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Promises kept and not kept

Book>> An Eye for Excellence 50 Innovative Years of IIT Kanpur Harper Collins, Delhi Price Rs 495

By Vivek Kumar
Published: Tuesday 31 March 2009

Leslie Stahl the co-host of 60 minutes, a popular programme on American TV network CBS, once said, "Put Harvard, MIT and Princeton together and you get the status of IITs in India". Stahl was speaking at a time when iit alumni were behind numerous start-ups in Silicon Valley. The global recession might have taken away some sheen off that adulation, but students of India's premier technology institutes have rarely had it bad.

But as these institutes commemorate 50 years, we must ask if they have kept their promise? In The Pursuit of Excellence, 50 Innovative Years of iit Kanpur E C Subbarao tries to answer this question. But his, in most part, is also a voice of adulation. "A broad base of science and humanities and social sciences...a grading system, student representation in academic governance led to the blossoming of talents," he writes.

The book even has a chapter on the success stories of iit Kanpur. Little biographies of the mathematician Maninder Agarwal, former Reserve Bank of India governor, Duvvuri Subba Rao, environmentalist Anil Agarwal, entrepreneur N R Narayana Murthy and public servant Satyendra Dubey highlight the versatility of the institute's students. But Subbarao does note that many iit Kanpur students go abroad or take up jobs unrelated to their training. Probably the strongest reason is that the post graduate programmes at iits are not at the same level as the undergraduate ones.

There has been no shortage of suggestions for discouraging migration of iit students to the west. There are many who have called for an "exit tax" on students who pass out from iit--as well as other prestigious institutions--only to take up jobs abroad. Subbarao does consider the proposal to ask them to serve time in rural areas, but finds them against democratic principles.

He instead focuses on the positive side of the story, pinning his hopes on those who went abroad but returned soon after receiving their degrees or after a short stint of post-doctoral or other work experience. According to him, the percentage of iit Kanpur faculty who received at least one of their degrees from the institute is approaching 50 per cent in some departments. Another interesting list, for instance, is that of head honchos who have made it from iit Kanpur.

Down to Earth Subbarao is at his best when writing about iit Kanpur's early days. He was amongst the institution's early dons Subbarao joined iit Kanpur in 1963 and remained on the faculty till 1981. Those were challenging times. Drumming up support from multiple sources--government, private, public sector, international--was an essential but a totally new ball game for a new faculty. We share the author's thrill as he describes how a visiting scholar from the US, Charles Dryden, gave the institution's chemical engineering programme a strong academic foundation. We learn how Vijay Stokes, a young PhD from Benaras Hindu University, took up a course on graphics that nobody wanted to teach. We join young engineering students learning the rudiments of computers on behemoths procured from ibm. We partake in the exhilaration of the institute's director as he goes about guiding the deans.

But what about the despairing canteen chatter? What about frustrations expressed in the backstreets? What about the five students who committed suicide in the last three years?

Vivek Kumar was an iit Kanpur alumni

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