'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

An IIT for Kerala

A Hollywood mythological of the early eighties began with sfx visuals of a kind of fancy jar, strongly back-lit and adrift in a starry sky; a voice over went something like: "And then came a fateful moment. Pandora's box opened (the jar blew up in a shower of fine dust - appropriately, there was no loud bang, for in space, there is no air and ergo, no sound!) and Vices and Miseries, thus released, came down heavily upon Humanity. Those were deeply troubled times!". Fade out.

Then one saw three beings suspended somewhere in space, in serious conversation - a fancily dressed bimbette, a heavily made up matron and an old man with a bleached white beard attached whom the others addressed as "Zeus". By the standards of Olympus, all of them were hugely over-dressed - cloaks, shawls and miles of drapery.

One of the lady divinities: "Pandora's box has exploded. Evil is running riot. Mankind is in peril. We need to help!"

Zeus: "It will be difficult to make the entire race of humans stronger - physically and morally - to deal with the challenge!"

The other lady: "Maybe we can enhance the powers of just one man; make him Strength personified. He will save the rest!"

Zeus is sold on the idea.

A boy happens to be born in "Thebes, during the bronze age". One can quickly see he is going to be more than something - even in his cradle, he playfully crushes two immense 'serpents' made of some kind of pulpy material that explodes in a flood of scarlet goo. And seconds thereafter, he has grown into an obscenely muscled bodybuilder who looks like Lou Ferrigno.

For the next hour or so, Hercules (for the boy was supposed to be him) carries out his Messianic mission, punching, slashing, smashing thru zillions of hideous baddies in an utterly insufferable orgy of violence. ... Enough, this post is interested only in the film's bizarre premise of "strengthen One to save everyone else".


Another expression of the same concept:

Sometime in the pre-Sush/Ash era, an Indian contestant got very close to being Miss Universe; then a judge asked her: "What will you do if you become the Chief Executive of your country for a few days?", and the lady said: "India is weak in sport. So, I will build the biggest sports complex in the World". Most wise commentators later remarked she blew her chances sky-high with that one single 'howler'.


Present day Kerala. Engineering education here is in an unholy mess - despite the state having around 50 engineering colleges. Indeed, many say the mess is *due to* the colleges, all except perhaps a dozen (at a stretch, a score) of which fall into one of the categories: "bad, very bad, very very bad". Every year, they collectively suck in around 30K students, the clear majority among them in no academic shape whatsoever to take up the study of Engineering. Of course most (note: I certainly don't say "all" but I emphaticaly say "most") privately run colleges can't care less about quality as long as they extract their fee. Over the years, these colleges have evolved a strange loopy, inbreeding pattern: students are pushed thru their courses and reabsorbed into their alma maters as teachers to churn out more students in their image. The obvious benefit in this arrangement to the managements is that their products are in no shape to command proper salaries - indeed, several managements emphatically close their doors to properly qualified teachers who have the audacity to demand the AICTE stipulated pay. The saddest part of the joke: most private engineering colleges, including some of the very worst, are helmed by retired faculty who lived out much of their academic lives in the far more meritocratic State-run colleges - these worthies have been only too willing to sell out and preside over and perpetuate (and when required, defend aggressively) a system of almost pure rot(*).

In such a bleak scenario, there has been a lot of talk in recent months that Kerala ought to have an IIT. Some folks have even claimed, just the opening of an IIT, will simply clear up the morass that is Kerala's engineering education setup. In other words, rather than try to straighten out scores of fundamentally screwed up academic shops, just let loose one supercharged brain-bank among them and all will be light!

Guess I have made my views on the very idea more than clear already. A few examples would still not be inappropriate.

UP has had an IIT (one of the best at that) at Kanpur - and another IIT just next door in Delhi - for generations. While students from all over India have benefited from them, UP itself has reaped no special benefits whatsoever from the IIT simply sitting in its territory - most of the state remains a messy, overpopulated backwater. On the other hand, AP did not have an IIT till quite recently but for a generation and more, it has been the state sending the highest number of students to IITs (and AP also has had some good privately run engg. colleges for a long time); that despite all those IITians, about half of AP is another miserable backwater is a sad irony - let me save it for another discussion!

Kerala got an IISER a few years back. It was opened with much fanfare and has actually begun promisingly - some of the best and most promising Keralan academicians (and many good non-Mallu ones) are on its rolls. But it still functions out of rented premises. The average Mallu does not even know about IISER's existence. And at least till now, it has not had much of an impact on how the exact sciences are viewed by the Keralan public.

And then a 'Kerala School of Mathematics' was inaugurated with lofty academic goals and ambitious plans back in 2008. Present indications are that it is yet to seriously get going - some even allege it has been a non-starter!

Kerala has had an IIM for quite a while. Has it directly led to an upsurge in Mallu entrepreneurship? I would say No. More Mallus are certainly among the desi dollar billionaire (or millionaire? I really don't know the difference!) club these days than ever before but they are all businessmen who learnt the tricks of wealth-accumulation in the rough and tumble of real-life markets, not from any IIM (Note: I mentioned the IIM here only as an illustrative example. I certainly don't equate IITs and IIMs - I admire, albeit with some serious qualifications, the IITs and their engineers but my feelings towards the IIMs are, well, fundamentally different!).

Let me end this on a potentially happy note: On 30th October, 2012, papers reported that the "IIT for Kerala" proposal has been shot down by the Planning Commission - so at least some of our decision makers have their heads screwed on all right.

Note: And if a lot of this post came thru as an attack on Kerala private engineering colleges, let me make amends by quoting a well-qualified and experienced Mallu: " In Feb, ----- (a supposedly eminent, Govt. run engineering college) advertised for temporary lecturerships. I applied promptly although the salary on offer was about half the AICTE level (the place at least has some sort of reputation). For three months, nothing happened. Then in early August, they suddenly called me for an interview. I went. The actual interview was over in less than 30 minutes per candidate - only 4 had turned up - but we had to stick around for an entire day as clerks checked and rechecked our certificates and then the Faculty sat around and cross-checked the same papers. Then, till date (late October), I have heard nothing further from them, positive or negative; their website too is silent on the results. The other day, someone told me: "Their policy is - if you really need their job badly enough you will go there and meet them and ask the result; if you don't, they will assume you are not interested enough and won't care to contact you - even if you are in!" ". To those who may wish clues as to which is this exalted institution, here goes: (1) for a generation, it has entertained ambitions (pretensions, rather) of getting an upgrade to IIT-hood. (2) one of its engineering departments has in recent years splintered, over political and allegedly caste/religion reaons, into 3 separate departments; all run independent courses, with largely overlapping content.


(*) - An eminent Sarkari academician turned private engineering college boss was heard saying on the telly: "Every year 400,000 children start their schooling in Kerala. If we admit 40,000 of them into Engineering colleges, that will still only be 10% of the total initial population; we do leave out a large fraction. I don't understand why there is so much brouhaha over private colleges diluting the standards of technical education and stuff!"

On the other hand, a Teacher who knows *everything* about teaching Mathematics up to and including Undergraduate level, told me with conviction: "This state simply cannot produce more than six or seven thousand students a year - ten thousand, tops - who can do justice to engineering. Not that the others are stupid. They are better suited elsewhere!"