Dr. Indiresan Speaks to T5E: Exclusive Interview


Dr. P.V. Indiresan

Dr. P.V. Indiresan, former director of IIT Madras, and arguably one of the best in its history, has a candid conversation with Tanmai Gopal and Anand Rao, representatives of T5E on a range of issues. Professor Indiresan, as he is still addressed, has always been very outspoken on the hottest topics of the day ranging from the JEE structure to IITs giving back to society.

Can you describe your stay at the institute?

I was here from ’79-’84. I wanted to stay for only for five years and even rejected an extension.

What were the highlights during your time here?

When I came, there was no credit system here.

It was all very official and formal. Let alone students, even faculty weren’t allowed to meet the director. When I asked the students how they felt about introducing the credit system, I just received a confused ‘Why are you doing this?’ (Chuckles)

Once, around 50 students came in towels to my place and started protesting about the water shortage. I just asked them how I could provide water at 10:30 in the night and said that they were engineers and had to look for solutions to this problem.

I used to eat at the hostels occasionally; the kitchens in them were terrible. I also got a canteen set up.

I remember I used to go and attend the Inter-IIT sports meets.

Have you interacted with students after that?

Not really. I did come once a year and spoke to the students in lectures.

You do have very strong views on IITs and have come out with a series of articles on the flaws in IITs and the changes that have to be incorporated.

True. Nobody listens to me, though. (grins)

They say that you were one of the best directors here.

I don’t know. (laughs)

What do you think was your most significant contribution as director?

I introduced the credit system, the system of having deans and the concept of evaluating teachers, no, courses. Teachers didn’t want to be evaluated (chuckles), so I stuck with courses.

So before that there was no feedback system?

Yes. Once I invited the dean for dinner. The first time a teacher entered a director’s house in 25 years! It wasn’t done.

I also introduced the system of industrial consultancy.

Is the IITM Research Park a step in the right direction?

Industry participation is absolutely necessary. Similar models in USA have done well because they tackle the real world problems.

Are skills that we learn here not right for tackling challenges in our own country? Is that why several students look for employment opportunities abroad?

The problem is that Indian industries buy technologies instead of making them. I once asked the chairman of a leading Indian private company where they get their technology from. And he very proudly said, “Oh, we get the best. Anywhere in the world it’s available, we buy it!” But, we’ve still not done very badly. There’s space, nuclear power, defence to an extent; all areas in which foreign assistance is banned. Many people here are not IIT engineers but it shows that Indians are capable of creating working models. Unfortunately, engineers are not paid very well. For example, one gets paid more selling soaps for Hindustan Lever than working as an engineer. Most engineers move on to management.

But then it’s still okay for an engineer to be managing a team of people.

Of course. I’ll tell you 2 stories. One of the first things I had to do was to approve a bill for about two rupees and seventy-five paisa, the scooter fare for someone who had come from Anna University. I told the peon to take it away as I’m not going to do it. The secretary told me that I’m the only one who could approve it and it’ll look very bad if we don’t! I delegated all authority; nobody did come after that for getting papers signed! I would sit and read in my office. My secretary would then say, “5th floor? Nobody dare come”.

Now for the second story. On the second or third day that I was here, I was asked to select eight faculty members to go to Germany; four for a few months and the rest for a couple of years. The secretary said “Should I arrange for dinner?” This was for a meeting at 2.30 in the afternoon! He said it’d take an enormous amount of time. Calls started coming in with people saying that they had a candidate. I asked them to approach the committee, why me? The committee was formed with the senior-most faculty member from every department constituting it. We began by deciding what the criterion was for selection. Nine persons satisfied the criteria and we decided to ask the Germans to provide one more scholarship. The meeting was over in ten minutes!

It is important to come up with a practical solution.

True. One must delegate. When you delegate, you must also inspect. There are two things, direction and delegation. Direction is simply saying ‘You do this’. Whereas delegation is saying ‘I want this thing to be done’, and you get fresh ideas. But you must inspect. After all, the inspector is the most powerful person in the government.

