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The Best And The Brightest

Near-complete autonomy and a fanatical focus on quality make the IITs the cradle of some of the world's best talent

The Best And The Brightest
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A radical thought, but worth considering. What was Jawaharlal Nehru’s greatest gift to the nation? His economic policies lie discredited, most of the public sector behemoths he created look like elephants thrashing about in quicksand, our democracy struggles with the dynasty he left us with, the Non-Alignment Movement is a joke, his five-year plan system a travesty, and Kashmir festers. So what is the one unimpeachably visionary, unquestionably positive thing that he left us, something for which we should be grateful to him?

A radical thought, but worth considering: Nehru’s greatest gift to his nation was the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs).And the world seems to agree. IITians today head some of the biggest corporations on earth. To name only a few: Rajat Gupta (IIT Delhi) heads the world’s most famous management consultancy, McKinsey & Co; Rono Dutta (Kharagpur) is president of one of the world’s biggest airlines, United Airlines; Dr Arun Netravali (Mumbai) is president of Bell Laboratories, the world’s finest electronic research centre; Vinod Khosla (Delhi) was co-founder of Sun Microsystems and is one of the most powerful men in Silicon Valley; Gururaj Deshpande (Chennai), due to the massive valuation of his start-up Sycamore Networks, is one of the highest-net-worth Indians on the planet. Some of Silicon Valley’s biggest young stars are IITians. When Valley legend Jim Clark (co-founder of Silicon Graphics and Netscape) decided to transform the US healthcare system with Healtheon, he had a simple strategy: recruit as many IITians as he could find.

Back home, supercorporation ITC is headed by Y.C. (Yogi) Deveshwar (Delhi); housing finance giant HDFC has Deepak Satwalekar (Mumbai) as managing director; NIIT, one of India’s most successful young companies, was set up and is run by two IIT Delhi alum ni, Rajendra Singh Pawar and Vijay Thadani. Nandan Nilekani, president and managing director of India’s most admired corporation, Infosys Technologies, is from IIT Mumbai. Arjun Malhotra (Kharagpur) co-founded India’s largest infotech group, HCL, and then went on to set up US software major TechSpan. Reliance Telecom is headed by B.K. Syngal (Kharagpur), Hindustan Aeronautics by C.G. Krishnadas Nair (Chennai). The list is endless. Check any giant global corporation: chances are there’s an IITian among the top 10 people there. Check any successful Indian company: there will be an IITian among the top four executives.

Not since the glory days of Eton-Oxford and Harrow-Cambridge has the world seen the alumni from a bunch of institutions wield such power. So what is it about these engineering schools that IIT is today, in the words of Pavan Nigam, who co-founded Healtheon with Clark, "the biggest Indian brand after the Taj Mahal"?

The truth is: in a country with an abysmal record of primary education, an inefficient and corrupt higher education system, universities that routinely bow before their political masters to admit unworthies and award gold medals to hooligans, we have six centres of unmatched educational excellence. Six engineering schools, in Kharagpur, Kanpur, Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Guwahati, where entry is restricted by arguably the fairest and toughest entrance exams of this level in the world, the Joint Entrance Examinations (JEE). Only about 2 per cent of the more than 200,000 boys and girls who sit for the JEE every year get through. They are The Chosen. Unlike almost any institute of higher learning in the world, the IITs have no quotas based on wealth, power, donations or children of alumni (except for the standard 15 per cent and 7. 5 per cent of seats reserved for scheduled castes and tribes respectively). Entrance is strictly through merit. You may be the prime minister’s son, but you don’t get to be an IITian if you don’t pass the JEE. IIT Kharagpur director Prof Amitabha Ghosh’s own son couldn’t clear the JEE. The director shrugs it off: "I did not bat an eyelid because I knew there was no other way out."

