26 May 2006
The Honourable Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam,
The President of India
As members of the faculty of IIT Kanpur, an institution that is rated among the best technical universities in the country, we are appalled by the proposed policy of caste-based reservation for other backward castes (OBCs) that is being sought to be implemented in this and other IITs. We are committed to nation building and wish to contribute to make India an equitable and just society. However, we believe that such move at the present stage will be very injurious to the IITs. It will have devastating consequences to the culture of excellence cultivated over half-a-century by generations of dedicated and knowledgeable teachers and tens of thousands of brilliant students of all castes, creeds and linguistic and ethnic groups.
The undergraduate students of IIT Kanpur do not usually, or even often, come from wealthy and privileged backgrounds. The vast majority come from the smaller metropolises like Kanpur, Patna and Allahabad, or cities like Bareilly, and the moffusil towns and villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. A typical example is the late Satyendra K Dubey, an IITK alumnus, whose murder in 2003 while working on the National Highway project got national media attention. He came from a small village in Bihar.
Most IIT Kanpur students thus overcome poverty, bad schools, and many adverse circumstances to compete in a gruelling entrance examination for the right to be here. Many of these students also belong to OBCs; how many, we cannot say, because the admission is blind to caste and indeed to every other criterion except ability. Thus the distinguishing mark of IIT students is not wealth, privilege, or birth, but dedication and talent.
Into such an environment the introduction of privileges accruing only to members of particular castes would be a travesty. Further, with no objective criteria yet laid down for defining backwardness, such privileges will seemingly be granted in perpetuity. This would be the very image of the caste discrimination of the past centuries that the policy purports to assuage. Past injustices cannot be redressed by further injustices perpetrated today. Backwardness is not determined by caste alone. It is clear for all to see that other factors like poverty, region and gender have greater adverse impact on the chances of a person becoming an engineer or a doctor. It therefore seems to us that, except in electoral terms, purely caste-based reservations make no rational sense.
However the point we wish to make here is not to argue for one set of criteria for reservations over others. Rather it is to argue that the best institutions in India should be the preserves of excellence, with proven performance as their only selection criterion. Such institutions serve to develop the "seed-corn" of the nation which can then be planted elsewhere to make the whole nation grow in strength and prosperity. Therefore think not of IIT students in terms of their castes, but of them only as India's best hope, as the future leaders of India who have been nurtured in an environment where only excellence matters, not caste, creed or ethnic origin.
This emphasis on merit must not be viewed wrongly as ivory-tower elitism in a country of millions of poor and deprived people. Rather it is a necessary strategy for ensuring that developing India soon catches up with the developed nations of the world, so that, in the long run the IITs are instrumental to raising the standard of life of all Indians, and shine forth as exemplars of development and emancipation in an environment of extreme challenges.
Even if Government insists on affirmative action programs for IITs, we are sure that the IITs can be trusted to evolve and implement such programs by themselves. After all, IIT Kanpur has had an exemplary record of implementing the SC/ST reservation in a supportive and pro-active way that became a model for all IITs. Such an approach to affirmative action will also be in keeping with the autonomous status given us by Parliament. We share the concern of the government for providing the young generation with good education and economic prospects. In fact, many of us, and our students, spend time in school education, health, and rural developmental projects outside our busy schedules. We could participate in major ways in innovative research in education, health, and grassroots work, and thus contribute significantly to affirmative action.
It would be most disastrous to impose a 27.5% quota on the IITs in an ostensibly "fair way" by increasing the number of seats. This would mean rapidly increasing the seats substantially. In recent years we have doubled our intake. So the IITs are already short of faculty, as few applicants meet our exacting standards of academic excellence. If a sudden increase of faculty is imposed on us by a drastic increase of seats, the entire academic standing of the IITs will be compromised, and they will go the way of so many universities before them.
Many institutions in India now have good undergraduate programs, but only very few other than the IITs can train students in the highly specialised engineering and scientific skills required in India if it is to become a developed country. So there has been a concerted effort in the IIT system to shift our focus to post-graduate education and to creating an excellent research environment. This was the direction provided by the IIT review committee and Government over the last decade. To this end we have been working hard to increase postgraduate intake and provide more time to faculty for research. A drastic increase in undergraduate strength will derail this effort indefinitely.
The IITs preserved their excellence over the decades when university after university fell prey to politics, corruption and inertia. At this moment, when the entire nation is on the verge of take-off to becoming a major economic power, when multinational companies are shifting their research and development centres to India because of the vast technical manpower here, let us not play with these great institutions and cripple them in the hour of their greatest utility.
We request you to reconsider the reservation policy, and do everything you can to preserve the IITs for the future generations of India and, indeed, for the very future of our country. Of all the educational institutions in India, the IITs have remained true to the mission assigned to them by Pandit Nehru. So let them remain free to flourish as the standard bearers of Indian science and technology which was, and should remain, their primary purpose.
Yours very respectfully,
the undersigned faculty of IIT Kanpur
(signed by 125 faculty members by department and title)