Photograph of Anil Chawla

(Tragedy of IITs)

Author - Anil Chawla

The glamour associated with IIT's (Indian Institutes of Technology) has grown over the years. IITs themselves have added to the hype to some degree, while the rest of it has been built up on one hand by the large number of coaching institutes that charge an exorbitant fee for helping one gain entry through the pearly gates of Joint Entrance Examination (JEE). On the other hand, the media plays its role in contributing to the hype by dutifully printing success stories of ex-IITians in USA and by highlighting the fancy astronomical salaries that are given away by companies falling over one another to get hold of the prized catch. All this hype has indeed helped build the myth of demigod around an IITian.

Just as every dark cloud has a silver lining, every moon has a dark side. The halo of divinity built around the IITian has a dark side which is often ignored. It is important to look at this dark side to comprehend the process of assimilation (or rather of non-assimilation) of the so-called super-brains into Indian society.

A quick glance at the placement scenario at most IIT's reveals a very interesting picture. A majority of B.Tech.'s and M.Tech.'s irrespective of their branch of study take up jobs at some software company or the other. Informal discussions with students reveal that the only options available to a passing out B.Tech. can be summed up as follows:

  1. Join an Indian software company

  2. Join a foreign software company

  3. Go to USA for further studies

  4. Join one of the IIM's for management studies

  5. Plan a career in academics and join for M.Tech. and later Ph.D. at IIT (A negligible miniscule minority takes this option)

The option of working for an Indian company in the field of one's specialization is almost non-existent. The number of non-software Indian companies (excluding multinationals) that have been coming to IITs for campus recruitment has been declining over the years. Even among the ones who are still coming, almost no companies are willing to give any extra credit for the skills and abilities of an IIT graduate at the outset. Almost always, an IIT graduate is treated at par with the graduate of a nondescript engineering college. The net result of these factors is that the graduate from IIT does not go to the Indian company in his field of specialization and chooses one of the options mentioned above.

A look at the options outlined makes it clear that except for the last two options, the IIT graduate is always working for foreigners either directly or indirectly. Tata Consultancy, Wipro, Infosys and other software majors, who employ hordes of IIT engineers, may be bringing sackfuls of foreign exchange into the country but their contribution to national growth is nominal. These software majors are involved in "serving the European and American market", which is just an euphemism for "serving the countries of Europe and America". It does not take long for the IIT engineer to realize that he/she is working for the white man and it will be more profitable for him to be a direct slave of the white man rather than work through these middlemen. So he/she makes a few 'smart' career moves and is soon out of the clutches of the middlemen and is directly bowing to the white man.

The option of going for an IIM education delays the above process by a couple of years. The egalitarian approach adopted by majority of Indian industry in the matter of treating IIT product at par with every shady engineering college does not spare the IIT-IIM product either. In fact the forces that operate against the IIT graduate are much more sharply focused against the IIT-IIM product. The net result once again is of the IIT-IIM product landing into the service of the white man.

If it was a seminar presentation or a political forum, this would be the appropriate stage to launch into a bout of breast-beating about how the Indian Institutes of Technology have turned into training centres for the developed countries and blame the IITian for his lack of patriotism and for wasting the country's resources by not working for the technological development of the country. Educationists, ministers, governors and such other worthies have done it so often that one does not need to repeat it. Every time this exercise of blaming the IITian is carried out, the IITian feels an intense guilt and instead of self-defence either buries his head in sand or does some act of altruism to wash off his guilt. What is however needed is to present the problems faced by IITian in working as an engineer in India in the field of his specialization. It is also necessary to highlight the pains that an IITian has to undergo.

A few words about an IITian's pains after passing out. For those who decide to move out of the country, the separation from one's home country and a life of being condemned to a second class citizen status with all the racial slurs is indeed a painful experience. This pain becomes visible only when one discusses racism in a drawing room in USA or Europe. The same people who cry about it abroad will put up a facade of glorious achievements when visiting India. One should not blame them for this small safety mechanism that enables them to retain their sanity.

The other pain of almost every other IITian is that almost as soon as one passes out of IIT, one has to write off all the knowledge acquired at IIT and start afresh. This act of forced self-annihilation is more tragic than one can imagine. Years of toil and tears are washed away and one stands with no strengths except one's grit, determination and intelligence. Whether one joins a software company or goes for a management degree, it is a one-way street of elimination of one's own past self-identity. Trained as a mechanical engineer, five years later in the software trade one is not recognized as a mechanical engineer and is asked to acquire some fresh testimonials that prove one's worth. If he fails to acquire such fresh proofs of capability, the industry and society declare him to be a worthless person. For someone getting into the field of management, the picture is not much different. After wiping out the competitive advantage of the skills and knowledge acquired at IIT, a two year course can take you only so far and no further. The insecurity of such a situation and the pressure of keeping up with the demigod image of an IITian in one's own eyes and in the eyes of one's family and peers is an experience that cannot be described by words.