No wonder you never meet an IITian who isn’t intensely proud of his alma mater. Every alumnus unfailingly calls his IIT years "the best years of my life". United Airlines’ Dutta looks back at IIT as "a period of learning, of forming relationships, of emotional growth-it was my own little Camelot". Says Yogesh Gupta (Chennai), executive vice-president of the New York-based Computer Associates: "The best thing about the IITs was that anyone who was there deserved to be there." Adds Infosys’ Nilekani: "My years in IIT have played a seminal role in shaping both my skills and worldview."

How does the IIT system consistently create and nurture excellence? The answer is multifaceted and the reality something India can be truly proud of.

The first-and most important-aspect is of course the JEE, which ruthlessly separates the wheat from the chaff. And then, when the 17- or 18-year-old, fresh from his JEE triumph, arrives at the campus, he is immediately plunged into an atmosphere of great intellectual ferment. He (we use the masculine pronoun because the vast majority of IITians happen to be male) will spend the next four or five years in an intensely competitive cauldron where the only things respected are brains and talent. Students and faculty make no distinction between rich and poor, city slickers and marginal farmers’ sons, caste and creed and religion; the only things that matter are ability, expertise, leadership quality. Says Subrata Sengupta (Kharagpur), dean, University of Michigan-Dearborn, College of Engineering and Computer Science: "The friendships, loyalties and understandings in IIT made national integration a meaningful concept well beyond the slogans of the day."

Appropriately, the first thing a fresh IITian learns is humility. Every boy or girl getting into IIT has been a school topper and quite likely a merit lister in the higher secondary board. But once in, he discovers that there are equally bright, equally hard-working people all around him. "What did I get out of IIT? The realisation that there are lots of people smarter than I am," says Malhotra of TechSpan. "And that you need to go the extra mile to keep up with these folks." "IIT," says Reliance Telecom’s Syngal, "taught me that competition is the name of the game. We were supposed to be India’s creme de la creme-some 350-odd chosen out of 15,000 to 20,000. Therefore, to assume that you were the best was a folly. You had to be better than the best: the instinct to go for the kill, that instinct never to take anything for granted."

But though elite institutions, lifestyles are hardly lavish. There are dozens of engineering schools where hostel rooms are more luxurious, the buildings more impressive, the food much better. Indeed, the IITian leads an almost spartan life. Where IITs splurge is on getting the best equipment and most powerful computers for their labs, not on air-conditioned hostel rooms or marble floors. "IIT Kharagpur was like an ashram," recalls Syngal. "You were far removed from the luxuries of your homes, away from the trappings of city life and the tutelage of parents. After Kharagpur, I could live in a forest or a villa with equal ease. "

Close to the IIT Kharagpur Gymkhana, the hub of extra-curricular activities, scores of young students are clearing campaign posters for the just-completed students’ body elections. Says Manoj, a third year student: "We do the cleaning ourselves. The rules are simple. The names of those candidates whose posters are not cleared up will be struck off the polls." Among the first things IITians are taught is the dignity of labour. Says Gupta of Computer Associates: "At the mechanical engineering workshops, compulsory in the first year, you just file away at a block of iron for six weeks. Book knowledge is fine, but IITs force you to get your hands dirty."

The by-product is a quick subliminal course in responsibility for the 17-year-old. "No one ever forced you to study, but everyone had to," recalls Syngal. "Being responsible was an aspect all of us learnt." You had to, otherwise you were out on your butt. The IITs follow a relative grading system: the grade you get is dependent on how other students fare. "You could get 90 out of 100 and yet get a D because others got more. The prospect was daunting enough to psyche the best students. It pushed you to the limit," recalls Deepak Bhagat (Kanpur), head of product strategy at Sun Microsystems, US. "At Kanpur, you were always running faster and faster to stay ahead. Compared to that, the University of Wisconsin, where I did my MS, was a holiday," says Nigam.

