up nearly 80 percent of the country’s population, the poor and near poor are India’s society and their economy is India’s economy. By including R&D-driven integrated solutions for villages and slums in their mission, the 21st century IITs would make a landmark innovation in the mission of higher education. If the IITs succeed in this mission, they could become models for higher educational institutions everywhere in the world.

Some in the IIT community believe that the villages and slums require only low-level technologies that any company can easily develop. Had the issue been that simple, the free-market economy would have addressed it long ago. The unorganized sector has the greatest potential for growth and for the highest economic returns on the time and money invested. For the people in the unorganized sector, the opportunity echoes Nehru’s observation, “The future beckons to us.” Yet, for the last 60 years, the economy of the organized sector, which is rapidly becoming part of the global economy, has been structurally unable to integrate with the unorganized sector, the economy of 77 percent of the population of the country, beyond treating it as a value-generating appendage necessary for the organized sector’s survival and growth. And the “social, economic and political institutions,” which had a tryst with destiny to “ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman,” are complacent as they neglect 77 percent of the population, 870 million Indian people. We, the IIT community, have the power and the historic opportunity to pursue this initiative and help build a strong India by improving the incomes of the poor. If we do not do it, who will?

4.4 R&D-Driven Integrated Solutions for the Problems of Rural Areas and Slums: A Shared Responsibility of the IIT Community (the IITs and Their Alumni)

Solving the problems of rural areas and urban slums would require a combination of institute labs (home labs) and field labs in villages and slums. The field labs in villages would be similar to the rural extension programs of agriculture universities. The IIT community may want to enlist the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and their alumni to collaborate on this initiative. Once these communities develop a few successful prototypes, the government and the private sector could replicate them throughout the country and persuade other engineering colleges and diploma-granting institutions to help in adapting the prototypes to individual local settings. India’s villages are ideal settings in which to create sustainable models of economic development that can be replicated in the rest of the world.

Home labs: Each IIT could set up a laboratory dedicated to research into improving the infrastructure, products, and services that are used primarily by people near or below the poverty line. The lab would extend the work of the existing labs and draw support from them. It could start by identifying, say, 100 products or infrastructure components widely used by the poor and redesign them to lower their costs and improve their performance. Preferably the workers producing the existing products would produce the redesigned products. The IITs could create entrepreneurship programs to help commercialize the products.

Field labs as extensions of the IITs: Each IIT community could adopt one or more slums and a cluster of villages whose level of economic development is below the national average to use as development laboratories. The IIT community could focus on the following areas in the villages: developing water resources and conserving soil, improving housing and sanitary conditions, improving the tools and processes local workers use and the products local craftsmen make, building community cold storage facilities for small-scale farmers, creating home-based businesses for seasonally employed agriculture workers, building roads, and providing electricity. In urban slums, the IIT community could focus on the following areas: sanitary conditions, housing, water, electricity, and tools and processes used in the slum-based industries. The appendix covers further details on operational issues, student summer projects, the role of the government, and institutional parameters.

Each IIT would choose a few faculty members to direct this initiative, supervising the application of the R&D work done in the IIT labs. These faculty members and the IIT alumni working on the projects would visit the field labs for short periods to work with the fulltime staff, technicians, and students. Each cluster of villages would need facilities to house visiting faculty and alumni, staff members, technicians, and students working on projects.

Guru dakshina and a phenomenal opportunity for the alumni: The alumni would contribute their talents and financial support to the field labs. On several occasions, leaders of the IITs have encouraged IIT alumni to pay guru dakshina (paying the teacher back) to the IITs, and the IIT alumni have responded enthusiastically. In ancient India, the student lived in the gurukul (teacher’s home), the guru provided all of the student’s expenses, and the student later paid dakshina to the guru to compensate him for his opportunity costs. Clearly, the alumni owe most of their guru dakshina to the poor because the money spent on the IITs could have been spent on improving their incomes. This opportunity to improve the lives of the Indian poor should appeal most to those alumni who live far away from India and cannot directly help in improving India’s economic conditions. In supporting this initiative, they can accomplish three goals: maximizing India’s economic growth, paying guru dakshina to the right recipients, and contributing to a noble cause.

