The history of Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee goes back to over a century and a half. Called Roorkee College then, it was set up in 1847 as the first engineering college in the British Empire by Lieutenant Governor Sir James Thomason. It was renamed as the Thomason College of Civil Engineering in 1854. It became an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in September 2001, the seventh IIT in India. Prof Pradipta Banerji, the director of IIT Roorkee since October 2011, says that since Roorkee became an IIT, it has attracted the crème de la crème of researchers from all over the globe. In an interaction with Vikram Chaudhary of The Financial Express, he adds that IIT Roorkee, along with the other older IITs, can assist the newer IITs in recruiting faculty members who are among the best in their respective areas of research.
In which all ways has Roorkee benefited since it became an IIT in 2001?
The entire framework of the institute has undergone a radical change. The institute has attracted the crème de la crème of young scientists and researchers from all over the globe. Apart from prospective faculty members, the institute also attracted a significant number of international students. Several important MoUs and collaborations have been signed; research funds from government agencies and industries have seen a surge; the quality of intake of students has had a radical change; the entire perspective of the institute has broadened manifold.
What is the kind of research work happening at IIT Roorkee?
First is the development of drugs. IIT Roorkee had been working on the development of plant-based medicines.
Second is a creative cities network for Uttarakhand. Third is on Uttarakhand’s cultural heritage. Fourth is on Uttarakhand’s heritage tourism. Fifth is on providing affordable healthcare. Sixth is hybrid energy generation.
Seventh is morphological study of Uttarakhand’s rivers. Eighth is water quality assessment of the River Ganga. Ninth is disaster management. Tenth is hydrology and climate change. IIT Roorkee has experts on hydrology and climate change and this is a huge focus right now. We are working with various universities and have collaborated with the UK Imperial College. This collaboration is strategic rather than institutional.
What kind of international patents have been registered by faculty or students of IIT Roorkee?
No international patent has been filed in the recent past. However, many faculty members are in the process of developing sustainable and low-cost technologies that could pave the path for international patents in the future.
Over the last decade, many IITs were set up. Now, the government has announced five new IITs. How many years will it take for them to reach the academic level of older IITs?
An IIT takes about 10-15 years to develop into a centre of excellence, both in terms of academics and research.
What are your views on the locations chosen for setting up these new IITs?
I do not have any comments on the locations for setting up new IITs, except that I feel that these locations should encompass maximum possible geographical coverage, enabling students from across the nation to benefit from them.
What are the immediate challenges these new IITs can face? How can older IITs such as IIT Roorkee help them in overcoming these?
The biggest challenge for the new IITs is recruiting faculty members who are among the best in their respective areas of research. IIT Roorkee, along with all the other older IITs, can assist the newer IITs in solving this problem by tapping potential faculty members from their own alumni database who have successfully carved a niche for themselves after pursuing either doctoral or post-doctoral studies from IITs.
Should these new IITs be mentored only by the older IITs or even the premier private technology institutions can play a role?
Why not? The options are limitless. We just have to be open to new ideas and new challenges. Any world-class academic institute can mentor any new IIT within the purview of each IIT’s rules and regulations. Further, a consortium of universities that stands for excellence can mentor a new IIT.
What role can corporates play in grooming these IITs?
Corporates have a big role to play in encouraging young faculty members with their research activities. Industry-institute collaboration has paved way for successful conversion of research ideas into technologically-feasible and cost-effective commercial products. The objective of research is to be able to transfer technology for use by the common man, and industry plays an important role in this. Industries can help define the research agenda of an IIT, too.
Two years ago, as many as 769 students who got admission into the IITs refused to study in an IIT. Does that speak of falling confidence levels or was that a one-off instance?
This instance is being quoted by everybody and it continues even today. Rather than looking negatively towards the IITs, we should look at the possibility that Indian society has evolved to a higher plane where young men and women have a say in their own career choice rather than what their parents choose for them.
Do you think that the best brains in India still choose the top five IITs—Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur, Kharagpur and Madras?
One needs to see beyond the five older IITs, and there has been a perception that the best students only choose the older IITs. If the media spent a little bit of time going to some of the other IITs, they would realise that we may have better academic and research facilities than the five older IITs, and very good students, both at UG and PG levels, are choosing to be here.
Some critics say that IITs are affected by silo mentality, which they must shed. Rather they should readily embrace new disciplines, encourage lateral entry at senior levels, invite retired industry experts as faculty, and become more interdisciplinary in nature. What are your views?
What you have talked about is a popular perception rather than the hard reality. All the things that you have talked about are being done by all the IITs for the past decade or so.
How can we raise the standard of technology education in India?
The ideal way of raising the standard of technology education in the country is to develop, inculcate and incubate new ideas. Ideas which could be easily and economically converted into products that find direct application to improve the quality of life for the common man. We should focus on transferring technology to the industry through greater industry-academia collaboration and develop products that elevate the quality of life for all.
Recently IIT Roorkee organised the tech fest Cognizance? Is it a student-driven initiative?
Cognizance is Asia’s largest technical festival; it started 13 years ago. This year saw over 2,500 participants from about 1,600 technical and management colleges from across the country, in addition to 10,000 students of IIT Roorkee. This year the theme was ‘Photonizing I’, celebrating the UN observance of 2015 as the International Year of Light & Light-based Technologies. The theme is chosen by students keeping the recent technological trends in mind. It is purely a student-driven initiative.
What is the aim behind organising such fests?
Tech fests add a third axis to technical education—the first two being theory courses and laboratory courses. The aim is to synthesise and design solutions for real problems. Such fests are also a platform for students to showcase their talent. A lot of knowledge sharing happens at such events.