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A few awkward questions

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January 23, 2004 09:23 IST

Murli Manohar Joshi got the whole establishment in a tizzy by making a couple of assertions: one, that the IITs were not providing as much value to the country as they should be, two, that other engineering institutions like Roorkee (recently elevated to IIT status) were providing more return on investment and producing more research output.

I fully applaud Joshi for raising these questions: after all, as the person paying the bills, he should ask difficult questions. His definition of what constitutes return on investment may be debatable, but, to paraphrase Voltaire, I may not agree with what Joshi insinuates, but I would defend to the death his right to ask awkward questions. Let there be no sacred cows. Let the iconoclast challenge the status quo. Let the Emperor's New Clothes be exposed as humbug.

Debate: Is the quality of IITs questionable? Tell us!

Unfortunately, the regressive fundamentalists in India (those who, in typical Orwellian fashion, refer to themselves as 'secular' 'progressives') hate iconoclasm when it is directed at their own little tin gods. My own tentative attempts to slay the Nehruvian shibboleth, as some of you have noticed, have attracted substantial spleen-venting (not to mention logical fallacies) from them.

Joshi's question is only fair. The truth is that the IITs too are beginning to age as institutions. One of the reasons they have stood out as an island of excellence in an ocean of Nehruvian Stalinist mediocrity is that they have had that most precious resource for an academic institution, freedom from political interference. Thus they were able to thrive and produce good alumni, who also happen to be fiercely loyal, as well as (to an extent) willing to put their money where their mouth is by creating endowments.

What is the return from the IITs? It is true that large numbers of graduates leave the country; but there is a non trivial number of them returning these days. What about the investments they have themselves made in India? What about the investments they have persuaded their employers to make in India? Is the enormous value of the brand reducible to monetary terms? Is Brand IIT worth a billion dollars?

I think people seriously underestimate the value of marketing and branding. For instance, the Blessed M Teresa circus and the resultant publicity created a billion dollars worth of positive publicity for the Vatican, while conversely creating ten billion dollars worth of negative publicity for India and in particular Calcutta, portraying both as hopeless pits.

Compared to that, the CBS video on the IITs, and the character Asok in Dilbert have now created an impression of IITs as among the best universities on the planet. This has a halo effect on Brand India in general: even Peter Drucker now talks about the 'Institute of Technology in Bangalore' [sic] as being world class. In other words, the IITs have entered the American lexicon, roughly on par with MIT, Stanford, Berkeley and Caltech.

On balance, then, the IITs have produced a good return on investment in my opinion. 

But is the IIT model the only, and best, model for advanced education? Probably not. This is why I say the IIT model is aging. It is a fact that the IITs have not really kept up with the times. For instance, why are they still producing roughly the same proportions of engineers in various disciplines as they did in the early days? The market has moved on substantially. To some extent the IITs have kept pace, for example with computer science programs and some management programs.

But as far as I know, not a single IIT has a well regarded program in any of the great new frontiers of technology, in particular in biotechnology. Nor in nanotechnology, in new power technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells, in any cutting edge area, really. Why is this? One reason is that they are insulated from the market, as they are guaranteed a Rs 75 crore grant from the government every year.

I think this model may be obsolete. There could be new institutions that are more market oriented, which charge market rates, which are essentially for profit, private entities that have relatively little by way of social considerations: the model followed by the great private American universities. Of course, the government can divert research grants to them. Can the IITs mutate into this? Perhaps, but I doubt it: they are doing an excellent job right now churning out good engineers; so let them continue.

But let licenses be given to entrepreneurs to invest in private universities. For it is quite possible that as in the days of Nalanda, Taxila and Vikramashila, India will once again become a center for educational services, attracting many overseas students and thereby beginning to recreate the 'Greater India' of old: the cultural hinterland of India that once spread all over Southeast Asia and parts of Central Asia as well as Tibet.

So I think it's appropriate to use Joshi's tough question as an opportunity for soul searching: what should be the Indian government's role in high end education? Should the IITs be privatized? Should new centers of excellence be created in greenfield fashion? Instead of abusing Joshi, I wish educators and lay people would consider India's future educational needs.

Another interesting question this week has been: 'What does this WSF circus actually mean?' Their antics in Mumbai were mostly notable for the reported rape of a South African woman delegate by a South African male delegate.

I thought this was a singularly appropriate metaphor for the paradigms India's Old Left espouse: for here was an oppressed subaltern (a woman) allegedly raped by a powerbroker (a male judge).

The Old Left specializes in screwing the poor. One of their paradigms is that poverty has to exist, otherwise there is no reason for their existence; therefore they do everything in their power to make sure poverty does not disappear.

The water summit being held in Plachimada, Kerala, the site of an undesirable Coke plant, is considering the politics of water. But the Old Left has a problem with the Coke plant: for it was the Marxist government in Kerala that brought in the Coke plant! How dare one question the wisdom of the Politburo? After all, their Chinese handlers themselves must have approved it. Question this? Blasphemy!

Furthermore, there have been interesting allegations in Kerala in the recent past. It is claimed the CIA succeeded in infiltrating the CPI (Marxist) and buying a few of their major 'intellectuals.' Therefore, some of the lauded 'people friendly' programs by the Marxist government were in fact funded by the CIA! Clearly, money talks: the greenback still appeals to the Reds.

The only visitors of interest to the WSF, in my opinion, were Nawaz Khan and Ghulam Abbas from the Balawaristan National Front. Balawaristan is Pakistan occupied Gilgit/Baltistan in northern Jammu and Kashmir. Since these people are oppressed under the heel of Pakistani Punjabis, their views would have been most instructive to all those currently wallowing in Hindi Paki bhai bhai nonsense. Balawaristan is the shape of Kashmir if India caves into Pakistani demands. But of course, not a single Indian journalist bothered to talk to Khan and Abbas.

If the only lasting impression this forum created is based on the rape of one of their delegates, wouldn't we all be better off if they just canned this spectacle hereafter? For once, the lurid Indian English language media coverage hit the Old Left where it hurts, below the belt. They should enjoy what they have been handing out to everyone else.

Another question well worth asking, which the Old Left dominated media did not ask, is 'What happened in Jhabua?' The facts seem to be as follows: a nine-year-old girl named Sujatha was raped and murdered inside a Christian-run school. Following this, enraged locals attacked the establishment. The reports I read implied that this was part of an ongoing pattern of attacks on Christians in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh.

That's it. End of story. No breastbeating, no calls for investigation, no queries from the US Center for Religious Freedom. Why? I deduce from this that the dead girl was a Hindu, and therefore nobody cares. Where are John Dayal, Sajan George, Cedric Prakash, Valson Thampu, Vishal Mangalwadi, and all the other Christian apologists? Why aren't they investigating why a child was raped and murdered in a nunnery? Many Christian fanatics claimed religious persecution when some nuns were raped in Jhabua a few years ago, but kept very quiet when it turned out that the rapists were Christians .

Rapes and murders take place often in nunneries: the Vatican itself admitted a couple of years ago that rapes and impregnations of nuns by priests, missionaries and other godmen was not uncommon. Rather in keeping with the propensity for child molestation, I suppose. But these cases are swept under the carpet with the connivance of the media.

The odd case of abuse of nuns does gets attention, for instance the Sister Abhaya case in Kerala , where the nun was found drowned in the nunnery well in 1992. The verdict was 'suicide', but the investigating CBI officer resigned from service protesting against being forced to term it 'suicide' when it was clearly 'murder'. The culprits got away.

Should we all collectively let little Sujatha be forgotten, raped and murdered? Has she no human rights?

Rajeev Srinivasan