Urban planner Arindam Dutta, 52, wishes he had the kind of academic choices available to students today, when he had stepped out of undergraduate college three decades ago.
An animal lover and trekker, Dutta wanted to understand the economics behind why “perfectly intelligent” individuals and organisations were choosing to hurt the environment. But the absence of any credible academic programme tackling these concerns in India pushed him towards town planning, his second love.
There’s a late silver lining. Dutta’s son will soon be studying environmental economics at the Madras School of Economics, while his father is dreaming of dinner table discussions on the subject.
“I’m probably as excited as my son, if not more. It’s fantastic that students today have such a variety of academic options — it gives them a greater chance of living their dream than we had,” said Dutta.
The study of the environment has in India gained heft over the last decade as international attention on the subject has increased and popular culture has focused on it. But India still does not offer a holistic perspective on the diverse challenges the environment and its treatment by man have thrown up.
The Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad, is the only one among the country’s top engineering institutions to offer a bachelors programme in environmental engineering. The reluctance of the other institutions is grounded in reasoning that many eminent academicians and researchers agree with.
Academicians in India are divided over whether early specialisation hurts a student’s ability to grasp the basics that form the bedrock of everything he studies later.
For example, in recent years several academicians have requested the government to disallow undergraduate biotechnology programmes, basing their recommendation on poor experiences with graduates in these courses. These students, critics complained, didn’t know the basic physics and biology that they would have learnt in more broad-based, traditional programmes.
But unlike Dutta, today’s students cannot complain about a lack of opportunities at the post-graduate stage.
A Union environment ministry study in 2008 showed that the number of institutions offering environmental economics courses had risen 30% to 120 over a decade. The number of courses themselves had increased from 52 in 1998 to 90 in 2008.
The Indian Institutes of Management at Bangalore, Kolkata and Kozhikode have compulsory papers in environmental economics or management in their post-graduate programmes. The IITs in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Guwahati and Kharagpur all offer mandatory environmental management courses as a part of their BTech programmes.
But India lacks credible full-time programmes in environmental politics and foreign policy, tools that are increasingly likely to play a key role in geopolitics.
These gaps, too, will be filled soon, if human resource development minister Kapil Sibal has his way. Sibal is keen to set up an Innovation University focused on environment. The proposed varsity is one among 14 Innovation Universities announced by the Prime Minister to help India become a regional — if not global — hub of knowledge and research.