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Keya Acharya: Payback by the 'creamy layer'

Pampered by subsidised education, IITians make a small start in helping the underprivileged. Is it enough?

Keya Acharya 

This is not the commonly-known “creamy layer” hierarchy within India’s dalits, but the group long known as the face of India’s “brain-drain”: the IITians.

The (IITs), 15 in all, continue to receive disproportionately high government grants compared to other engineering colleges. The undergraduates are subsidised nearly 80 per cent by the government while master of technology students receive full scholarships.

Pampered and elite, IITians, in India at least, are successful entrepreneurs and industry-leaders. A majority of them, however, have a history of hotfooting it to the US after being educated at tax-payers’ expense. Any paybacks have traditionally been in the form of financial donations from IIT alumni to their alma mater institutions, much in the tradition of American Ivy League institutions.

This tradition, however, appears to be now on the threshold of some change. At a gathering of IIT Kharagpur’s Bangalore-based alumni, of Selco-India, motivated Kollur Dhananjay, the secretary of the Bangalore association, to coordinate funds for a rural electrification project named Light for Education. The project, implemented through Selco, provides impoverished tribal children in Karnataka with solar lamps for studying at home. These can be charged daily through a centralised system set up in the children’s secondary school, thus saving them the cost of buying kerosene for lamps. The project aims to spread to other states too.

Hande, whose work on rural electrification has won his organisation several awards, including the Green Oscars or Ashden award, says he told his audience that it was high time they started paying their debt of a subsidised education.

“It is not only of giving back to society,” Hande told his alumni audience, “but about contributing as a partner, not just a giver.”

Dhananjay took Hande’s idea on rural education through electrification to another senior IITian, Arjun Menda, whose corporate real-estate industry, RMZ, has been funding education through the Menda Foundation for the past 15 years. Menda, who disburses 220 higher-education scholarships every year, says he will match all grants the alumni association garners for the Light for Education programme.

Another IIT Kharagpur alumnus and former director of Motorola (“Sam”) has tackled rural electrification, which is lacking in 56 per cent of rural households, according to a 2010 World Bank report. The company he floated, Energy Plantation Projects India (EPPI), now has a ready 500-acre “energy forest” in the Madurai district and is looking for funds to set up the first of five 2Mw biomass power plants to be sourced from plantations of the indigenous neem family’s Melia Dubia and seven other local species. EPPI changed its work-timings to accommodate local village women into their workforce and has won acceptance from the villagers.

“I felt the need to do something socially relevant and economically useful,” says Venkatesam, “but our ‘CSR’ (corporate social responsibility) is our business survival requisite.”

In Mumbai, IIT Kharagpur alumnus Puneet Kumar now coordinates a pan-IIT company – Ekalavya Creations – set up by well-known Kharagpur alumni. One of them is the now-retired B K Syngal of VSNL, known as the father of the Internet in India. Another is Arjun Malhotra, co-founder of the leading technology group HCL. The company aims to use IT for educational development for the underprivileged and has several e-learning initiatives set up through its laboratory in IIT Bombay.

Ekalavya has begun by traversing 2,000 km around the country, looking at IITians working in the field. There are, among several case studies, Ravi Chopra of IIT Bombay, founder of the People’s Science Institute in Dehradun, working in watershed development and rural empowerment in Uttarakhand, Brij Kothari, an IIT Kanpur alumnus, who devised “same language subtitling” in TV for mass literacy in India and Kharagpur gold-medallist, now spiritual leader, Soumyendranath Bannerjee who has set up several schools in Deogarh, Madhya Pradesh.

Ekalavya now plans to take these case studies to the next pan-IIT meet to motivate alumni.

However, these instances are few and far between and do not reflect an awareness in the IIT faculty and curricula for the need of applying technology in the mass sector. And IIT alumni have also criticised this.

In Bangalore, Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer Rajeev Chawla of IIT Kanpur, who designed the e-governance model for land records in India, now being replicated elsewhere, says even IITians in the IAS, let alone in civil society, are not achieving enough, given their intelligence and training.

“IITians within the IAS are our cream. We don’t need to blame the government system or the lack of motivated faculty in our alma maters to achieve. It’s purely the indifference, the seeking of conventional success, of power, prestige and money,” says Chawla.

“And in all my years in the IAS, I have not had any IIT alumni coming to me for help in collaborating on any work in the public sector,” adds Chawla.

Nevertheless, IIT Kharagpur Associate Professor Joy Sen, does blame bureaucracy within the governance system as having stifled leaders in the public sector, but agrees that mindsets in IIT faculty need to change, especially to incorporate modern relevance to environment and development.

Chawla blames Indian society, rather than faculty inadequacies. “The rush for power, prestige and money is a social malaise that has included IIT graduates,” he says.

The younger generation of alumni, however, are circumspect about the criticism.

“We are technical guys, so this ‘social front’ has come late to us,” says Bombay-based Kharagpur alumnus (class of 2002) Puneet Kumar.

“This is a start,” says Dhananjay, speaking of the Light for Education programme.

“I encourage every IITian to think hard on how many engineers, scientists and people we need to get rid of poverty in India,” says senior IITian Ravi Chopra.

“And then, take a leap,” he adds.

The author is Vice Chair, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India

First Published: Sat, May 21 2011. 00:45 IST