In IIT-Delhi, there was a project and money had to be shared between three persons, [the decision to share it] went on and on for more than two years and went right up to the director. The head of industrial consultancy said that we must have a policy on sharing. I got a note showing how money comes and goes once a month, I had to simply sign. The point is, they still had to report to me.

The deans used to bring material for approval of the senate. I, more out of laziness, asked them to take it back to the respective board (academic section/student council and the like) in case there were objections as such a large senate couldn’t take a decision. It was a wonderful thing as nobody overruled the board. The prestige of the board was held up and secondly, all the measures had to be well thought out as if there were any discrepancies the senate would only come back to them and not solve the issue themselves.

Sir, you must be aware of the hullabaloo surrounding the scrapping of the JEE and having a common entrance for all colleges across India.

Ridiculous. As it is, a difference of one mark means a rank difference of over 500 people. If it is a combined test, it may become 1500 people. It’s just too messy. What I suggest is that we approach schools who have been consistently sent students here and ask them to send the details of top students there. Schools will be given a quota based on the number of names they suggest. The best one-third may be selected on the basis of interviews. Only then we can actually find out how good the students are. The schools will obviously select their best students as they know only a maximum of one-third will be selected; we need not select any at all if none of them are up to the mark.

I would also like to have an opening for rich people provided their scores are reasonably good. For example, Narayan Murthy’s two children went to Harvard. They could not come to IIT. I think that’s ridiculous. Narayan Murthy could pay, say Rs 100 crore for admitting his children (grins). Why not? Even without the quota system, one in a class of 250 brilliant students have to be last. When they get out, they can be number one, so they need not bother about it here. Now wiith the quota for OBCs, SCs, STs and so on, the same ones who are brilliant will most likely be in the middle of the class, not at the bottom. The rich students of course don’t have to be too brilliant or at the top. Even among the backward classes and schedules tribes, only the rich people are getting in, not the really deserving ones. Reservation should be there, but from first standard to at most fifth standard. The IITs can pay for their education for the next 5-7 years in very good schools.

So with the current policies we aren’t solving any problems.

After 12 years of bad education, can the situation be rectified in a month? It’s like asking a cripple to climb Everest.

When we come here in our first year, to some extent we have to unlearn what we did in our coaching classes in order to understand what is actually going on.

(Laughs) These coaching institutions have made JEE a trainable exam, which is obviously not good. No consideration is given to those who actually do well in school. Abroad,in universities like Harvard, they consider the SAT score, the performance at school and a report from the teacher. We don’t consider the teacher at all.

Do we not go in for a more complicated system of selection because the volume is too large?

Harvard gets 10 applicants per vacancy; we get 100-150. Well yes, to some extent it’s a gamble. If we say we’ll take in students from schools which have consistently sent students here over the past few years, the competition will get decentralized; it will go to the schools.

What is the way forward now?

Become the minister of Education. (chuckles). There is practically no engineer other than Jairam Ramesh (laughs) in the cabinet. 70% of the Chinese cabinet are engineers. Engineers should take more interest in social problems.

How do we promote that within the student community?

Do something for Madras. I saw recently that some traffic analysis is being done. Do something for the slums, the poor. I didn’t realize it at the time but IIT is a gated community; outsiders don’t come in at all. I wanted to have a larger hospital with at least 50 beds so that people from Velachery could seek treatment here; there will be enough empty beds! You should become part of the community. We have got two schools; poorer students from around this part of the city should study. Those are examples of how IIT must contribute to society; I don’t know how feasible these are.

How can the IITs technically give back to India? Why is it not feasible for Indian engineers to design India-specific technology? It is because most of the work is already done?

