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In conversation with Director, IIT Roorkee

October 13, 2016

“A Director walks into a bar …”

As our Director comes to the end of a successful tenure, we spoke to him regarding a variety of topics ranging from his time at Roorkee, R’s university hangover and the rigidity accompanying change in IITR. In a candid conversation that ensued, Prof. Banerji let loose on how he sees IITR progressing along the years, the lethargy of the student body and his attempts at creating leaders among students.

How has your time in Roorkee been?

I think I have loved it here in Roorkee for two reasons. One, I’ve learnt a lot about being a leader because that itself is a huge learning experience. The second part is of course just being here. I mean, I think, I’m proud of the fact that this is possibly the most beautiful campus in India. And that it has been maintained reasonably well. So, I think those are the two parts which I think are very important why I say that I loved it.

Can you recount some major projects undertaken during your tenure?

Two or three major changes things that I can say, one is the influx of young faculty members- the average age going down from 52 to under 42 is huge. Second thing that I think that has changed is, slowly but surely, a research culture is creeping in. The number of PhD students that came here were about 750. And graduating were about 120-130. This year we have about 1600+ PhD students, and the ones graduating, around 292. The number of sponsored research projects have grown, although not much as I’d like to.

Five years in an institution is a very small time. You can’t make large changes when because you make very large changes, there’s always this chaos that accompanies them. And I hope that the Advaita ERP programme which is trying to get everything online and connected to each other, will have a long lasting impact. So, I think I’ll probably mention these three as far as the subject matters.

You have served as a dean in IITB for six years. What difference do you find in the administrative functioning in Roorkee and in Bombay?

You know, today IIT Bombay is a very different place. It’s actually more bureaucratic than possibly, us. I jokingly tell people that over here we try to break the bureaucracy and IIT Bombay took the bureaucracy that we left!

When I was over there, I think, fundamentally, the difference between IIT Roorkee and IIT Bombay of that time is that the Director does not matter. There’s a lot of delegation, of authority, and responsibility. The authority delegation, I’ve done over here as well. But the responsibility part that the heads of the departments think about their departments and work towards its betterment and not think of themselves remains.

When I was the dean, I very rarely told the director what I was doing. It’s only when I needed him to be there for this and this reason that I spoke to him. So the director could look at the outside world and look at the big picture.

This place has a history of the head of the institution being the orator. In the sense that everybody at that level at the institution looks upto him ki ye baat karega. That aspect was not over there and I know it because who was the director over there, is now the chairman of the Board of Governors over here.

I think in an academic institution debate is a very important part. If someone will say something, you have to defend it. That is something that I don’t see here. Files come to me, and, I find no reason for it. We are trying to bring changes, with SAP, and all that process. We are trying to create something but how that will work out is something that we don’t know. I think here we are very centralised. I have to tell everyone what’s to be done. The head of a department just forwards it and ultimately lands up over here.

Today IIT Bombay is very very different. I mean, for small small things, it become so complicated. I would say that between IIT Bombay of today and IIT Roorkee of today, IIT Roorkee is the better place because it’s moving towards more openness, more flexibility whereas IIT Bombay is going towards more rigidity. Because there’s whole lot of rules and regulations. So, I think they are going on different trajectories. Where we are relative to each other, I can’t tell because I don’t spend too much time in Bombay. So, I think that’s the key thing.

We still have some archaic rules, a curfew on girls and a relatively rigid academic system. What are the roadblocks to changing these at IITR?

About three years ago, I completely changed the academic system. I brought in flexibility, and whether the flexibility in reality, is happening is something that I don’t know. What we are trying to make is that we are trying to do changes from institute centric to student centric. Unfortunately, students are not, a very enlightened lot. The fact that each one of the undergrad students can choose his or her own path is something that, and I think, and I do agree on paper it looks beautiful. There are certain hitches, that are going to come, but I think with what we are trying to do, that academic flexibility will come along. It may take two to three years for systems to change. I think that’s all I can think of.

One of the first things I did when I came back here, is try to say okay let’s look at the curfew of girls, right? Let’s do something about it. Immediately, another section of girls came in and told me that, “Sir, we feel safe being locked up at night.”

I said ‘Boss!”. You see, the point I am trying to make is that one group of girls came and said, “Sir, we want to remove the restrictions”. I said, “Sure! I think it’s criminal”. But then, almost half an hour later, another batch of girl students came in and said, “Sir please don’t change it!”, our parents are very happy.

I can’t handle this, because I do not understand this. IIT Roorkee has surprised me over and over and over and over again.

