April 11, 2008

In Search of IRRELEVANCE : IITs and IIMs

Mediocrity has finally triumphed over Merit. The Supreme Court of India -- led by the Chief Justice who has been a direct beneficiary of the politics of reservation -- has sided with our politicians and have declared that in India, the search for Excellence is over. From now on we should be in search of Irrelevance. The IITs and IIMs, that last, albeit shaky bastion, of the intellectual elite has fallen to the powers of the Dark Lord of Venal Populism ... from the depths of despair the citizen cries out What Next ?

For all such anguished souls ... all that we can say is Take Heart. This is not the first and shall certainly not be the last ... Let us go back in time and reexamine the painful journey that the people of this hapless land have had to travel .. and how they have fared.

Those of you who have been born and brought up in Calcutta in the late sixties and early seventies may recollect an organisation called Haringhata Diary, owned and mismanaged by the Government of West Bengal. As the sole supplier of milk to the city, it was a paragon of high-handedness but citizens had no option but to literally beg for the milk cards that were the only source of milk for the population. But with the arrival of Amul, Metro and a host of other suppliers this once haughty and arrogant organisation is now a ghost of its former self ... its once imperious employees now reduced to sitting on the footpaths to offer their shoddy wares. Such is the invisible hand of the free market.

Fast forward to the nineties and ditto is the case with Department of Telephones ( or in its new avatar, BSNL) and Indian Airlines ( now simply Indian ). With Airtel, Vodaphone, Reliance and Tata Teleservices offering telephone connections in 30 minutes flat ... only the insane will go searching for a BSNL phone. So is the case with Indian Airlines .. now reserved for and serving only sarkari babus. Such is the invisible hand of the free market.

So would BE the case in Life Insurance and Banks in the next few years. Those of you who are reading this blog would hardly have any interest in any of these government organisations.

In a larger sense, so is the case with all government provided goods and services. Including jobs -- which is seen as a public service or charity to be doled out to the population. V.P. "Mandal" Singh might have reserved 50% government jobs for his constituency of so called backward classes, but today, do we really care ? Does anybody really care for jobs in nationalised banks ? in the railways ? as BDOs in the state government ? even in the so-called mighty IAS ? No sir. Thanks, but no thanks. We are better off looking for jobs in Tata Motors, Arcellor Mittal, Wipro, Larsen & Toubro or in any of multinational entities opening shop in India.

What does this mean in the Education Sector ? What it means is that the days of IITs and IIMs are numbered. As more and more private colleges open out ... it is these that will attract the best marketing talent, the best faculty, the best recruiters and so the best students. Do any one of our children go to government sponsored primary and secondary schools any more ? Certainly not. Shall any of our children go to these anaemic government colleges any more ? For the next five years, possibly and regrettably yes ... but then ? What then ? Stanford, Harvard and MIT are all private organisations that have served as benchmarks of excellence ... so would be the private colleges started by industrialists and businessmen ( even corrupt businessmen ) in India.

And then who will care about the levels of reservation in IITs and IIMs ? They will simply drop out of view ... out of sight, out of mind ... just like Haringhata Dairy, BSNL, Indian Airlines, LIC and United Bank of India !! and good riddance.

So relax and enjoy yourself ... at least for the time being.

But is this picture all that rosy ? Is there not the hint of dark shadow lurking in the background of this otherwise rosy picture ? Do the forces of darkness not realise that this irrelevance is just a matter of time ? Of course they are. And what are they doing about this ?

There is a move afoot to introduce reservations in both private sector businesses and in private ( and un-aided) colleges and deemed universities. Should that happen -- and it is certainly not impossible, given the powers of populism ranged against those of good sense -- then it will only lead to an even greater irrelevance ... The irrelevance of India itself in a globalised world.

Just as we have stopped caring for Haringhata milk, the world will stop caring for Indian goods and services. Now that is a serious problem for which -- alas -- I have no solution at the moment.

Or do I have a solution ? If you have the inclination and the time, read my book The Road to pSingularity ... or if you do not have the time, read this last chapter .. The Contours of the Eternal. It may make you feel just a little bit better.


Sudipta Chatterjee said...

Came here via Blogbharti. I really shudder at the thought!

Anonymous said...

Well written, and the concern is really valid. On a broad level I agree that mediocracy is overshooting talent. Probably that is a trade off of quantity. India is positioned in the world today because of its scale only.

But some of the comments need not be too strong. Like India does not only consist of metro cities. And there are areas that produce good students through government sponsored schools only. In those areas IMHO, govt schools has to serve at least for next ten years.

Sanjay GT said...

ISB Hyderabad is the glaring example that IIMs are not the numero uno anymore.

The govt. is trying to meet the overall demand of IIT-bound students by further introducing newer IITs. But what they fail to realise is that they are further diluting the situation. It does not remain "concentrated" anymore.

Another missed opportunity for the Government was to take the IIT brand abroad. BITS Pilani has done it when they opened their wing in Dubai with further plans to spread in other areas. If the Havards, MITs can launch long-distance educational courses, what's stopping the IITs?

Indians are always losers in terms of "branding" - barring an example set by a certain Mr.Dalmiya who branded the enterprise he led - there have been stories of brands dying (or maybe we fail to launch the brand itself) - example starts right from Mr.Jagadish Chandra Bose.

I strongly believe, that we need a branding school in India -- a school that would teach brand management -- lessons to carry a knowledge, giving shape to it and market it should be a lesson that must be given from the basic level.

Sounds strange. But that's why the US is US today.