4.5 The Relationship among the Three Areas of Research

The research on sustainability would lead to partnerships with companies and integrated solutions to problems in villages and slums. Similarly, partnerships with companies could open opportunities for innovations in rural areas and slums. For example, partnerships with thermal power corporations could lead to new initiatives on electricity for rural areas, and partnerships with public works and state road-transport organizations could facilitate research on infrastructure needs in rural areas and infrastructure development. Furthermore, companies could commercialize successful prototypes developed and tested in the field labs. Or companies’ work in villages could lead to important research on sustainability. In many cases, IITs might seek alliances with companies to collaborate on solving village or slum problems. For example, an IIT might collaborate with a refrigeration company to build prototype cold storage facilities.

The combined annual “overall research expenditures” of six U.S. universities that lead in collaborative research is about five and a half billion dollars (Science, 11 July 2008). However, the potential for the IITs is much greater because in the unorganized sector, which has remained untouched by R&D, they can easily and quickly succeed in innovations on their own or in collaboration with the organized sector.


5.1 Postgraduate Education

As self-supporting institutes with strategic partnerships with private and public organizations and a renewed commitment to provide PhD graduates for India’s industrial and technical institutions, the IITs could pursue their original goal of expanding both masters’ and PhD programs. They would also attract students with good academic credentials and could fully or partially waive loan repayments for those IIT undergraduates who went on to earn PhD or masters’ degrees at an IIT. The IIT’s extensive alliances with entities in private and public sectors could provide support for postgraduate students’ research, and the pursuit of integrated solutions to the problems of villages and slums could provide ideas for new areas of research.

5.2 Admission Criteria for IIT Undergraduate Programs

The IITs have three de facto systems that ensure that they give preference to students from high-income families:

• In spite of scholarships and huge subsidies from the central government, low-income families cannot afford IIT educations.

• In the 1960s, more than 97 percent of the students at the secondary-education level went to public schools, the quality of public-school education was high, and a majority of IIT students came from there. Now most high- and middle-income families send their children to private schools, and as a consequence, the quality of public education, which now serves mainly children from low-income families, has deteriorated. This deterioration has further reduced the chances that low-income students will gain get admission to the IITs.

• Currently the sole criterion for admission to the IITs is the score on a nationally administered test. India has a thriving multibillion-rupee tutorial industry that trains prospective students for the test (Times of India, 3 July 2008) because their training substantially increases students’ chances of admission. The tutorial industry’s annual revenue is greater than the IITs’ combined annual budget of 10 billion rupees. The tutoring is so expensive that most middle income families cannot afford it. As a result, the IITs are increasingly admitting students only from high-income families.

The fact that IIT graduates are succeeding in the job market and in their careers does not prove that those left out because of the three income-based factors would not have performed as well or better. The IITs should examine these issues and try to draw students from all economic backgrounds.

5.3 Engagement with the Society and a Vibrant Learning Environment

The IITs could send their students out into society and the industrial community. The students could gain rich economic, political, social, and technological perspectives on Indian society. They could see firsthand opportunities for innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic growth and learn to be effective engineers, entrepreneurs, managers, public administrators, and researchers. The interaction with the society and the industry would also create a vibrant intellectual environment in the IITs, prompting debate on the issues that are critical to building a modern sustainable India.

As part of the curriculum, each student could conduct in-depth interviews with members of two low-income families about their economic and social well-being; those interviewed would be paid for their time by the IIT. Most of the revenue of the central and state governments comes from indirect taxes for which low-income families pay a higher share of their incomes than high-income families. Students interviewing members of low-income families might come to understand their economies. They constitute about 70 percent of India’s population and, the taxes they pay contribute to the IIT education. Between 1974 and 1976, such an exercise at IIM Bangalore was effective in broadening students’ perspectives on Indian society.

