IGCS: A Peek into HSS Research

In an institute renowned for technological and scientific prowess, the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) department stands out in having established an integrated course offering a liberal arts education within a patently tech-oriented campus. Over the years, it has been eyed with both cynicism and curiosity by non-Humanities students. However, interest in Humanities work has been increasing in recent years, and activities that had previously been relegated to the “arts people,” such as theatre, are now seeing a lot more participation from the institute as a whole.

Founded in 1959, the HSS department at IIT Madras is as old as the institute itself. Back then, its scope was limited to the research work carried out by the professors and the electives offered to B.Tech students. However, it has expanded in a variety of ways between then and now, going on to offer one of the most versatile liberal arts degrees in the country and establishing multiple centres of research that promote interdisciplinary developmental work, these being the Indo–German Centre for Sustainability, the Centre for Comparative EU Studies and the China Studies Centre.

The integrated M.A. program was founded in 2006, and at the time of its inception, offered majors in English, Developmental Studies and Economics. The aim was to offer an extensive liberal arts education within a technology- and research-based environment in order to develop multidisciplinary perspectives. As such, the course program was a first in the country. However, the curriculum was revised in 2011 and the choice of majors was restricted to English and Developmental Studies, while making the latter more economics-intensive. Graduates of this course found themselves in a variety of places –from working in NGOs and the civil service, to penning their own careers in literature or poetry, to pursuing higher studies and settling into research-oriented careers and taking up teaching.

In order to facilitate interdisciplinary research on sustainability, particularly with respect to local developmental issues,the Indo–German Centre for Sustainability (IGCS) was established in 2010 in collaboration with RWTH Aachen University.

The funding for the research was provided by the Indian and the German governments, the former through IIT Madras and the latter through DAAD, under their “A New Passage to India” initiative. DAAD is an organization perhaps best recognized by campus students for facilitating annual summer internships in Germany.

Although the IGCS was actually set up in 2010, the foundation was established in 2008 when the German Federal Minister visited the institute to sign an MoU commemorating the 50th anniversary of a strong Indo–German bilateral relationship. Essentially, the Centre seeks to initiate cooperative work, both theoretical and applied, between Indian and German researchers, to provide courses in areas pertaining to sustainable development and to raise the level of awareness about sustainable approaches to developmental issues.

While our director, Prof. Bhaskar Ramamurthi, is the Indian co-Chair, Prof. Chella Rajan, HoD for the HSS department, is the Indian Centre Coordinator. Their German counterparts are both from RWTH Aachen University. In addition, there are four Area Coordinators from each country managing the four broad research areas.

This research work is most certainly not restricted to the HSS department. In fact, the research threads are divided into four areas –water resources, waste management, land use and rural development, and energy; the focus is on analysing and developing solutions to local developmental issues. The work is interdisciplinary, and as such, involves over thirty professors from several departments across the institute, as well as research students. Each of the four research tracks has an Indian faculty and a German counterpart directing the projects being carried out within it.

The primary objective of the IGCS, is, of course, to promote sustainable development. This is carried out through research, teaching, fellowships, summer and winter schools, conferences and exchange opportunities. Pragmatic research work is of course a primary constituent of all these endeavours.

Within the institute itself, courses with a heavy emphasis on sustainable development are offered both as core courses to HSS students, as well as free electives for B. Tech students, such as the course titled Environment and Society. This is a core HSS course that involves intensive reading and analysis centred on contemporary environmental issues.

Let us look at the exchange opportunities provided to faculty. Both long-term and short-term visiting professorships are open to faculty from certain German universities. Meanwhile, fellowships funded by DAAD are provided to a selected number of Indian and German graduateas well as postgraduate students. Interestingly, the fellowships can also be availed by non-IIT Madras students who wish to work on sustainable development initiatives either here or in German universities.

The annual summer and winter schools organized by the IGCS, held alternately at Chennai and Berlin,offer a chance for German and Indian students to work together on local developmental issues, facilitating intercultural as well as interdisciplinary research. The participation is limited to ten Indian and German students each, either graduate or postgraduate, who are selected very carefully by an expert panel on the basis of their research potential. The schools train the scholars on different kinds of environmental issues and involve projects carried out in local areas based on sustainable solutions to these issues, which fall under the ambit of water resources, land and rural development, waste management, or energy.