IITR has been consistently ranked as the sixth best. Taking the ranking at face value, where do you think lies the difference between us and the original five IITs?

The thinking process. The thinking process of everybody, including the students. I blame students, mostly. The last time I went to Saharanpur campus I told the students there that you are not IIT students; what you did IIT students would never do. So I think, because to a certain extent that at all levels, this place still does not believe that it’s an IIT. And that’s where the history comes in, right?

All the other IITs were created afresh, and they started as IITs. This was the University of Roorkee, which became IIT. I’ll also say that University of Roorkee had a lot of good things that were destroyed in the first 3-4 years of being an IIT.

I think, the fact is that,I’m trying to make the students run things. I’ve seen that even among a lot of students, self interest becomes paramount. Such a thing becomes an issue. I think that is fundamentally the issue is over here the mindset is not about the institution but ourselves. I’ve mentioned this to the faculty, I have mentioned it to my Deans, and all my students that self-interest determines what you are. I just lay my case. If 8000 students all work together who can do anything to them. But, even a batch of 60 students there’s no unity.

The cultural council is not united. Once if the cultural council is united, and therefore what happens is, again, and I am telling you that I’m making a controversial statement over here, that, you lose out. Because, the divide and rule policy!

I get the best people from around the world. Fantastic researchers, brilliant faculty. They come over here, and Roorkee grows over them. And there’s a statement and I’ll go with it, that you can take a person out of Roorkee, but you cannot take the Roorkee out of a person. Even alumni. When I’m talking about IIT Bombay too. We used to have these gatherings of 5000 people, everybody working right?

And this is fundamentally. I’m telling you frankly, IIT Roorkee easily, easily, with almost no effort can be the third best IIT. Why, because IIT Bombay and Delhi are currently very well established, you know the why that is? Because those two IITs are on autopilot. In the sense that you don’t have to tell the faculty anything, you don’t have to tell students anything. Everybody does what is best for the institution. They do sponsored research of almost a hundred and fifty crore rupees a year.

I’m telling you, the ranking is fundamentally about being known in the world. Fundamentally. I’m telling you, how the students are different from the other IITs? In other IITs, General Secretary banta hai to kisi ko pakad ke banate hain wahan pe. Koi banana hi nahi chaahta. Yahaan pe, I still remember, about three years ago where the guy who became the SAC ka kya hai President, usko kandhe pe leke you people were announcing. Delhi University hai kya hai yaar. I mean, it was a guy who was like, and he was being taken around by students and I was like, kya hai yaar.

I think every piece of the puzzle, okay, is, is equally responsible for IIT Roorkee sixth rank. Easily, we are better than Kharagpur, Kanpur, and Madras. And I am the person who has been in all these places. I’m telling you very frankly. The sixth rank is because we ourselves are totally satisfied being the sixth IIT. We do not aspire for anything better than the sixth rank.

It is every student for himself or herself, this is how it is. Faculty members will always be. So, I think that culture, that old culture still here. I’m shocked, even in IIT system I feel someone calling a one year senior “Sir”. That used to be like, for officers! You know, that culture has not grown out of this place. And that’s the reason why it exists. I’m telling you very frankly, if today you look at it from hard basis, its basic perception. The external perception is what matters. Today, IIT Hyderabad is better known than IIT Roorkee. Internationally nobody knows IIT Roorkee.

I think that, that the main thing IIT Roorkee lacks is a todo attitude. Go out, and tell the people that we will do it for you, okay? We will work with you. These are the areas that are our strengths and that’s all for this this this this purpose. That I think is the key to IIT Roorkee being third very easily nothing, no doubt. I think that’s the fundamental issue.

Undergraduate Research at IITR pales in comparison to the other IITs. We have a minimal number of students taking up research as a career. How can we turn this around?

Undergraduate research is a tautology. Undergraduates cannot do research. Because to do research, you have to gain so much knowledge and you cannot. What can an undergraduate do? Undergraduates have ideas. They need to solve a problem. We need to develop something to solve a problem. That is something that cannot be individually pursued.

Form teams. Solve problems yaar. You see, that’s what I’m trying to say. If you look at it, that’s what I was trying to tell the students also. And I support all students. Do something yaar. Get an approach. Try to solve a problem. Research leave it to the Phd students. If you look elsewhere, none of them are doing research. If they are doing research it is stupid. Because they don’t have any knowledge. You people don’t have knowledge. But you have ideas. Ideas do not require knowledge.

What is the biggest regret from your tenure here at IIT Roorkee?