The IITs could then encourage students to speculate about how much less they would pay in income taxes during their lives and how much their eventual employers would benefit from an increase in the low-income group’s income, and thus its tax-paying capacity and buying power. The IITs could encourage them further to imagine how to raise such incomes. They could require students to make presentations in the classroom about these interviews so that they could learn from their fellow students’ experiences. The IITs might even open some of these presentations to the campus community and to the general public.

The IITs’ excellent education is clearly useful in any career, particularly in Western countries. The IITs can now expand their horizons. They could jointly conduct a survey of technologies the unorganized sector uses, familiarize students with these technologies, and improve those that are outdated. The IITs could require year-long internships in industry, government, villages, or slums, giving some financial support to students working in villages and slums. (See endnote 3.)


Rewarding research and attracting new faculty: By raising their own money, the IITs would have the resources they need to attract new faculty and to reward performance in research. With India’s diverse needs, the most effective way to promote research would be to reward all types of excellence in research: publications in reputable international journals, partnerships with the outside organizations, breakthroughs in technology useful in slums or villages, and improvements in technologies used in the unorganized sector to reduce physical effort and improve productivity and wages. (See endnote 4 for more details.)

Other technical institutions and the IIMs: The IITs can lead other engineering colleges and technical institutions in curriculum development, research, partnerships with industrial and other organizations, and pursuit of some of our suggestions. When IIT graduates join the faculties of other engineering and polytechnic colleges, they would take with them a focus on work useful to the Indian economy. They would help to create a national culture of innovation. The IIM graduates are also greatly prized in India and abroad, and many of our proposals could equally apply to the IIMs.

Creating value and strengthening the brand: The IITs could also use their alumni network to contribute to the Indian and global technical communities. For example, they could disseminate knowledge through publications to facilitate the lifelong learning of scientists, engineers, and technologists and thus enhance the IIT brand.


Arnold J. Toynbee in his 12-volume treatise on the rise and fall of civilizations (A Study of History, 1934-1961) concluded that civilizations rose when "creative minorities” devised solutions to reorient an entire society in response to extreme physical or social challenges. India faces extreme physical and social challenges in shaping its future and destiny because, while a small part of India is as developed as any place in the world, the rest of India is years to centuries behind. We, the IIT community, have an opportunity – perhaps an obligation – to become the creative minority that can serve as a catalyst in transforming India.

In this greeting on the 50th anniversary of IIT Bombay at Mumbai, I call on the IITs to pursue leading-edge research in sustainability, to develop partnerships with public and private organizations, to expand their constituency to include the entire Indian economy, to pursue initiatives to speed up the social and economic transformation of India, and to lead the world in sustainable development. The IITs can capture the imaginations of the Indian people and take themselves to new heights.

Once the IITs pursue these initiatives, Nehru’s “social, economic and political institutions” will be motivated to address a number of interrelated areas to “ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman”: agriculture and farm insurance, animal energy, child labor, communication infrastructure, cooking gas and electricity, education and the impact of women’s education on family planning and family welfare, employment, finance, healthcare, local governance, nutrition, population growth (reproductive health, maternal mortality, and child mortality), poverty, and transportation. I plan to discuss these issues in a follow-up work.

In this article, I have humbly proposed just one possible plan that can serve as a starting point for debate. I respectfully invite you to participate.

Acknowledgement: Yash Gupta and Prem Vrat reviewed several versions of this article and helped me to improve the contents and the exposition. Victor Menezes shared his thoughts on autonomy. Rekha Nadkarni pointed out that India must address other important issues such as those listed in the preceding paragraph in conjunction with the IITs’ efforts. Her insights also helped me to improve the section on sustainability. Dinesh Mohan and Suresh Nair offered insights on IIT collaboration with India’s private and public sector. Others who contributed include Pushpa Agrawal, Vijay Agrawal, Uday Apte, Subash Babu, Jitendra Bhatia, Amar Bhide, Srinagesh Gavirneni, Sushil Gupta, Haresh Gurnani, Uday Karmarkar, Dunu Roy, Prahald Das Singhal, Tapan Singhal, Vinod Singhal, Sushil, Vinod Vyasulu, and a number of members of the IIT community who want to remain anonymous.

