The birth of India’s tech story: How IITs came into being

India’s finest.
India’s finest.
Image: Saikat Sarkar (Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)
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For a population of 350 million in 1947, India had about 38 institutions offering first degree courses in engineering and technology. The aggregate fresh admission in these institutions was of the order of about 3,000 students.

These colleges predominantly catered to the needs of government departments such as public works, irrigation, railways, electricity, and telecommunications. A very small number of engineers found opportunities in private sector companies engaged in engineering operations.

The intake capacity for postgraduate (PG) education in engineering was a mere 30 students in 1947. Most students had to go abroad to obtain PG degrees.

After about 200 years of foreign domination, India had obtained freedom in 1947 and it was keen to take its rightful place in the comity of nations. For this, the building of a sound industrial and economic base was essential. This could not be achieved without a greatly increased supply of manpower trained in the latest and best technologies available. Compared to the gigantic task ahead, the institutions for manpower training available were insignificant, both in quantity and quality.

Even after the four recommended institutions had been set up, there would be need for many, many more. The kind of qualitative and quantitative jump that was required in the field of manpower training simply could not be met by upgrading the few technical institutes available. Nor could a country impatient for progress wait for a time-consuming survey of existing resources.

The main recommendations of the Sarkar Committee (appointed in 1945 to suggest steps for the development of higher technical education in the country) were as follows:

  • Not less than four higher technical institutions, one in the north, one in the east, one in the south and one in the west will be necessary to satisfy the post-war requirements.
  • The one in the east should be set up in or near Calcutta at an early date.
  • Establishment of the western institution, which should be in or near Bombay, should be taken in hand concurrently with the eastern institution or, failing that, as soon after as possible.
  • To satisfy the immediate needs for engineers generally and for those with specialised training in hydraulics in particular, the engineering nucleus or the northern institution should be set up without delay.
  • To ensure the proper planning of buildings, equipment and courses of study, the principals and the heads of the main departments of these institutions should be appointed and the services of an architect with experience in planning of technical institutions secured at a sufficiently early stage.

The committee justified the choice of a regional basis for the location of recommended institutions by referring to (1) the size of India, (2) the geographical position of industrial areas, and (3) the location of the great majority of existing technical institutions, thus suggesting that while it was in favour of establishing new institutions, it was also aware of the need for integrating these with the requirements of existing industries and technical institutions.

In fact, the report devotes an entire section to a discussion of the relation of the proposed institutions with the existing specialised technical institutions and technological departments of universities and emphasises the “fundamental importance” of a relationship between “the public, industry and education”. For this reason, it proposed the location of the institutions “so as to be within easy reach of large industrial areas, even though climactic conditions may not altogether be favourable”, and rejected the claims of certain other locations.

The committee, however, did not limit the role of the new institutions to catering to the needs of existing industrial and technical establishments. It also looked to the future and correctly estimated that post-war industrial and governmental projects would require technical graduates far in excess of the numbers that were then being produced, as also in areas not adequately covered in the curriculums being followed in the existing technical institutions.

Existing facilities in advanced areas of engineering and technology in the country were even more limited. The new institutions would meet this challenge by establishing facilities for PG study and research in these areas.

To ensure quality in their educational programmes, the committee proposed that the standard of graduation in these institutions should not be lower than at a first-class institution abroad, for example, BSc (tech) of Manchester or BS of MIT. It also recommended that selection for admission should be made purely on merit and no provincial quotas allotted.

It also recommended that some proportion of the seats be reserved for the educationally backward classes (“so that in due course the general level of education throughout may be raised”), though this view did not have unanimous support within the committee.

The committee made detailed recommendations about the scope and size of the proposed institutions. To meet post-war manpower requirements, all the institutes would, of course, provide undergraduate (UG) instruction in the main branches of technology (civil, electrical, mechanical); other branches to be taught at each institute would be decided by regional needs, for instance metallurgy and chemical engineering in Calcutta and Bombay, textile engineering and naval architecture in Bombay, hydraulics in Kanpur, and so on. (“Each higher technical institution should provide instruction up to the graduate stage in all the main technical subjects likely to be of use to the region which it is designed to serve…” said the report.)

The recommended number of UGs to be admitted every year at each institute also seemed to have been determined by the local configuration of academic programmes. For example, while this number seems to have been fixed at around 500 for the Calcutta institute, it was fixed at 250 for Kanpur.

The committee did not seem to visualise these institutes as the important centres of postgraduate education they eventually became. In fact, it suggested that these institutes “should leave PG instruction in the subjects concerned to specialised institutions”. Discussing the scope of the Calcutta institute, it suggested that “postgraduate training in aeronautical engineering should be given in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, or abroad”.

Accordingly, it fixed the proportion of UG to PG students in these institutes at 2:1. Regarding the duration of the PG course, it said it could be one or two years, but it did go on to visualise longer durations for “students aspiring (to) higher degrees after research”.

Where the committee made a significant departure from the prevailing practice of engineering education was in suggesting, after the MIT model, that courses in physics, chemistry, mathematics and humanities should be given to students of all branches of engineering at the UG level. In doing so, the committee was trying to live up to the principle laid down in the memorandum submitted to it by its secretary on the establishment of the eastern higher technical institution, which reads as follows:

“The course of study in an institution should… be designed to provide a combination of fundamental scientific training with a broad human outlook which will afford the students the type of collegiate education endorsed by leading engineers—one which avoids on the one hand the narrowness common among students in technical colleges and, on the other, the superficiality and lack of purpose noticeable in many of those taking academic college courses.”

Image by Saikat Sarkar on Wikimedia licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

This post first appeared on Scroll.in. Excerpted with permission from The Fourth IIT: The Saga of IIT Kanpur (1960-2010), edited by Surya Pratap Mehrotra and Prajapati Prasad Sah, Penguin Enterprise.