Just as when there were positive signs about India taking off on the trajectory of a knowledge society, there are brakes being put in the form of an Indian version of affirmative action at the national level.
It has to be recognised that engineering and sciences are rigorous disciplines in the IITs, IISc for any category of students. There is a definite case for increasing the number of seats in those places but to accommodate a special category of students whose cut off marks are below those who are meritorious. It will only result in lowering the academic standards and that outcome does not take the nation towards a knowledge society.
Tragically, all parties support it for the sake of being politically correct and the cost to the nation is a question that has never been raised. With India being part of a global economy it is important to raise this question. The stakes in eroding the science and technology sector through this new quota system are very high and its impact will be felt in a few years.
The issue at hand
Do we just wish to dispense social justice, build a knowledge society or both? If we wish to do both which is very logical then we must have pockets of excellence where merit is the only criterion irrespective of religion or caste. That is how Bhabha, Bhatnagar and Sarabhai developed the S and T infrastructure of the country and institutions like TIFR, DAE and ISRO have shown the way in addition to IITs and IISc. The success of the Green, Milk and Telecom (GMT) revolutions also owes it to such a paradigm. The IITs have set a high bar in terms of excellence. Is the country willing to lower the bar now?
Admission to the IITs is strictly by merit and over 200,000 students take the entrance exam for a mere 4,000 seats in engineering. The next 16,000 aspirants are easily comparable in terms of quality to the entering class of the top 10 public universities in USA including my own institution here. Since brand name is an obsession in India like any other country, the political lobby is demanding a hike in the number of the seats within one year to make room for 27 per cent extra seats to Other Backward Class (OBC) at a staggering cost of Rs 6,000 crores in these eight institutions.
The category of OBC is an ill-defined fuzzy set and varies depending on the government in power at the state level. The Mandal list is outdated and must be set aside.
If the proposed scheme goes through, it will lower the academic standards of IITs eventually bringing them to the level of state engineering colleges. 95 per cent marks before and after quota mean two different things, as any academician will tell.
The sanctioned intake for engineering graduates in the country is 300,000 most of them are by reservation in the states and even then all the seats are not filled. Hence the demand for reservation at IITs for 27 per cent of seats on the basis of caste seems patently unreasonable.
The possible solution
If it is felt that IITs are over funded (about Rs 70 crores per year for each IIT) that point can be argued separately and perhaps force them to bring in money from industry as IIMs are doing. The money saved can be given for schooling in rural areas or top institutions in each state like Anna University, VJTI and Jadavpur University, etc. to enable them to come up to the IIT level.
We let go of a golden opportunity a few years ago by not going about systematically converting Regional Engineering Colleges into IITs one at a time. They could easily have given UG instruction comparable to IITs. It is still not too late to do that from year 2007 so that we have 20 IITs by merit alone. Let there be competition among the IITs to get a better ranking through good teaching, research etc. Many of them have very well qualified faculty with PhD's obtained through the Quality Improvement Program. As the TN data indicates the OBC category will get admission through merit in the general category if the total number of seats is increased.
There is very little reason to derail the current unique process of having merit-based institutions in central sector and letting the states manage the quota in their own way. West Bengal is a success story in not having a quota system at all except for SC/ST and physically handicapped and producing high quality students. As the county integrates itself in a global economy, the central government seems to ignore the fact that one needs to expand the base of excellence and not diminish it.
The author is Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Computer Engineering at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and was formerly at IIT Kanpur (1963-1981). He can be reached at email@example.com
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