Kalyan Singhal is a 1967 mechanical engineering graduate of IIT Bombay at Mumbai. He worked as an industrial engineer at Union Carbide in India and served on the faculty of the Indian Institute of Management at Bangalore where he founded the area of production and operations management. He is currently the McCurdy Professor of Technology, Operations, and Supply-Chain Management in the Merrick School of Business, University of Baltimore, and he serves as editor-in-chief of the journal Production and Operations Management, one of the 20 premier business and economics journals Business Week uses to rank full time MBA programs.


A1. Some Ideas on the Action Plan

Development of water resources and soil conservation: In the village field labs, the IIT community could build – and develop improved technologies for building – water tanks, storage ponds, reservoirs, and gully plugs so as to raise the groundwater table. Villagers could then plant trees, increase per-acre yields, and thus increase family incomes. The development of water resources and their impact on soil conservation were the key to the rapid and extraordinary transformation of Sukhomajri, a village in the Ambala district of Haryana, and of Ralegan Siddhi, a village in the Ahmed Nagar district of Maharashtra. These two villages had unusually strong leaders: Parasu Ram Mishra, a soil conservationist, in Sukhomajri and Kisan Baburao (Anna) Hazare, a former army jeep driver turned social activist, in Ralegan Siddhi. Mr. Hazare has, on more than one occasion, taken on the mightiest in the land.

Sanitation, water, and electricity in the slum labs: The IIT community would develop cost-effective solutions to sanitation problems in slums and villages. The Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi dramatically transformed sanitation facilities in a slum of 800,000 people covering 3,240 hectares. The IIT community might have to work municipal administrations and electricity suppliers for adequate supply of water and electricity.

Student projects: Undergraduate students could work for a summer in a village or slum on technical projects to improve the infrastructure or a product. The IITs could then allow the students to spend 10 percent or more of their time in the final year to complete their projects. The IITs could also require postgraduate students to work on such projects. Such projects could lead to masters’ and doctoral theses.

Effective learning via projects: In terms of defining, analyzing, and solving problems, work on a technical project in a slum or a village is no different from work on a computer chip, a jet aircraft, or a complex information system. The projects, however, would broaden the students’ economic and social perspectives. No summer training project in a factory could provide such rich real-world settings where students would have access to all relevant data, be able to explore all the issues related to the project, and be able to pursue a multidisciplinary approach to analysis. Between 1974 and 1976, students at the IIM Bangalore worked on several projects in the city. One team, for example, redesigned the layout of Bangalore’s city market, a large cluster of shops. The students improved the design substantially and in the process, they learned so much about layout design that they could address almost any layout problem in any setting.

Continuous improvements and expansion of the field labs: Once the full set of economic and technological prototypes start functioning in a slum or village cluster, the sponsoring IIT could move on to a project in new slum or cluster of villages while maintaining a presence in the previous community and making continuous improvements based on changes in technology and learning experiences at sites sponsored by other IIT communities. As the IIT moves from one sight to another, it should be able to develop new prototypes with less money and time.

Sharing mechanisms: First, the IIT project participants could create mechanisms for sharing their ongoing experiences. Second, the IIT project participants could record information about life in the village or slum, institutional issues related to the IIT work, details on economic and technological prototypes, and their efforts to create home-based entrepreneurships. They could make these records public. After the IIT participants complete work on the first set of labs, they could help other engineering colleges and technical institutions to conduct similar projects. This would multiply the impact of their work.

A2. Resources and Accountability

Financial incentives: The IITs should expect to pay members of the faculty and staff for the time they devote to projects in the villages and the slums. They would also have to give students stipends according to the time they spend in the villages or slums.

Where to welcome and seek support from the government and the private sector: I suggest the following sources of support: First, where possible the IITs should seek alliances with private sector entities in developing or improving a particular technology. Second, the IITs should take advantage of the Government of India’s 100-day guaranteed employment scheme for the workforce needed for the IIT projects. The central government has extended this scheme to all 596 districts and has budgeted 160 billion rupees for 2008-09. Third, the IITs should welcome any in-kind support from the government or the private sector where donors spend money directly on the field lab without donating money to the IIT. For example, the government or private entities could provide raw materials and pay workers directly for building a prototype road connecting the village to a city.

