One of the ‘remotest’ IITs in India—the nearest airport is Kangra (over 4 hours away) and the full-service airport is Chandigarh (6-7 hours away)—IIT Mandi, in Himachal Pradesh, has turned its relatively remote location into an advantage of sorts. “Attracting good faculty is a challenge at times, but many faculty members join us because they love the Himalayas,” says Laxmidhar Behera, director, IIT Mandi. In an interview with FE’s Vikram Chaudhary, he adds that being located in a fragile ecosystem can make students more climate-conscious. He also touches upon the recent topic of a video of him talking about ghosts, and says that the news wasn’t proper journalism. Excerpts:
What are the advantages and disadvantages of being located in a relatively remote place?
Our job is to make this place as vibrant and as visible as possible—both technologically and scientifically—so that people get attracted towards us, irrespective of where we are located.
Kamand valley, where the main campus is located, offers students a lot of avenues for hands-on research (such as generating electricity from water in the streams nearby, and using that electricity to serve rural needs). It is this kind of innovation that sets us apart.
Our faculty is actively involved in research on the problems the Himalayan region is facing and how sustainable development can happen in this fragile ecosystem.
Is the Kamand valley a huge, open-air laboratory for your students?
In a sense it is. Rural India has a lot of hidden innovation, and when our students travel to nearby areas they discover such innovations—for example, tandoor, which is popular in rural homes in this part of the country, is an easy-to-use, multi-utility warming device that is more effective than modern gadgets. There are not many distractions here (unlike in metro cities).
Our students regularly go out to nearby villages to learn about their problems and help develop solutions for them, or help improve their existing solutions.
Is it difficult to attract good faculty to a remote location?
It is, but many faculty members have joined us because they love the Himalayas. Last week, a new faculty member, who could have joined any IIT, joined IIT Mandi instead. We also offer them flexibility. For example, if husband and wife are qualified to work in an IIT, we try and make arrangements for them.
What about student placements?
Even during the pandemic when everything was being done online, many corporates wanted to come to IIT Mandi and stay here for some time, for placements—possibly because of the beautiful place IIT Mandi is located in.
Placements are good. Even during the pandemic year 2021, the average salary was up by 13%, median salary by 16% and highest package by 9%, as compared to the previous year.
What can you offer corporates?
There are many things we can offer; for instance, we are setting up a research park (and have asked for funding from the Ministry of Education), wherein industries will be able collaborate with IIT Mandi faculty and students on research projects. Unlike other IITs, IIT Mandi presents unique opportunities, of course with challenges, to various industries since it is located in the complex terrain of Himachal Pradesh.
What kind of autonomy do new-age IITs enjoy?
The Ministry of Education has certain policies (on reservation, EWS section quota, and so on), and we have to follow those policies. Otherwise, there is no interference from the government.
What are your major sources of revenue?
Student fees at IIT Mandi are highly subsidised; literally everybody gets scholarships. On top of that, IIT Mandi doesn’t charge girl students any fee, but instead pays Rs 1,000 per month fellowship to them.
We get annual grant, but we are a new IIT and don’t have a big alumni pool from where we can get donation. We are in the process of creating new avenues of resource generation, like maybe a fund in which philanthropists can put in money.
Indian has announced its net-zero commitments (year 2070). Do we need better, more engineers to meet that goal?
I think we need climate-conscious citizens. At IIT Mandi, we are focusing on climate-controlled agriculture, generating bio-energy from bio-waste, and bio-medicine. Climate change is visible in the Himalayas. For example, with global temperatures rising, apple farms are moving uphill (at higher elevation). We keep researching on such changes in our neighbourhood. We recently developed a landslide monitoring system. All these steps make our students more climate-conscious, as engineers, as professionals and as citizens.
A while ago you were in news regarding an old video of you talking about ghosts…
You cannot take a short clip from an hour-long lecture and present it in your own way. That’s what had happened in that case. Some people picked up the news, but I don’t think that was proper journalism.
But do you believe in spirituality?
(Be it science or spirituality), finding absolute truth is an eternal process. Even if you earn PhD, do you think you have mastered your subject? No.
The very premise that I am a scientist and I am taking something that is anti-thesis to science is a kind of prejudice towards me.
I have studied Bhagavad Gita; I understand it and I practise it. If you have not studied it, you will understand it in a different context.
An example please…
The Bhagavad Gita mentions that the world is made up of earth, water, fire, air and ether. A novice might say this is a primitive statement. Far from it. ‘Water is a space that carries information called taste’, statements such as these are profound science that are hidden in literature. We can get so much information from ancient literature and apply it to solve modern problems.