Some time back, when I heard that Shashi Tharoor was a candidate for UN Secretary General, I took great pride in the fact that a compatriot of mine had risen to a level where he was being considered for the post. I had neither read his books nor seen the impact of his work, but over the years formed an impression of him that could best be characterized by two parameters: erudition and achievement (and I may be right on both counts). However, I had by extension, also attributed to him additional qualities that should be natural corollaries, such as a keen and sharp mind (that wouldn't easily be fooled by clever sophistry), deep insights into the Indian socio-economic context, and above all the wisdom of a philosopher. In short, I used to think he was an intellectual and I was favorably disposed to accept his views, generally speaking. (Not his fault, really, that I developed this image of him - mea culpa.) And so, when I read his recent article "Looking to the future with Brand IIT" this last New Year's eve in the Times, it was an eye-opener. Check it out: http://www.shashitharoor.com/articles/timesofindia31dec06.html
His article is based on his address to a gathering of IIT alumni from the all over the world at the recent PanIIT 2006 global meet (http://www.paniit2006.org/). Either he felt obliged to say nice things to please his hosts, or he genuinely believes that the IITs are doing a great job. If he felt obliged but didn't have too many nice things to say, he ought to have declined the invitation altogether. But he didn't do that - he came, he talked and he submitted. This is a case of diplomacy over substance if not form over substance. It is one thing to believe that the IITs are doing a great job simply because it is generally believed by all to be true. It is altogether another thing to have dug out facts and figures, thought it through and placed it all together and then to assert firmly and with conviction that they are. And then go beyond that and assert that they hold a lot of promise for India's future. Mr Tharoor has done the latter, which in my opinion is inexcusably foolish for a man of his stature and station. According to me, the IITs have failed to deliver and it is not at all difficult to see why and how.
Let me step back for just one moment, to present the background to my own assertion that the IITs have failed. This is not directly connected with Mr Tharoor and his views, but more of a quick recap of the genesis of the IITs and their original raison d'être. Back in those days, Nehru and his team had a vision of India as a self-sufficient economy. The key to real freedom, they realized, was economic independence, and this could only come about if we were self-reliant as a nation. I have no quarrel with this thesis, in very broad and general terms. Some highlights of this school of thought include the "non-aligned" policy, "mixed economics" (our own brand of socialism), etc., all of which, incidentally, I am certain that Mr Tharoor has studied in far more detail than I have (he's written books about it). The establishment of the IITs needs to be seen in this context: they were created so that India could build our own cadre of engineers who should engage in the noble task of nation building, thus making us self-reliant through not only indigenous technological development but also development of indigenous technologies. These institutions were funded partly through international aid (initially) and on a more sustained basis by Indian tax payers - it seemed logical that tax payers should pay towards building a bigger brighter better India, a stronger India, a richer India. And all this, by achieving self-reliance - particularly in technology, which was clearly the weapon of the future: not mastered, it would threaten India for ever, through the prospect of economic and/or military domination by technologically superior foreign powers.
However over the years, this vision has blurred, become foggy and vanished altogether. Perhaps it is obsolete? In that case we must change it and have the right vision in place for the IITs. Perhaps it is still relevant? In that case we must ensure that everything we do continues to be aligned with it. Alas, we seem to be doing neither. Again, this is Failure. The first failure of the IITs was that of not meeting the objectives they were set up for. The second, of not recognizing and correcting the first failure. And Mr Tharoor's failure? Of missing both! Or perhaps, like I said earlier, he was being the eternal diplomat or the natural yea-sayer (see my post "What part of No don't you understand?" in the archives of this blog), conveniently brushing the bad news under the carpet.
Consider an analysis along the following lines. To keep it simple, let me select one area - let's say, Civil Engineering. First take the Life-To-Date number of IIT graduates in Civil Engineering - the grand total number of Civil Engineers which all the IITs put together have ever produced. Of these, let x be the number of Civil Engineers who, after graduating from an IIT, have continued to live in India to work as Civil Engineers. Let y be the number of Civil Engineers who, after graduation, have continued to live in India, but did not / do not work as Civil Engineers. And lastly, let z be the number of Civil Engineering graduates who left India for greener pastures in foreign lands (of this number there could be three components: z1 - those who are still overseas, z2 - those who have returned to India but are not working here as Civil Engineers, and z3 - those who have returned to India and work here as Civil Engineers). I am willing to bet that of all these numbers, x would be far lower than y which would be far lower than z, to the extent that z would come close to equaling the sum of x and y. Further, I would wager that z3 would be lower than z2, which would be lower than z1, and that z1 would be greater than or equal to z2 plus z3. If instead of Life-to-Date one were to take a base of the last, say, 20 years, the results would be even more skewed in favour of the point I am trying to make. Which means the deviation of the outcome from the intent is even more in the last few years. From another perspective, there could be departments where the trend is more pronounced one way or another. However, my point is not about departments; it is about the institution as a whole. If someone has actual real data on this, I would LOVE to see it. I would also LOVE to be proved wrong about this. Quite simply put, the IITs have been contributing more to the technological and economic progress of other countries (such as the US, for which they have been formally recognized - read on) than to India. This is like a poor man who sets out to cook food for himself but because he is such a good cook, ends up cooking for the rich man, only to be left with a few crumbs for himself. If it happens once, it's happenstance, and if it happens twice it's coincidence. But to allow this to happen on a sustained basis, over several years, without doing anything about it and in fact not even recognizing it is as a problem, is downright foolish. And it is outrageously foolish on the part of the poor man's friend, to compliment such behavior with a pat on the back for earning the beneficence and goodwill of the rich man while starving himself to death, almost.
Apparently an IIT alumnus is writing a book on 101 IITians who've made it big, globally. Why doesn't someone make a list of 101 IITians who've made it big in India? A few years ago, someone mailed me a copy of House Resolution 227 of the 1st session of the 109th Congress of the United States of Amercia, which formally acknowledged the role of IITians in building a more robust US economy. Why has nothing like that happened here? We can put it down to the apathy of Indian administrators / bureaucrats / politicians etc. (as we usually do in the case of Indians who become stars abroad and get no recognition at home). But hey .. could the problem be somewhere else? Could it be that someone compiling a list of 101 great IITians who have contributed to the Indian economy may not find more than a dozen or so entries of merit? Could it be that the Indian govt. has not formally recognised the contribution of IITians simply because there hasnt been anything significant that IITians have done for the Indian economy?
Mr Tharoor's point seems to be that IITians have spread their wings, gone all over the world and achieved a lot, and in doing so have acted as brand ambassadors for India. But I ask: was that what the IITs were set-up for - to create brand ambassadors? Here's something Mr Tharoor says in his article: "Nehru's establishment of the IITs (and the spur they provided to other institutions like Birla Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management) have produced many of the finest minds in America's Silicon Valley and Fortune-1000 Corporations." Tell me again, Mr Tharoor, was this Nehru's vision? To create institutions that feed Silicon Valley and Fortune 1000 Corporations? Was that the idea? No, my dear sir - it's a myth. Worse still, a con. I am disappointed that someone like you cannot see it. Someone like you, who is best placed to call the bluff; to let everyone know the truth about the Emperor's new clothes.