How IIT-B alumni honed the art of giving | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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How IIT-B alumni honed the art of giving

Jun 29, 2023 05:55 PM IST

The hostel, which will be thrown open in 2025, will host 1100 students. It has been tagged Project Evergreen – the largest alumni project ever in the institute’s history that involves fund raising, design, construction and project management

On a December afternoon last year, around 80 alumni of graduating batches from 1970 to 2021 from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) - Bombay gathered at the Powai campus to shout their “last hurrah” for Hostel 8 (H-8), established in 1965. As they bid farewell before its demolition, Kirat Patel, 70, stole a final glimpse of his room in the two-storeyed building. This was his ‘home’ for five years where he studied and had fun in equal measure, until he graduated with a BTech degree in mechanical engineering in 1975.

Nandan Nilekani’s recent <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>315-cr donation to his alma mater is backed by a strong tradition of altruism among its former students. (HT Photo)
Nandan Nilekani’s recent 315-cr donation to his alma mater is backed by a strong tradition of altruism among its former students. (HT Photo)

On Saturday, Patel along with alumni-donors from 55 batches – around 100 in-person and others who had signed in from overseas -- witnessed the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of three nine-storeyed hostels, including one for women, at the location where H-8, fondly called Woodlands, once stood. To be built at an estimated cost of 150 crores, 200 alumni members have donated 50 crores and efforts are on to reach out to past students to scale it up to 100 crores.

The hostel, which will be thrown open in 2025, will host 1100 students. It has been tagged Project Evergreen – the largest alumni project ever in the institute’s history that involves fund raising, design, construction and project management.

In less than a week, IIT-B has witnessed its alumni giving back to their alma mater twice.

On June 20, Nandan Nilekani, co-founder and chairman of Infosys Ltd and founding chairman of UIDAI, donated 315 crores ($38.5 million) adding to previous grants totalling 85 crores that went into the construction of new hostels, co-financing the School of Information Technology, and establishing India’s first university incubator. Both donations have resulted in a cumulative support value of 400 crores. Incidentally, Nilekani was the first donor ( 10 crores) for the Evergreen Project. Twenty-five years ago, Kanwal Rekhi and Nilekani provided substantial funding for specific targeted new activities. This step has become a model for the education sector of the country.

“After leaving IIT in 1967, I did not go to the institute until 1994, because I went to the US to make my country proud. It was sad to see that the buildings at IIT-Bombay were very old when I visited. So, I wanted to give something back to the organisation that made us successful, and I interacted with the director. We started donating to our alma mater. I got this inspiration from alumni associations in America,” said Rekhi.

Nilekani, who joined IIT-Bombay in 1973 to pursue BTech in electrical engineering, described his donation as a celebration of 50 years of his association with the institute. “This donation goes beyond financial support; it is a tribute to the place that has given me so much and a commitment to the students who will shape our world tomorrow,” he said in a press statement.

The first serious conversation on getting alumni to raise funds for IIT-Bombay and giving back to the country began at a 1975 batch reunion in 1995. “Our wives thought we would forget about it the next morning,” laughs Patel. A year later, the IIT Bombay Heritage Foundation (IITBHF) was formed with Nilekani as its president. And in 2001, the IIT-Bombay Alumni Association (IITBAA) was constituted which connected around 40,000 former students and formed 38 chapters across India and the world.

“Till this time, in about 22 years since it was established, all that IIT-Bombay had received from its alumni was 2 crores,” says Patel.

The early 2000s saw the Indian government begin discussions on setting up new IITs. This meant restructuring financial allocations to the five older institutes - Kharagpur, Bombay, Madras, Delhi and Kanpur. “These were therefore granted less money now, and fund crunch increased as we went along,” says Patel. He reminisced how his target to raise 20 crores was brushed aside by Nilekani. “He said ‘what 20 crores, make it 100 crores’. I remember telling him in jest that since I have no money, it was up to him to chip in. 100 crores looked like a big amount back then. But we raised more than that,” he adds.