The quality of students is matched by the quality of faculty. "The fairness of the entry for students is well-known. But what is little known is the fairness in the selection of faculty. It is easier to gain admission through the JEE route than to get a teaching job. No other institute has such exacting standards," says M.S. Ananth, dean, academic courses, and professor of chemical engineering at IIT Chennai.

For more proof, listen to Prith Banerjee, President’s Gold Medallist, IIT Kharagpur, 1981, and currently Walter P. Murphy Professor and Chairman, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Northwestern University, Illinois. "When I came to the US as a graduate student with one suitcase of personal belongings, I brought along my lecture notes from my final year classes in Kharagpur. Whenever I struggled with some upper level courses at the University of Illinois, I went back to those notes. I’ve used those notes many times in developing my own lectures when I taught at Illinois and Northwestern." Suhas Patil (Kharagpur), founder of Cirrus Logic and now ceo of Tufan Inc, recalls that when he joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for his MS, his first thoughts were that "IIT professors were actually better than many of the MIT ones". Netravali, who holds arguably the most coveted position in electronic research in the world, admits the three hours of the Electrical Machines exams given by Prof M.S. Kamath "felt like an eternity. It taught me humility".

Add to this combination of high-quality students and faculty the total isolation from Indian politics. There are no strikes, dharnas, protests or holding classes or faculty to ransom. No political party has ever entered the campuses. Says Prof S.C. Sahasrabudhe, officiating director, IIT Mumbai: "We are centrally funded, so local politicians cannot exercise any clout with us. IIT was set up with the backing of very strong people way back in the ‘60s with the highest values and was meant to be an organisation which maintained standards of excellence. They never tried to interfere. Now the tradition is so strong that no one can think of making or asking for concessions and favours. " Each IIT, by virtue of the IIT Act, has an autonomous board with no provision of political or bureaucratic nominees on any major committee. These six engineering schools are perhaps the only truly free and fair centres of learning in India.

But, in the final analysis, IITs are about IITians, India’s best and brightest, brought together to learn from and compete with one another, inside the classroom and outside. "In the end, it’s not about the curriculum, it’s about your fellow students," says Venky Harinarayan (Chennai), co-founder of junglee.com. "The same curriculum and professors, without the students, and you won’t have the IITs. I learned more from my classmates than I did from my profs."

And it’s not just the technical education, comparable with anything available the world over, that makes an IITian. Says Prof B.N. Sreedhar, dean (students affairs), IIT Kharagpur: "The training procedure includes great stress on extra-curricular activities." Says Partha Pratim Chakrabarti, President’s Gold Medallist, IIT Kharagpur, 1985, and now a professor of computer science at his alma mater: "An IIT campus is a unique amalgamation of talents-talents not confined within the boundaries of engineering books or tools. IITs help shape a complete person. You can be anything and everything from a white-collar executive to a maverick filmmaker."

Curricular was interesting. Extra-curricular was really what mattered," says Harinarayan. Indeed, inside the IITs, the greatest peer group respect is reserved for those who excel inside and outside the classroom. Next come those who excel only outside the classroom and then those who specialise in cracking the exams. And even there, few IITians have much respect for the student who does nothing but study all day. It’s brains, not bullwork, and talent, not memory, which get peer respect. Malhotra, winner of the B.C. Roy Gold Medal, awarded by IIT Kharagpur to the graduating student with the best mix of curricular and extra-curricular achievements, recalls that when he reached IIT, he wanted to have fun and enjoy his time. He held a number of student body posts and says his outside-the-classroom activities taught him "how to motivate friends to focus on meeting goals. It was great learning and the basis of my managing people later in life".

"The extra-curricular activities taught us self-confidence, how to handle uncertainty, how to approach complex problems, how to collaborate with other intelligent individuals," says Netravali. "IIT was a fantastic place to develop as an individual." NIIT chairman Pawar feels that it was "a life lived to the fullest. It pushed up my energy levels". Patil of Tufan recalls that even something like an inter-hostel gardening competition was taken so seriously that budgets were passed, botanical books opened up and soil composition discussed. Says "Desh" Deshpande, founder and chairman, Sycamore Networks, and one of the richest Indians alive: "I worked hard but I also learnt that you have to have fun all along the way."