During the course of these schools, over a time period of around two weeks, research students are exposed to seminars and lectures, and taken on field trips to collect data. They are then expected to prepare project reports and present their findings. For instance, one of the projects carried out in the winter school involved calculating the carbon footprint of the IIT Madras campus and suggesting ways to reduce it,although they concluded that this footprint was much lower than the national average, probably due to the emphasis given to sustainable living by campus residents.

The faculty at IIT Madras, across departments, including visiting faculty, are actively involved with research within the IGCS. Part of this research is funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) under the Government of India. One of the research requirements is that “technical, scientific and engineering expertise should be inextricably linked with expertise within the fields of the humanities and social sciences.” Principal research areas which have been designated include organic farming, plantation economy and rural electrification. Further,specific research topics are suggested within the ambits of water, land, energy, and waste management, these being crucial areas of research where development and new methodologies would be of direct benefit to many local communities, not just in Chennai, but across the country as well.

Under the program “Strategic Knowledge Mission on Climate Change,” the DST has funded a series of projects aimed to encourage collaborative research. All these projects fit within what are termed as the eight key sustainability challenges, some of which are ensuring air quality, improving public sanitation and sustaining urban water bodies. The Adyar River Project, falling under the last category, is one of the more significant research projects that have been undertaken in this regard. It seeks to analyse the environmental and social issues affecting the river, such as heavy industrial pollution, silt and lack of adequate sanitation facilities in the communities surrounding the river. By proposing sustainable solutions and policy reforms,it aims to have a long-term impact on the ecological and social aspects of the region.

Since its inception, the IGCS has been active in fostering research centred on sustainable solutions to developmental issues, especially by encouraging local projects. However, the visibility of this work within the campus itself is quite low, even among the HSS students. One contributing factor might be that the level of undergraduate involvement in IGCS initiatives is mostly limited to the courses taken by students within the institute. It would perhaps be fruitful for undergraduate students from both the HSS and other departments to be actively involved with the local projects, where possible.

While conferences organized by the IGCS, such as the National Climate Change Conference, held quite recently, in October, invite student volunteers, the outreach is quite restricted and not too many students get to hear of these opportunities, which is a pity because these conferences, seminars and workshops, not to mention the projects, have a lot to offer.

Among the several conferences organized in the institute this past semester was the 4th National Climate Change Conference, on October 26th and 27th. It was held under the banner of the Indian Climate Research Network (IRCN), which comprises four institutes – the Indo-German Centre for Sustainability (IGCS), the Indian Institute of Science, IIT Delhi and the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) Delhi.

The objective was to develop the capacity and influence of climate change research in India, which is not as focused and intensive as climate change research abroad.This was achieved mainly by bringing together a network of diligent researchers and conducting presentations, seminars and panel discussions. The focus of their work was to be on the science and impact of climate change, climate change mitigation, adaptation, disaster risk reduction and renewable energy. There was an emphasis on independent research and among the participants were students, faculty and civil organizations.

All the events held during the conference were in spirit with the basic aim of creating an arena where Indian researchers on climate could come together and deepen their sense of community.

The aim was to foster an integrated network of people across the country working on immediate climate change issues relevant to India, particularly in the matters of adaptation, mitigation and risk reduction, while emphasizing the importance of alternate energy resources. Because the dangers of climate change are very real, such research is of the highest relevance.

There are two other centres within the HSS department – the Centre for Comparative EU Studies (CCEUS), in partnership with Sussex University, England and established in 2010,and the China Studies Centre. The former is one of four such centres set up in India through research grants provided by the EU. Research domains in the CCEUS are delineated into Globalization and International Relations, and Democracy and Developmental Studies, with a set of research tracks specified within these.


Prof. Sudhir Chella Rajan
Prof. Sudhir Chella Rajan at the National Climate Change Conference


The idea is, evidently, to look at political development in democracies and its influence on global power structures with respect to South Asia and the EU. Since its inception, multiple conferences, seminars and workshops have been organized to promote such research work.

However, it must be said that of the three, the China Studies Centre is certainly the most well-recognized by students in the institute, the other two centres having low visibility among undergraduate students in the campus. It was established in 2011 to address the increasing need to study the role of China in contemporary global politics. How does it accomplish this? For one, it seeks to familiarize students to the language and offer them a chance to learn more about the global political scenario in this context, by offering introductory courses as electives. There is an emphasis on bilateral research and exchange opportunities, with visiting faculty positions being offered to Chinese scholars, and doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships being open to students for work in this research field.