February 17, 2020
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'IITians Are Big Fools'

No, it wasn't a frustrated or failed aspirant but a former IITian who said this last week at a lecture, while addressing a crowd of nearly a thousand IITians.

'IITians Are Big Fools'

No, it wasn't a frustrated or failed aspirant but a former IITian who said this last week at a lecture while addressing a crowd of nearly a thousand IITians and other college students during the annual Techfest at Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IITB). But coming from Dunu Roy, who, unlike his colleagues and peers, decided to pursue grassroot integration of technology with local and practical requirements, it shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone who has followed this IITian's career.

But for a first-timer, the 90-minute talk and the subsequent Q&A could well have been an eye-opener. Provoking his audience by calling them "big fools" who know nothing about India and its village life, Roy said the IITians are victims of the politics of education and science. He added that the first lesson he learnt was that technologists and engineers are under an illusion that they get to take the decisions. That was not all. He went on to say that environmental dynamics aren’t understood by engineers who seem to specialise in solving one problem to create another one, thereby creating a "sustainability for the engineering profession—and not for the people".

"How many of you will end up working for the Haliburtons and Microsofts of the world?" he asked. And then proceeded to answer by pointing out that many of the students would do so because "Indian technical education is geared to meet global demands". The collapse of the US education system has led to a shortage of scientists and technologists, he said, which is why the courses they [the  IITians] are learning are required for the US". Since Indian engineers are also cheaper than the American counterparts, "it made good sense for the Indian government to promote technical education so that you can provide cheap service to the US." Therefore, he suggested, the curriculum has changed. Earlier, he pointed out, IITs had a more integrated approach and also taught humanities, ethics and logic. But these subjects were removed in order to hasten the production of ‘unreal’ technologists. 

The original vision to set up IITs stemmed from the independence movement. The Indian leaders at that time realised "the need to have trained scientists and technologists" who could provide equal rights to food, shelter, education and work to the people. The idea was to take the "best from universal education, invest in pockets like IITs (so that) they would return their expertise to the common pool of the country."  Which is why the money to fund the IITs comes from the exchequer, he pointed out.

And then came perhaps the most thought-provoking part of the lecture. Referring to the hyped-up success stories of IITians —he cited the example of Kanwal Rekhi, a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist— who have earned millions of dollars, Roy posited that while the ostensible aim of education is to teach us about success, most of our learnings  comes from analysing and understanding failures. For every one IITian who makes money, there are 10 others who don't. And no one talks about the thousands of IITians who stay back and work for the country despite encountering victimisation by domestic politics of science and technology. Urging the young students to ask questions, and not just be receivers of "wisdom", Roy asked them to "learn the laws of motion of society and not just the laws of motion of science." 

And coming from him, it did not sound phoney. For after his post-graduation from IITB, Roy moved to Shahdol district of Madhya Pradesh and started the Vidushak Karkhana as part of the Shahdol Group carrying out focussed work on building a development model for the district and its implementation, in conjunction with local people. He was involved in this for 17 years during which he earned his income primarily out of repairing bicycles in the village district. He then shifted to Delhi for a four-year stint with the World Wide Fund for Nature, and later set up the Hazards Centre, a multi-disciplinary consultancy group. 

It’s rare for IITians to be the recipients of such blunt talk. And it should be noted that the student organisers of Techfest invited Dunu Roy to give this talk after accepting his condition that there would be no restriction on the content of his lecture. So perhaps the IITians are not such big fools after all.


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