“Alumni are strong stakeholders in the institute’s growth,” says Prof Ravi Gudi, dean, Alumni and Corporate Relations (ACR), at IIT-B. “During alumni meets, they are always eager to explore ways to support the institute’s growth. IIT-B is 65 years young as an university, but it is also 65 years old in terms of its infrastructure. There is therefore an urgent need to rebuild and sustain its ability to nurture several future generations.”

A few years ago, very accomplished alumni undertook a pro bono activity at the institute, says Gudi. “They met every stakeholder from students, faculty, employees and corporate employers, ascertained the quantum of government funding and money raised internally, and defined a strategy for the institute’s growth with alumni and corporate support, through a 40-page vision 2030 document.” The prime objectives were setting up advanced laboratories, establishing centres of excellence for interdisciplinary research and innovations, creating a school of entrepreneurship, building infrastructure, attracting talented faculty, conducting professional outreach programmes, amongst others, that would enable IIT-B to make societal impact and contribute to nation building.

“We need to change society’s mindset and recognise that educational funding is not solely the responsibility of the government. Institutions also need to be self-sustaining, and the contributions of alumni play a crucial role in achieving this,” said Pramod Chaudhari, alumnus of 1975 batch. In 2021, Chaudhari, executive chairman of Praj Industries, donated 5 crores to establish the Pramod Chaudhari Alumni Continuing Education Centre (PCACEC) to facilitate and enhance the knowledge of alumni and foster a strong connection between them and the institution.

The idea, he says, emerged after a presentation by IIT-Bombay in 2020 of vision 2030. In the past, Chaudhari has also donated towards the establishment of a chair professorship.

While alumni acknowledged that their alma mater faced key challenges such as improving the institution’s rankings, enhancing research and development efforts, upgrading infrastructure, and refining pedagogy, they emphasised the importance of increased alumni participation in tackling these challenges and prepping the institute and its students to compete globally.

In 2021, Rekha and Rizwan Koita from the 1992 batch donated 25 crores to establish the Koita Centre for Digital Health (KCDH) which was inaugurated in April. “Digital health is a multidisciplinary field, requiring expertise in subjects such as mathematics, engineering, computing, economics and biology, all of which exists at IIT-B with the best of faculty and students. We felt that KCDH can develop a cadre of professionals who can contexualise the problem and come up with solutions that are India specific,” says Rekha. “The centre will create employment opportunities, entrepreneurs and also conduct cutting edge research.”

Not every good deed by the alumni has generated headlines. Some centres have emerged following thought provoking discussions. The Ashank Desai Centre for Policy Studies, set up in 2016, for instance, was a result of an IIT alumni meeting in Goa during the tenure of former union minister late Manohar Parrikar, also an IIT-B alumnus.

“A crucial issue raised during the discussion was the lack of in-depth study in public policies being planned in the country. This prompted me to propose the establishment of a school of public policy within IIT. With a donation of 15 crores in 2016, the groundwork for this school commenced and progressed admirably,” says Desai, founder and former chairman Mastek Limited.

Desai adds that enduring ties between alumni formed during student years paves the way for altruism towards the alma mater. “Students who become a part of IIT’s close-knit community for five years forge strong bonds and become a second family to one another. Furthermore, numerous alumni associations have been formed, allowing us to collectively contemplate what we can do for our country and take tangible action,” he says.

In June 2021, the institute also became the first Indian varsity to set up chair professorship for women faculty with donations of an undisclosed amount from alumni member Amit Dixit, who is currently the Asia head for private equity at Blackstone, a global investment firm.

Dixit, who was in the class of 1995 in the civil engineering department, says: “To continue the legacy of innovation and support the institute in its efforts to honour outstanding women faculty members, we’ve created the Shobha Dixit Chair Professorship, in honour of my mother. It is a critical step toward recognising women leaders in academia who can serve as role models for aspiring students. It is important to promote diversity and support women so that they have the opportunity to secure global leadership positions.”

Infrastructure, labs, hostels aside, alumni have not even overlooked the big banyan tree on the premises of H-8. Having sat under its shade or simply walked past under it, the first graduating class of 1962 has donated 30 lakhs to preserve it.

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