No. Technology is always advancing. With all due respect to Mr Premji and Narayan Murthy, they went into services. They did not produce anything that was technically brilliant. We do not have the equivalent of Microsoft or Google. And many people there are actually Indians! It’s not that Indians cannot do it. It’s just that the moneyed did not want to invest in technology. You must try to do something on your own. For example, post-it notes was done by some engineers at 3M accidentally and it’s one of their biggest products now. In Indian industry this kind of experimentation is not encouraged. But if you find something of your own to do, maybe you’ll do well. Be like Bill Gates – give up Harvard and develop something of your own! I wish you the very best.

There’s one problem I’ve noticed in India: I’ve heard this so often, ‘Yes professor it’s a very good idea. Why haven’t the Americans done it so far?’ So many ideas were destroyed because of this argument. How do I answer?

I have worked only for the Government in India, I never went to private industry. They prefer to buy; they make more money that way. 25 years back, the interlocking system for the railways to direct trains was completely mechanical, with all the lever-pulling. There was one electrical one near Trichy. We developed the whole system. The price of the earlier system fell from 75 lakh to 13 lakh because they knew the price that we could sell it at. Even then we couldn’t sell it; the company we were working with was purchased by Westinghouse and that was it, it was never done. Even now, all the railway accidents happen because they do not want to invest in signals. In railways the top people are all either civil, mechanical or electrical engineers but no signal engineers. In China I would have come by train, not by air because they run at 430 kmph. You can’t even see two trains whooshing past each other; you can only hear them! But we will never do it here.

Do you think IITians must be encouraged to start-up, especially if they have really good ideas?

Yes, the time has definitely come. You must see what is being done in the US – technology parks affiliated to universities. They have thousands of students working on developing new products. Here, hardly a hundred people are involved.

But then most of the start-ups, even from here, are service based and not high technology oriented.

Doesn’t matter. One can always start low and end up developing better products; take some amount of effort.

But is this not the opportunity to stay away from the industry for 5-6 years and develop the product before entering the market? Which is what happened in the case of Microsoft and other giants.

Of course. Bill Gates’ father was rich and he could spend money to help his son develop his product. On the other hand [Larry] Ellison was poor. His mother wanted him to be adopted by someone so that he could attend university. The people who finally adopted him weren’t rich but promised to get him a college education. Finally, he refused and said his parents couldn’t afford it and started something of his own.

We must study the history of technology. There is a book, ‘Structure of Scientific Evolutions’ by Thomas Kuhn. A difficult read; but it asks why the west was dominating for the last five hundred years. I would say it started with the book ‘Age of Reason’ by Sir Francis Bacon who said we mustn’t take anything to be true unless we can verify it by experiment. My father used to tell me that we take things like the Shaastras to be true without checking or questioning because the elders say they are true. I would always ask him why that is the case (Laughs). You must have heard of Michelson and Morley got their Nobel for disproving the existence of Ether. Kuhn says scientists have a ‘paradigm’; they believe in fundamental theorems but do not worship them. They test the limits of the theorems by setting puzzles. Their first reaction is always ‘I must have made an experimental error’ but after a point it becomes impossible. Then people like Planck or Einstein come along with a brilliant explanation for both the new and old paradigm and scientists start setting up new experiments to disprove it! As Popov says, the idea of research is to disprove things. Textbooks are re-written, but nobody has re-written the Gita or the Quran. In my day, we studied pentodes since transistors weren’t around then. Nobody talks about that now. We don’t go back and explore what was done. You see so many manufactured items around you. Is even one of them invented in India? Tell your children to question. It’s not disrespect, it’s a question of curiosity. I am not suggesting that everything old is bad.

There is a nice shloka in the Isha Upanishad: “अन्धं तमः प्रविशन्ति येविघामुपासते” There is blinding darkness for those who follow the path of ignorance. The next line is what makes the Upanishads great. “ततो भूय इव ते तमो य उ विधाया रताः” Into greater darkness go those who follow the path of knowledge. And I’ll tell you why. You know certain things; you also know many things about which you don’t know. Say, you don’t know about nanotechnology. But once you study the subject you find there are many other things you don’t know! The essence of scholarliness is not how much you know, but how much you know you do not know.

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