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IIT Kharagpur: a cut above the best

In this special series, Mint-C fore brings you India’s Best Colleges, their stories told through people who know them best: students, faculty, alumni and recruiters.
By Jacob P Koshy | Hindustan Times, Kharagpur
UPDATED ON JUN 12, 2008 12:58 AM IST

The Indian Institutes of Technology at Mumbai and Delhi may be the most glamorous of the seven IITs, with their smattering of Silicon Valley-funded start-ups, lavish cultural festivals and urban backdrop—but somehow another one has managed to surpass them. “This IIT is where everything began,” says D. Acharya, the director at IIT Kharagpur.

“Every major research area, be it biotechnology, advanced microchip facilities, the now fashionable entrepreneurship courses, industry-academia research collaborations, all came up from here,” the veteran professor says. “Prior to Indian independence, there were researchers in universities, and there were engineers, who were little more than glorified technicians,” said M. Chakraborty, the institute’s deputy director, “and the IIT was set up so that India could have engineers capable of doing research.” Fifty-seven years down, the engineering college stands testament to that possibility.

A 2007 ranking of the world’s 500 universities based on their academic prowess mentions only IIT Kharagpur and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore. A 2007 ranking of the world’s 500 universities based on their academic prowess mentions only IIT Kharagpur and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore. With nearly 1,500 peer-reviewed research publications a year, this means that every faculty member from the institute churns out three publications a year on an average. “I don’t want to boast, but I doubt if other universities, let alone engineering colleges, can boast of such a track record,” Acharya adds.

The reason why the college can pull this off, is because a good number of their professors are either involved with research projects that involve industry, or are themselves part of companies. So, for example, when a processor-making company such as Intel is not sure if their newly developed chip is foolproof, they would approach, say, Pallab Dasgupta in the computer science department.

He and a few research scholars, typically PhD students, and in some cases masters and BTech students, try to design a program that can scan and stonewall the chip for bugs. So in a win-win sort of deal, the resulting knowledge ends up as research publications, and the project itself generates consultancy fees for the institute and professors.

The average IIT BTech graduate is scooped up by finance companies, international technology companies, the IT sector, or becomes a ‘BLACKI’, someone who gets an admission call from all six of the Indian Institutes of Management—not a rarity in this campus. And the latest craze is entrepreneurship. Amit Bhutoria, graduated in 2006, worked for Goldman Sachs in Bangalore for a year, and is now a senior software engineer for Minekey Inc., an IIT-incubated tech start-up. Headquartered in California, Bhutoria shuttles between Gurgaon and Kharagpur, where the company’s research and development takes place. Two cubicles down, his junior Joy Deep, who’s co-founded Intinno Technologies that’s designed a course management system, agrees that starting your own company was never so encouraging as now. “The college has introduced a deferred placement programme for us. So if the company doesn’t work, we can sit for placements next year. But that’s just to keep our parents happy,” he mischievously adds.

Away from the glitzy microchips and the entrepreneurs, is a patch of land that’s among the IIT’s proudest creations—the tea garden. “It was an ingenious, almost audacious idea,” said Ashis Datta of the agriculture and food engineering department. The scientists dug out the rocks from the soil, which impede the development of strong roots, and first cultivated black pepper, berries, coffee and sandalwood and in their shade, grew acres of tea plants. Tea is sensitive to temperature, but not only did the shade technique work, they also have managed an integrated farming system. “It’s not Darjeeling quality tea, but will give Tata Tea a run for its money at Rs150 a kg,” said Datta. It’s only the IIT at Kharagpur that has an agriculture department.

Unlike vibrant cities such as Delhi or Mumbai, Kharagpur is not exactly a city of many options. “In fact, a professor colleague from another IIT joked that one of the reasons why IIT Kharagpur does so well on research is because there’s nothing else to do in Kharagpur other than work,” said Roy.

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