Let India’s brightest youth find technological solutions to its problems

Kanan Jaswal

For India to be AATMANIRBHAR (self-dependent), it is essential that the country’s top young talents, the B.Tech. students at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), National Institutes of Technology (NITs), and 20 other top engineering colleges like the Birla Institute of Technology and Science at Pilani, Vellore Institute of Technology at Vellore, and Netaji Subhas University of Technology at Delhi, are engaged in doing ably-supervised, intensive research to find technological solutions to India’s myriad problems, creating, in the process, precious intellectual property which would be entirely India’s own. Becoming a technology-maker and seller would be a great break from our traditional role of a technology-taker and buyer.

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Presently, hardly any research has to be pursued by B.Tech. students as a part of their course requirement. After graduation, for pursuing higher studies in science and technology and doing research, IIT graduates and, to an appreciable extent, also those from NITs and other top colleges, even today, choose to go to the United States and other advanced countries and almost everyone of them is lost to this country for ever. Then, there are those who do cutting-edge research, working for global corporations at their engineering, research and design (ER&D) centres located in India. Nearly all of the world’s top 50 ER&D spenders and nearly half of the world’s top 500 R&D spenders have their dedicated facilities in India. But India can have no claim on the intellectual property created by these Indian researchers at foreign universities or at Indian ER&D centres of global companies. Thus, despite about 10 thousand crore rupees a year spent by the government on IITs and NITs, the brightest products of these prestigious institutions, the B.Tech. graduates, hardly do any technological research from which the country can benefit. This sad state of affairs can be allowed to continue only at the nation’s great cost, not only in terms of the money lost but far more importantly, in terms of a big pool of brilliant talent gone untapped. Time, therefore, has come to introduce a system which would allow some of the best B.Tech. students at IITs and NITs, and the top 20 other engineering colleges to pursue serious research as their course curriculum. How this should be done, we will see below.

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Students in the top 20% of their class on the basis of their performance in the first two years of B.Tech. would be given a chance to forsake two more years of the regular B.Tech. programme and opt, instead, for four years of full-time research. Those going in for research will now be called research scholars, they won’t have to pay any more a tuition fee, and in the first two years of research they would be given a monthly scholarship of Rs.25000, which will go up to Rs.75000 in the final two years. At the end of four years of research, i.e. after six years of their joining the institute, they would be awarded both B.Tech. and M.Tech., the former effective from two years earlier. Research scholars will be divided into groups of four with someone senior to them by a year or two leading each group, initially, regular M.Tech. or Ph.D. students would lead groups, and each team of five – the leader and four group members – will be given a research assignment forming part of an overarching challenging and nationally important technological mission. Each team’s work will be actively supervised and evaluated by Ph.D. scholars and the faculty. After the time-bound completion of that research assignment, another research assignment, and yet another after that; like that for four years.

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The research missions, among umpteen others, could be (i) making seawater potable inexpensively, (ii) increasing efficiency of solar panels by also utilising heat energy which otherwise goes waste, (iii) environmentally safe recycling or disposal of old solar panels, (iv) finding bio-degradable substitutes for plastic packaging and personal protection equipment, (v) making petro-crude from waste plastics, (vi) finding cheaper ways for retro-fitting watr-harvesting systems to old houses, (vii) development of laser, microwave and hypersonic weaponry, (viii) 6G or at least 5.5G wireless communication, (ix) developing artificial intelligence and deep learning capabilities with only small data sets available for training, (x) cyber warfare capabilities, both defensive and offensive, (xi) developing India’s own answers to Google, Twitter, Facebook, Android operating system, Alibaba, Tencent, ByteDance, etc., (xii) quantum computing, (xiii) finding substitutes for rare earth metals of which India has hardly any deposits and China the biggest supplier, (xiv) substantially reducing the cost and weight per kwh of storage batteries.

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There could be many doubting Thomases saying that it would be India’s big leap to nowhere. Obviously, they would not know how advanced technological research of great strategic importance is done year after year by 18 to 23 year-olds in the Israeli Defence Force’s Unit 8200. Those specially selected boys and girls, like others, join the IDF straight after 12-year High school. Compared to them, our young men and women, who could justifiably be called the cream of India’s cream, would have done very well in two years of study at the prestigious IITs or NITs or other top engineering colleges, after 12-year High school, when they would choose to do research.

Once out of Unit 8200 after a five-year stint, many of those young Israelis are straightaway employed by leading Israeli and international technological companies, many others start their own entrepreneurial ventures. In fact, in the startup nation of Israel, about half of the startups are closely linked to Unit 8200 “alumni”. Similar, rather better, prospects would be waiting for our B.Tech.-M.Tech. graduates. Having already done four years of intensive technological research, many of them will launch their own research outfits, with angel investors and venture capitalists competing among themselves to extend all kinds of support to them. The others would be readily employed by Indian and international hi-tech firms. Over time, these double graduates would get to form the core of India’s technological prowess.

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But why should any 3rd year student opt for four years of research when they are in line to complete B.Tech. in only two more years and then get a fancy job? There could be many reasons for that: (i) Not everybody is after money and fancy jobs. For some, the opportunity to help find solutions to their country’s problems and that when they could still be in their teens is not to be missed. (ii) These research scholars would be from among the top 20% of their class and this tag would attach to them for the entire four years of research giving them lot of prestige. (iii) With the average annual tuition fee of Rs.2.20 lac waived off and award of Rs.3 lac as annual scholarship, even in the first two years of research they would be financially independent. And in the final two years, tuition fee waiver and the annual scholarship of Rs.9 lac will make them moderately well off. (iv) Four years’ experience of intensive research would give them an obvious leg up while starting their startups. (v) After the combined B.Tech.-M.Tech., their value in the market for technological jobs will be much higher than that of most of their former classmates who would have by then been employed for two years.

Finally, if not at all about 60 IITS, NITS, and other top engineering colleges, the above-suggested changes could be tried out for 10 years, with all honesty and sincerity, at two IITs, two NITs and at two other engineering colleges. Like that, there would be intra and inter-competition among different categories of those engineering institutions. If the decade-long trial succeeds, the revamping could be extended to the remaining 55 or so institutions in a period of five-six years.

Kanan Jaswal is a Social thinker & activist. He began his professional career with banking sector. Kanan served the State Bank of India as an executive for 30 years and took voluntary retirement in July 2002 because he wanted to combat corruption and help establish the rule of law in the country. He has decided to devote the next ten years of his life to bringing about in India the Culture of Four Positives, the Positives being Honesty, Excellence, Law-abidingness, and Responsibility.

Follow him on Twitter @kananjaswal