Thus, in the four or five years he spends there, the IITian faces incredible competition, takes phenomenal stress and enjoys himself hugely, all at the same time. Recalls Harinarayan: "The biggest advantage an IIT education gives you is confidence in your abilities. My experience gave me the confidence to dream." Says Purnendu Chatterjee (Kharagpur), president of the New York-based Chatterjee Group: "IIT set the pace and built a foundation for standards. I realised that I have a great deal to accomplish but you must also have fun alongside. " Pawar, who was the general secretary of the students affairs council plus captain of the IIT Delhi hockey team, says: "Today, when I hold 72-hour non-stop workshops at NIIT, it reminds me of my undergrad days. The habit of hard work, discipline and responsibility has carried through to this day."

Says Prof S.G. Dhande of IIT Kanpur: "IIT gives its students the confidence and ability to face new and challenging problems in any sphere-whether in management or technology or finance. This explains why IITians are not just found in technology jobs but heading investment banks, airlines, marketing companies." Companies of every ilk hanker for IITians, simply because they are the best and the brightest, not just for their engineering knowledge.

By the time he leaves his alma mater, the IITian is a tough, cosmopolitan man, supremely confident that he can take on the world and win. He will also remain, for the rest of his life, intensely loyal to his IIT. And loyal IITians today are putting their money where their mouth is. For years, critics have carped about the Indian taxpayer subsidising the education of IITians only to see them take the first flight out to the US of A. Today, they are giving back. In 1992, as part of the economic reforms process, the government cut IIT subsidies dramatically. And the alumni rallied around instantly.

IIT Mumbai’s alumni have already contributed more than $20 million to their alma mater. Silicon Valley tycoon Kanwal Rekhi donated more than $2 million to set up a School for Information Technology. Infosys MD Nilekani has given more than Rs 11 crore. In the US, IIT alumni have set up the IIT Mumbai Heritage Fund. IIT Mumbai hopes to raise Rs 500 crore by 2008, its golden jubilee year. "But the alumni are gung-ho," says Prof Narayana Murthy, dean, resource development, "and think it’s too long a period and hope to do it faster." Expatriate IITians, all those brains that were drained away in the last 30 years, are also back as venture capitalists, angel investors, employers. It’s payback time.

The government’s slashing of subsidies also forced the IITs to focus on other sources of income like industrial consultancy. A perennial criticism of the IITs has been that they lived in a world of their own and their technological expertise did not help Indian industry. All that has changed now. IIT Kharagpur earned Rs 14 crore last year from consultancy. Says Prof B.N. Mitra, dean, sponsored research and industrial consultancy: "We have traditionally worked with a lot of Indian companies. Now the mnc deluge has started. Our current research includes work for companies like at&t, Bell Labs, Motorola, Microsoft, Compaq, GE Caps and Oracle." Indeed, IIT Kharagpur has developed some stunning new technologies in the last few years. In a project sponsored by Goodricke and the Indian Tea Association, IIT scientists have broken the age-old myth that tea, especially the superior variety, can be grown only in hills which attract plentiful rain yet do not retain the water. "We have proved that excellent tea can easily be grown on laterite soil where rainfall averages between 1,100 and 1,200 mm a year," says Prof Mitra. Currently, the institute is working on technologies that can grow tea on vast tracts of fallow land in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.

So in a way, the subsidy cuts have helped unleash new energies within the IIT system. Says Prof Anand Patwardhan, IIT Mumbai alumnus, and currently teaching at its School of Management: "In the ‘70s, IIT was a teaching institution; in the ‘80s, there was a focus on research; and in the ‘90s, the scope was further expanded to include knowledge and wealth creation.

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