Where to keep the government out: History suggests that this initiative’s chances of success would drop rapidly if any monetary support came from the central or state governments because the government culture would replace the IIT community’s missionary zeal and professionalism with mercenary and political behavior. In the past, the central government has invested about two trillion rupees on rural development: training rural youth for self-employment, supplying improved tool kits to rural artisans, improving the lives of women and children in rural areas by upgrading skills, training, providing credit, and so forth. These programs have helped a few million people, but these few million constitute a small fraction of those who live near or below the poverty line. N. S. Ramaswamy, India’s National Professor of Management and a former director of IIM Bangalore, concluded that only 15 percent of the two trillion rupees reached the intended beneficiaries. In 2002, B.K Pradhan, P.K. Roy, and M.R. Saluja reported that, in spite of some successes, these programs suffered from leakage, bribery, and corruption at various levels; exclusion of the poor from decision making and from the benefits of programs; and inadequate creation of employment (11 days per year). Most of the money ended up in the pockets of people in the top 10 or 20 percent income group.

Accountability: The IIT community could set up a system of governance that would include a mechanism for audit and accountability.

A3. Institutional Parameters

Those establishing the field lab must understand the formal and informal power structures in slums and villages. The IIT project participants should consult experts on villages and slums before embarking on the initiative.

Many villages have gram sabha (village assembly) and panchayat (village government) created with the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution in 1992. If the villages in the chosen cluster have these institutions, the IIT participants should form benefits from long-term alliances with them to facilitate their work. Recently the central government decided that one man and one woman from each Gram Sabha would be designated climate managers and trained in the "science and art of managing climate change and to enhance their capacity to cope with natural calamities."


Endnote 1

In a working paper, “A Brief Economic History of British India,” K. Singhal and J. Singhal give more details.

Endnote 2

They include such pioneers as the late Anil Agarwal (IIT Kanpur 1968), who founded the Centre for Science and Environment in 1980 and reshaped the national debate on environment-related issues, Vinod Khosla (IIT Delhi 1976), who has helped to raise tens of crores of rupees for microfinance, and Dunu Roy (Anuvrata K. Roy, IIT Mumbai 1967), who founded an NGO, Vidushak Karkhana, at Annupur in the backward Shahdol district of Madhya Pradesh four decades ago to promote social activism and rural development and who now heads a New Delhi NGO, Hazard Centre, that serves the urban disadvantaged.

Endnote 3

For example, the IITs could waive, say, a fourth of the student’s loan for those who work in villages and slums. Such incentives might not be required after a few years as students realized that the rich and multidimensional experience they obtained in villages and slums would be far more useful in their future employment in industry than internship experience in industry itself.

Endnote 4

The IITs could base incentives for the faculty on predetermined criteria and make the administration of those criteria transparent. Initially, one central committee for all IITs could administer them to ensure uniformity, refining the criteria over time in preparation for eventual transition to decentralized administration by the individual IITs.

Initially, the incentives could be in the form of annual cash awards that could amount to as much as the annual salary of the recipient. This would bring the participating faculty members’ total income close to the international level in terms of purchasing power. Once a majority of IIT professors are receiving substantial awards, their salaries could be increased and the awards given in the form of annual salary increases. The opportunities for greater income and participation in challenging initiatives should attract diverse professors with good credentials.

The committee could use different sets of criteria and mechanisms depending on the type of contribution. For publications in leading journals and patents, the committee could follow international norms.

The IITs could create a premier research journal that would cover topics the existing leading journals generally do not cover, such as sustainability and science and technology in slums and villages. Such a journal would quickly becoming a leading journal in science and engineering because it would cover issues crucial to about one third of the world economy and useful to the remaining two third.

The IITs could motivate professors and staff members who work in the villages and slums by obtaining government funding for time-based additional salaries and alumni funding for performance-based financial rewards.

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