The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), it is now well known, have had their origins in the recommendations of the Sarkar Committee Report of 1948. The committee, chaired by NR Sarkar, had been appointed by “the Hon’ble Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, Department of Education, Health and Agriculture” in 1945 and its mandate was “to consider the development of Higher Technical Institutions in India with a view to ensuring an adequate supply of technical personnel which will be required for post–War industrial development in this country”.
The terms of reference of the committee suggested certain possible models (eg, whether there should be a central institution on the lines of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a number of subordinate institutions on a regional basis, or several higher institutions on a regional basis, or some other type of organisation), and charged the committee with the task of specifying the scope, size, control, management, cost, etc., of the institutions that it suggested putting up. The committee was left free to decide how it would go about its work, what procedure it would follow and how it would arrive at its recommendations.
It was a large committee (consisting of twenty-two members besides a chairman and a secretary) and it would have been surprising had everything happened by unanimous consent. At the very first meeting, one member, Dr Nazir Ahmed, suggested that before the committee proceeded to formulate its recommendations, it should undertake a survey of the existing facilities and decide to what extent future needs could be met by developing these facilities rather than by setting up new ones. Unfortunately, no other member concurred with Dr Ahmed’s view. The general view was that though, under normal circumstances, a survey of the existing facilities might have been the preferred approach, “the needs of the present situation are so apparent and urgent that a solution cannot be deferred pending such a survey, which would necessarily take considerable time”.
Dr Ahmed was thus forced to attach a Note of Dissent, in which he outlined in great detail the advantages of his recommended approach, which he said had been followed in Europe and America too. He went on to predict that, were his approach not followed, “existing institutions are likely to stagnate while the newer institutions will work in an atmosphere of isolation.”
Was it the word of caution sounded by Dr Ahmed and others like him that inspired the educationists and planners in post–Independence India to make sure that “existing facilities” did not stagnate, and that “greenfield” institutions took care to minimise their isolation even as they reached out to higher goals and newer technologies? Was the Sarkar Committee right in ignoring the methodology recommended by Dr Ahmed at the time and did its decision to do so have salutary effects later?
The Government of India did not realise the importance of a proper industrial base and of training of technical personnel in large numbers within the country till the start of World War II.
This was a turning point in the history of technical education in India.
In 1944, the government created a Department of Planning and Development under the guidance of Sir Ardeshir Dalal, a member of the viceroy’s Council of Ministers. Sir Ardeshir believed that rapid strides in science and technology would make it possible to develop industry and agriculture speedily and would cure all economic ills. But, to achieve this, large-scale expansion of technical education would be absolutely necessary.
To achieve his goals, Sir Ardeshir took two important steps: (1) the establishment of a Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (which eventually became the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) and (2) the appointment of the Sarkar Committee in 1945 to suggest steps for the development of higher technical education in the country.
The Sarkar Committee submitted its interim report (“in view of the extreme urgency of the situation”) in March 1946. Thereafter, Mr Sarkar, its chairman, went on to become Chairman of the All-India Council of Technical Education (AICTE), a body newly constituted to advise the Government of India on all aspects of development of technical education at diploma and higher levels. Also, Dr SR Sengupta, the secretary of the committee, went on to become the AICTE’s Secretary. The Sarkar Committee never submitted a final report.
The Sarkar Committee recommended the establishment of four higher technical education institutes in four different regions of India, on the pattern of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. First the AICTE and then the Government of India accepted this recommendation with great alacrity. Was the Sarkar Committee justified in ignoring Dr Ahmed’s advice and plumping for new institutions instead of first trying to build up the existing ones? The following summary of the situation in 1946 will make the answer self-evident.
For a population of 350 million in 1947, India had about thirty-eight institutions offering first degree courses in engineering and technology. The aggregate fresh admission in these institutions was of the order of about 3000 students.
These colleges predominantly catered to the needs of government departments such as public works, irrigation, railways, electricity and telecommunications. A very small number of engineers found opportunities in private sector companies engaged in engineering operations.
The intake capacity for postgraduate (PG) education in engineering was a mere thirty students in 1947. Most students had to go abroad to obtain PG degrees.
After about 200 years of foreign domination, India had obtained freedom in 1947 and it was keen to take its rightful place in the comity of nations. For this, the building of a sound industrial and economic base was essential. This could not be achieved without a greatly increased supply of manpower trained in the latest and best technologies available. Compared to the gigantic task ahead, the institutions for manpower training available were insignificant, both in quantity and quality.
