Friday, May 27, 2011


On May 24, 11 The Hindu published the Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh’s remark that the quality of research at the IITs is not world class, neither is its faculty. He may not be the only minister in the Central government who holds this view. Earlier, the then Finance Minister P.Chidambaram seems to have said something to the effect that whereas IITs are very good institutions, they are not world class. In fact, all those like the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the HRD Minister Kapil Sibal who have expressed the need for India to have world class institutions can be said to have entertained more or less the same view. One difference is that Jairam Ramesh has said it so blatantly. His ministry in collaboration with Reliance Industries wants to set up a research facility for the study of Marine Diversity, which by implication would be world class. Given this context, the minister’s views are entirely understandable; it is a standard strategy that one must condemn what exists in order to emphasize that there is a need for something different.

Incidentally, what I find difficult to understand is why the IITs (and the IIMs, about which I wish to say nothing here) are cited so very prominently by the people who matter in the government when they speak about the quality of research in our country. The government has set up a number of research institutes which may not have as high visibility as the IITs, but for the relevant purpose visibility can hardly be a significant consideration. On the other hand the IITs are not pure research institutes; these are teaching institutes too with strong undergraduate programmes. In the context of informed and useful observations on the issue in question, our research institutes must not be ignored, especially by the members of the Union cabinet.

It is quite obvious that in today’s context, if India has to make an impact at the global level, it must be an innovator in research, a creator of knowledge rather than a disseminator of existing knowledge in the class room. It seems an opinion is emerging at the top level that the existing institutions are incapable of delivering in terms of quality research, and further that the situation will not improve by giving them more funds, better infrastructural facilities, etc. Therefore one must think in different terms; most importantly, one must not think in terms of government institutions. And to me this is the real content of Jairam Ramesh’s observations. He has said what in all probability no minister had ever said before in public, namely that when it comes to quality and inventiveness, government institutions simply cannot deliver. “The governmental set-up can never attract young talent, so we have got to think differently”, the minister is supposed to have said. A very categorical and a very strong statement indeed. Why it is so the minister surely knows. He will make a great contribution to the cause of higher education and research in this country if he shares his views on this question as forthrightly as he has opined on the quality of IIT faculty. It is surprising that the reactions so far to the remarks of the minister in the print and electronic media have been unrelated to this assertion of his.

“Thinking differently” for Jairam Ramesh is thinking in terms of partnership between the corporate sector and the government. The logic is unclear. If the government is incapable of attracting and nurturing young talent, and ensuring quality research, then why must it think in terms of partnership? Should it not think instead in terms of withdrawing itself from research and development altogether and leave it in the hands of, say, the private sector? It is difficult to understand how partnership with the corporate sector will help the government to overcome its limitation in the relevant respects. In fact, going by the strong statement of the minister one might be genuinely apprehensive of the possibility that the virus would spread and adversely affect the collaboration itself! In any case, does the minister want to involve the corporate sector for reasons of funding? If so, partnership with the corporate sector may not be really all that necessary; the latter can be encouraged through helpful tax structure (for instance) to donate funds generously for innovative research.

Now, as for leaving research and innovative problem solving to the corporate sector, it may be useful to keep in mind that the one who pays would effectively, although more often than not unobtrusively, decide what it would be paying for. The corporate sector would pay for research that would benefit it, if not in the short term, in the long term. One knows about the pharmaceutical industry. One also knows that it is not the only one!

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