I tried to create leaders among students, but I failed. I have never said no to anything. I am the only director who has given airfare to students to go for inter IIT. The only thing I have asked them is to bring the general championship, which hasn’t happened in the past 5 years. See you guys are from Watch Out! You should go and hit everyone with your work. That’s what IITs are about. You come here, the world is yours. Every time I interact with students working in Thomso, Cognizance I tell them “Karo, kuch karo”. They have done wonderfully in terms of bringing sponsorship and all. You know when Techfest started, it became international. But Cognizance is still a regional fest. Aspiration is what I want my students to have. Go and become global leaders. Be the best in what you do. Screw the system, yaar. In the system or among students there would always be good people and bad people.

At least during my five years here, I haven’t seen anything big coming from Roorkee. I have always been there for everything students want to have. Be it Cognizance, cultural activities, sports, anything. Every time I try to get some good people to come for Cognizance because I feel that if students interact with them, someone might learn and go out and do something big. A major problem here, both with the alumni and the students is that they feel for the institute, but they don’t want to contribute towards the institute’s growth. This is fundamental and it is not because of the university culture. Come on yaar, it has been 15 years, that means a generation’s time. Even after all these years, having had a director who has only been in the IIT system- studied in an IIT system, taught in an IIT system and come here thinking that this was an IIT.

It has been established that a major reason for Roorkee’s undoing is the student populace. How has the response from the students been?

We opened a tinkering lab. I thought there will be a mass of students trying to figure out when it is going to open. The tinkering lab at IIT Bombay is completely run by students. I asked the Director, IIT Bombay, “Has the satellite gone up?”. He had no clue and had to call and ask a student to find out the details. People should start taking initiatives. A lot of things have been started by students, but they lack continuity. For example, groups like FSAE, Robocon etc. I had expected that over five years, their race car would start winning after accumulating knowledge over these years. You should be going forward. Similarly with Robocon, the robotics group. The students should start working around their ideas.

How many students have even tried to find out what the faculty works on? Would you disagree with me if I say the answer is quite negligible? I have been saying this to the faculty as well when asked the question what the institute does for them. The institute gives you a place to stay, world class research facilities, a salary. Who is stopping you from doing things? The point I am trying to make is, the efforts have to be started from individuals.

How is NSS, NSO, NCC treated here? Look at the sports facilities here. Gen. Vishwambar Singh represented India in Asiad. Air Marshal Athawale represented UP in Ranji Trophy and he was the topper in his class during his time. India’s snooker no 5, who used to play with Geeth Sethi comes from University of Roorkee. Where are such achievements now? Roorkee has the best sports facilities among all IITs as said by external review committees. How many students take advantage of these?

Students are more interested in the bandwidth of the internet here. What is the opportunity you grab here? The speed of the internet. Here people complain about the number of companies visiting the campus. More than 240 companies visited last year which rivals any other IITs. Do you know what recruiters say about IIT Roorkee? They say that they see a remarkable difference between people of IITR and other IITs. Do you know what the problem is? Communication. Because you do not go out of your rooms and speak out.

IITs are autonomous universities. However we rarely focus on any aspect apart from engineering. With this as the case, how do you see us blossoming as full blown universities as in the west?

We are good at science and technology and we should be the best in that. I have it completely clear in my mind that the universities you are talking about in the west started brilliantly from the beginning. Look at Berkeley where I went, it was the best in Physics. We had ten nobel laureates and there was a Nobel laureate corridor. It was the best in biology. The Haas school of management had 3 Nobel laureates in Economics. They started from the best.

The mandate of the IITs was for technology. Every IIT has a management school. I fundamentally say one thing. Why would a guy who can get into IIM Ahmedabad and IIM Calcutta come to IIT Roorkee management school. So what do we have? We have the people who couldn’t get into IIMs. Whereas, the faculty that we have over here, the other IITs would love to have. That’s where we get the best, in science and engineering. Not in social sciences. Look at JNU. JNU was created in that fashion. I still remember when I was a youngster, JNU’s CS department was the best in the world. Today it’s a liberal arts university. Where is science and engineering? Nowhere. I think there’s nothing wrong in being the best in what you are, rather than aping something we couldn’t create.

Can you complete the joke, “A Director walks into a bar…”?

Everybody goes out. A director walks alone. So even if he goes into a bar he’s alone.

We thank Prof. Banerji for his time and the wonderful conversation that ensued. Prof. Banerji had the following concluding remark for us -

“I wish I had known about Watch Out! five years ago. Then I would’ve done something different for Watch Out! I believe you guys have a great responsibility too. I want to go back to Bombay and hear that Watch Out! has done something great.”