IT Planning & Management

Indian IITs: eRickshaws, Research & IBM Clusters

Last December the Indian government placed a semi-ban on battery-powered rickshaws - or eRickshaws - as they have come to be known. Yet it wasn't long before this ban was flouted and a transport official told the Times of India in April: “The battery-operated rickshaws are supposed to have motor power less than 250W. However, most of the eRickshaws in the city have batteries which are of higher wattage, as they carry more than two passengers.”

The debate over eRickshaws has been on-going. In fact in August, the Times of India reported that the government had decided to “rope in” the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi “to set technical parameters for the motor or battery-powered rickshaws that it has announced to distribute free of cost to rickshaw-pullers in the state.”

"The IIT will recommend technical parameters like power of motors and capacity of batteries for rickshaws. Technical and financial bids will be later invited from these six firms for selection of supplier," J P Singh, Director of State Urban Development Agency (SUDA) told the paper.

This is just one example of the emphasis the government has begun to place on Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) in recent years. As part of India’s new science policy, this aims to see the country placed in the top five global scientific powers by 2020. “All education institutions are mandated with conducting research,” Mr. Subram Natarajan, Executive - Deep Computing, IBM India South Asia tells me over the phone.  “There is a very conscious effort to improve the skills by government agencies.”

Natarajan believes “from an education and skills perspective the future is ‘very positive’ for India.” This is corroborated by a number of initiatives.  In a May article entitled “India Takes Steps To Prevent 'Brain Drain'”, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on the concerted bid to bring the diaspora home (or at least stop the erosion abroad). It stated that “India has the largest diaspora”, quoting that 40% of “home-born researchers” are currently working overseas whilst 75% of scientists are going out to the US.

This is no better evidenced than at IIIT Delhi where “two-thirds of academics have a Ph.D. or postdoc from a foreign university.” Yet over the past three years, IIT Bombay has hired more than 100 young Indian assistant professors all with international experience. Maybe this is a sign that as things improve in Indian institutions people are gradually migrating back home?

Vinay Joseph Ribeiro, an assistant professor at IIT Delhi told the publication although he returned to India for personal reasons “I stayed on because India has changed so much. There is a lot of scope for research that we couldn’t have imagined during our BTech years. Moreover, the students are very bright and teaching is a pleasure.”

India has a young population (median age 26.5) of 1.2 billion and the third largest system of education in the world. This comprises of more than 500 universities and around 30,000 colleges, many of which are focused on tech. Yet only three Indian universities were listed in the Times Higher Education list of the world’s top 200 Universities.  There is a clearly a huge amount of IT talent and potential that the government needs to nurture via its prime institutions.  

Like in other emerging markets IBM would like to position itself at the forefront of these developments. “Several IITs have put together large clusters [of IBM computers],” Natarajan explains. “IBM helps not just be supplying hardware, but [is also] enabling IITs to get the most out of those clusters.”  

The way this works is the IITs defines the problem that needs addressing. This could relate to local issues like predicting the weather to help farmers negotiate the monsoon, or it could relate to a wider science problem to help India set its place on the world stage. Then “IBM brings both hardware [and] expertise in how the software behaves. [This means] IBM is playing a ‘symbiotic’ role in development [in these institutions].”

Natarajan sees this as a true partnership. As technology gets better there is an increased need to cut down the time it takes to solve a problem. However, there is also an increased need for accuracy. India would like to position itself for excellence and the best way to achieve this is through an open, on-going dialogue between businesses and technology institutions.

Last year the Indian government launched a prime minister’s fellowship scheme for doctoral research, which provides industry partnerships for science, technology, engineering, agriculture, and medicine. This offers 100 fellowships to selected candidates working on research projects jointly with industry. “Several small and medium companies have approached us to support the fellowships to take their research and development work forward. It’s a win-win situation for the industry and the scholars,” Shalini Sharma, head of higher education at the Confederation of Indian Industry told The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Indian economy is forever being lambasted by the world media. Yet the massive, up-skilling population on the ground appears to offer huge potential to this county. The IITs were declared “institutions of national importance” in the 1961 Institutes of Technology Act… and all these new initiatives might help them truly fulfil their purpose.


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect


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