After discussing the pains of those who go abroad and of those who leave their field of specialization, it may well be proper to look at the fate of the small minority of IITians that decides to remain in India and sticks to the field of specialization. Exceptions aside, this minority of IIT graduates is neither very successful professionally nor has any major financial achievements. A few decades after passing out, members of this group are generally happy earning a living, supporting a family, buying a car, building a small house or sending one's child to IIT. There can be a number of explanations for the mediocre performance of a group that should logically have been the rising stars of India's industry. However, the two main reasons that can be pointed are (a) absence of meritocracy in Indian industry (b) the minority status of India-settled IITian that excludes him from all old boys networks.

Indian private industry is primarily family controlled where power equations arise from caste and family considerations rather than from any professional competence. Technology is seen at best as a handmaid that can be employed to do the dirty work. A creative engineer or designer is not considered an asset but is often considered a nuisance who dares to challenge the established order of things and has an inflated self-opinion. The author's article "Indian Talent Caught In The Cobwebs" discusses the problem at length. Public sector is worse because of the system of caste-based reservations and time-bound promotions along with the supremacy of generalists (read IAS officers). In such situations, competence is a liability rather than an asset. A competent person finds himself in a minority and is persecuted by the incompetent majority who fear his analytic and intellectual strengths.

Persecution faced by IITians in India is often a part of the internal politicking that goes on in most organizations. In this game, IITian is especially at a disadvantage since he does not have the support of an old-boys network to help him. The reasons for the absence of an old-boys network among IITians working in non-software sector in India are twofold. First of course is the strong individualistic streak in an IITian that prevents him from seeking help even when in dire need. The other reason is the absence of sufficient numbers of IITians across the country. More often than not if an IITian interacts with any organization the probability of interacting with an IITian at the other side of the table is so low that one does not even try to seek such connections. On the other hand if the person at the other side of the table is from any other engineering college, disclosing that one is an IIT graduate can only make matters difficult since this is likely to prod the other person to use the opportunity to get vicious pleasure by hitting the IITian where it hurts most.

This sub-conscious psychology is very often the underlying theme of the dynamics of interaction between a graduate of one of the premium institutes and a product from a non-premium engineering college. The sentiment is - "Well, you made it through JEE and I did not but so what? Now I am going to settle the score by putting you down and dancing while you grimace with pain." It may sound an exaggeration when one puts it in this fashion. Normally, the sub-conscious feelings are well covered and expressed in a polite way. Settling scores may take the extreme form of hitting below the belt or may just be very subtle in form of noncooperation or backbiting or taking decisions that seem very businesslike on the surface e.g. going for campus recruitment to one's own alma mater, the shady engineering college run by the local politician-cum-don, rather than to IIT.

It should come as no surprise that the list of companies coming to IIT for campus recruitment does not include many Indian non-software companies where the strings are controlled by non-IIT engineers. This problem gets compounded a few years down the line. An IITian with two decades or so of non-software experience in India may become almost an untouchable since at this stage all job changes are made through a network of contacts rather than through institutional systems like campus recruitment. That is the greatest irony and tragedy of modern India. A person who starts at seventeen as a demigod faces the fear of unemployment and forced retirement just a few years later.

This is not a personal tragedy of one individual or a group of individuals. This is a tragedy for the country as a whole. It shows the failure of the country to evolve systems to make use of the talent of the country. While the seminar circuit has witnessed many tears being shed in the name of brain drain, it is time that the country realized that there is something rotten in the way it treats its best people. It is also time that IIT's and IITian's devoted some time to analyze the problems faced by the talented in the country rather than just enjoy the fool's paradise created by the media hype.


21 April, 2001

The above article has generated a very lively debate. Please read what others have said and send me your comments.

To read one more article about IITs and IITians Please click here.
The above link will take you outside samarthbharat to an article by Mr. Sandipan Deb, alumni of IITKGP and Managing Editor of OUTLOOK.

Going Abroad Vs. Staying in India!
Are you considering moving abroad or are you already there? In either case, this is an article that you should not miss. Written by an unknown IITian.

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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