Even after the four recommended institutions had been set up, there would be need for many, many more. The kind of qualitative and quantitative jump that was required in the field of manpower training simply could not be met by upgrading the few technical institutes available. Nor could a country impatient for progress wait for a time-consuming survey of existing resources.
The main recommendations of the Sarkar Committee were as follows:
- Not less than four higher technical institutions, one in the north, one in the east, one in the south and one in the west will be necessary to satisfy the post–War requirements.
- The one in the east should be set up in or near Calcutta at an early date.
- Establishment of the western institution, which should be in or near Bombay, should be taken in hand concurrently with the eastern institution or, failing that, as soon after as possible.
- To satisfy the immediate needs for engineers generally and for those with specialised training in hydraulics in particular, the engineering nucleus or the northern institution should be set up without delay.
- To ensure the proper planning of buildings, equipment and courses of study, the principals and the heads of the main departments of these institutions should be appointed and the services of an architect with experience in planning of technical institutions secured at a sufficiently early stage.
The committee justified the choice of a regional basis for the location of recommended institutions by referring to (1) the size of India, (2) the geographical position of industrial areas and (3) the location of the great majority of existing technical institutions, thus suggesting that while it was in favour of establishing new institutions, it was also aware of the need for integrating these with the requirements of existing industries and technical institutions.
In fact, the report devotes an entire section to a discussion of the relation of the proposed institutions with the existing specialised technical institutions and technological departments of universities and emphasises the “fundamental importance” of a relationship between “the public, industry and education”. For this reason, it proposed the location of the institutions “so as to be within easy reach of large industrial areas, even though climactic conditions may not altogether be favourable”, and rejected the claims of certain other locations.
The committee, however, did not limit the role of the new institutions to catering to the needs of existing industrial and technical establishments. It also looked to the future and correctly estimated that post-War industrial and governmental projects would require technical graduates far in excess of the numbers that were then being produced, as also in areas not adequately covered in the curriculums being followed in the existing technical institutions.
Existing facilities in advanced areas of engineering and technology in the country were even more limited. The new institutions would meet this challenge by establishing facilities for PG study and research in these areas.
To ensure quality in their educational programmes, the committee proposed that the standard of graduation in these institutions should not be lower than at a first-class institution abroad, for example, BSc (Tech) of Manchester or BS of MIT. It also recommended that selection for admission should be made purely on merit and no provincial quotas allotted.
It also recommended that some proportion of the seats be reserved for the educationally backward classes (“so that in due course the general level of education throughout may be raised”), though this view did not have unanimous support within the committee.
The committee made detailed recommendations about the scope and size of the proposed institutions. To meet post–War manpower requirements, all the institutes would of course provide undergraduate (UG) instruction in the main branches of technology (civil, electrical, mechanical); other branches to be taught at each institute would be decided by regional needs, for instance metallurgy and chemical engineering in Calcutta and Bombay, textile engineering and naval architecture in Bombay, hydraulics in Kanpur, and so on. (“Each higher technical institution should provide instruction up to the graduate stage in all the main technical subjects likely to be of use to the region which it is designed to serve…” said the report.)
The recommended number of UGs to be admitted every year at each institute also seemed to have been determined by the local configuration of academic programmes. For example, while this number seems to have been fixed at around 500 for the Calcutta institute, it was fixed at 250 for Kanpur.
The committee did not seem to visualise these institutes as the important centres of postgraduate education they eventually became. In fact, it suggested that these institutes “should leave PG instruction in the subjects concerned to specialised institutions”. Discussing the scope of the Calcutta institute, it suggested that “postgraduate training in aeronautical engineering should be given in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, or abroad”.
Accordingly, it fixed the proportion of UG to PG students in these institutes at 2:1. Regarding the duration of the PG course, it said it could be one or two years, but it did go on to visualise longer durations for “students aspiring (to) higher degrees after research”.
Where the committee made a significant departure from the prevailing practice of engineering education was in suggesting, after the MIT model, that courses in physics, chemistry, mathematics and humanities should be given to students of all branches of engineering at the UG level. In doing so, the committee was trying to live up to the principle laid down in the memorandum submitted to it by its secretary on the establishment of the eastern higher technical institution, which reads as follows:
“The course of study in an institution should… be designed to provide a combination of fundamental scientific training with a broad human outlook which will afford the students the type of collegiate education endorsed by leading engineers – one which avoids on the one hand the narrowness common among students in technical colleges and, on the other, the superficiality and lack of purpose noticeable in many of those taking academic college courses.”
Excerpted with permission from The Fourth IIT: The Saga of IIT Kanpur (1960–2010), edited by Surya Pratap Mehrotra and Prajapati Prasad Sah, Penguin Enterprise.