Photograph of Anil Chawla


Author - Anil Chawla

IIT Bombay has been receiving substantial sums of money from its alumni. A discussion on the effect of such donations on the institute and some other fundamental questions associated with donations.

A woman had two sons - one went abroad and became very rich, the other remained at her side and just about managed to eke out a living. A few years passed. One fine morning the rich son returned and was moved to tears seeing his mother living a frugal life without an air-conditioner and even without a decent luxury car. He offered to 'donate' money to his mother for buying all the 'necessities' subject, as he felt, to reasonable conditions. First of all, he wanted his mother to unequivocally condemn his brother who had served her for many years. The foreign settled one had a simple argument - poverty was a crime and anyone who remained poor had no right to live. By this argument, his brother should have been just banished from the surface of earth. But since this can not be done due to some 'stupid' laws, at least, one should not be sentimental about such fools and just dump them as quickly as possible.

The bright rich son did not just stop here. He wanted his mother to change her appearance and become more fashionable and presentable. Old soft cotton sarees had to give way to smart clothing chosen by his fair-skinned wife. He did consider getting his mother's skin colour changed, but that was too expensive so simple inexpensive cosmetic surgery was advised. This was a part of a long list of advices that went on and on and were mandatory for the mother, if she wanted to make use of his son's wealth.

They say, money talks. A moneyed person has the illusion that he is the smartest, sharpest intellect ever born on earth. This feeling is strongest if someone has the misfortune of earning obnoxious amounts of money in a very short time. Exceptions aside, it is generally impossible to keep one's head on one's shoulders for someone who starts with less than 100$ and ends up with 100 million dollars a few years later. In this state of elated buoyancy, one craves for recognition, attention and supremacy. This is the point when rich NRI's (Non-Resident Indians) turn to India.

America, the land of opportunity that enabled them to make money, has too many millionaires. Being a millionaire in USA is no big deal. Hoping to get recognition, ego pampering attention in USA is too difficult (and a bit too expensive). So, the guy with millions in his pocket turns to India, hoping to get the attention and recognition that eludes him in his adopted homeland in spite of all his riches.

Kanwal Rekhi is a typical example of such an American of Indian origin. He graduated from Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay in the sixties. He went to USA with a few dollars and three decades later had millions in his bank account. For three decades, he had no need for India or for his alma mater. In the nineties, he made his appearance on Indian and American media with TiE, an organization that claims to help entrepreneurs of Indian origin. TiE helped Kanwal become a talking point in drawing rooms of Indians settled in California and New York. But that was nothing much for someone of his stature and intelligence (mental equation being riches = stature and intelligence). Mainline media of USA continued to ignore him and Nobel Prize committee would not even accept his nomination. So, in desperation he turned to his motherland and alma mater.

Nay, he arrived on the horizon as a great beacon of hope for the nation, well, at least for the institution facing budgetary cuts imposed by post-liberalization bureaucracy. The professors at IIT Bombay were too willing to oblige and Government of India approved. Money started pouring in, but this was all with strings. Americans say there is no such thing as free lunch. Kanwal Rekhi was not giving away money as a sense of duty or obligation. He wanted his money's worth to the last dollar. IIT Bombay obliged him by creating Kanwal Rekhi School of Information Technology. Kanwal Rekhi became the new role model for students of IIT Bombay.

Students at IIT Bombay were (and are still being) treated to a series of lectures by Kanwal Rekhi and such other fat-money-bags. Two and a half decades back role model at IIT Bombay was Dr. Anil Sadgopal, who had quit his job at USA; taken up work at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research; and later took up rural development as a life mission at a village in Madhya Pradesh. Dr. Anil Sadgopal was dumped and Kanwal Rekhi was put on the pedestal, without even realizing its impact on the minds of impressionable students.

The shift from Sadgopal to Kanwal Rekhi has a clear message - India is a horrible place to be in; get out at the first opportunity and make big money in USA; people like Sadgopal are sentimental fools who do no good to themselves or to the country. In the changed scenario, money has become a value above all other values at IIT Bombay. It was pathetic to see an eminent professor like Deepak B Pathak prostrate (thank God, not literally) and praise Kanwal Rekhi as the best thing that happened to India. This was at a function organized by Government of Madhya Pradesh for entrepreneurs of Bhopal. One wonders what Professor Pathak would be doing in front of his own students - possibly he would be ruing his own decision to remain in India.

The total money contributed over the last decade by Kanwal Rekhi, Nandan Nilekani and the likes is less than 5 per cent of what Government of India has spent on IIT Bombay during the past four decades. Yet, today, these rich men are dominating the intellectual climate at the institute. Nandan Nilekani's Infosys is a great success and Indians have reasons to be proud of it. But one cannot undermine the contribution to the nation of the poor IITian who joined Oil and Natural Gas Commission or worked in Indian Army. Nanadan Nilekani's money for his old hostel has made the hostel a five-star hostel. This, on one hand, has caused distortions in campus life and on the other has glamorized Nandan Nilekani at the expense of all others. Both aspects are harmful to the academic atmosphere ideal for an institution devoted to research and higher learning.

The irony of money from rich alumni has been that though it has helped build the brand image of IIT Bombay and has drawn the attention of public towards the success of IIT alumni, it has harmed the environment that is essential for research and higher learning. Money has poured in for activities that either support the donor's image or business activities or attract media attention. Donors are not willing to support any unglamorous projects that may be useful for the country. Appropriate technology, rural development, environment, ecological studies, basic research, pure sciences, humanities and social sciences do not receive a single dollar, while information technology, hostels, gymkhana and such fringe activities are flush with funds. This has caused the focus of the institute to shift from its basic objectives.

The questions that the country must ask to herself are obvious. Are we such a poor country that we cannot support our premium institutions, our symbols of pride? Are the donations and the attached strings worth the distortions that they are causing in the academic atmosphere on the campus? Should the donors be allowed to influence the intellectual climate and hijack the institute(s) from national objectives and values? Indian politicians and bureaucrats who control IIT's are a much-maligned lot but IIT's have been created, controlled and have existed in this system for decades. Have the Kanwal Rekhis and Nandan Nilekanis created any institutions that can stand upto the reputation of these premium institutes created by "netas and babus"?

Kanwal Rekhi can, if he wishes, set up an institute of information technology anywhere in India. But he is not an institution-builder. He is a small man who is just trying to piggyback on a grand institution funded by Indian people. Should India allow this? Should the mother allow her rich son to throw a few dollars and dictate the dress that she should wear?


20 June 2003

The above article has generated a lively debate. Please read what others have said and send me your comments.

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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