Kharagpur, India – The newly appointed director of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (IIT KGP), Partha Pratim Chakrabarti, known as PPC to his friends, spoke to Tejinder Singh, Editor of India America Today, about challenges facing IIT and his vision for his alma mater.
PPC completed his B.Tech in 1985 and PhD in 1988 from the Department of Computer Science & Engineering at the IIT, Kharagpur. He joined the same department as a faculty member in 1988 and was the Professor-in-Charge of the state of the art VLSI Design Laboratory which he helped set up and has been the Dean of Sponsored Research and Industrial Consultancy at IIT Kharagpur and Head of the Advanced Technology Development Center. He was also the Co-Director of the strategic General Motors-IIT Kharagpur Collaborative Research Laboratory on Electronics, Constrols and Software. He pioneered the development of the Incubation Program at IIT Kharagpur. His areas of interest include artificial intelligence (AI), formal methods, CAD for VLSI & embedded systems, fault tolerance and algorithm design. He is a well-known teacher and mentor who has not only graduated a large number of students and developed well-appreciated teaching modules, but has also motivated and championed many student innovation and entrepreneurial activities which have achieved unique successes.
PPC has received the President of India Gold Medal (1985), INSA Young Scientist Award (1991), Anil K Bose Award (1995), INAE Young Engineers Award (1997), Swarnajayanti Fellowship (1997-98), Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize (2000), INAE Visweswarya Chair Professorship (2007-9), and many other awards. He has been elected a Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi, the Indian Academy of Science, Bangalore, the Indian National Academy of Engineering and the West Bengal Academy of Science and Technology.
We are here at IIT Kharagpur, one of the premier institutions of engineering and other faculties now in India. We are going to speak to Mr. PPC, the director of IIT. Congratulations on your new post. We expect it to be not a very easy journey, but a fruitful journey. So what is today the vision for IIT, which is your alma mater also.
It’s an honor and a great responsibility to be heading my institute, which is my alma mater. I had been here for 30 years. IIT Kharagpur, as you know, is a great institution. However, in spite of all the things that we have achieved, my first feeling is that we can achieve much, much more. And we can do something that will survive time. So quality- quality is our primary goal.
Our first objective is that, if you look at the students, these are the young people that are the best in the country. Possibly, they are the best in the world. Now their enormous talent has to be tapped so that they become the next generation citizens of the world. There will be Indians who are global citizens. When you enter this institute, the first thing that we have told everybody to see is “Dedicated to the service of the Nation” (the school’s motto, on a sign on the main building). The global citizenship, quality, scholarship, innovation, these are going to be the hallmarks. Our objective is to ensure that the enormous talent in each and every student flowers. And if we can do that, I think we have done what we have set out to do.
There is a segregation of first year, even second year, and then they come together. You being a student here before, you do understand the importance of integration. What is the institute doing about that?
Yes, you know, this concept of growing up in a culture where all the things that you do imbibe in you for four years and you get the experience of seniors who are from PhD students – six year seniors downwards, you get that experience, you mix with people, is a very important part of this whole thing.
Now because of this issue of ragging – and there was a directive by which we had to segregate students. Now this segregation is causing some cultural issues as you have pointed out. So we have already started thinking about this and how do we satisfy the cultural issues vis-à-vis the ragging issue. Because ragging, as you know, is a zero tolerance issue. So, it’s a very simple problem. So now I have started a dialogue with the students, and faculty and the deans and everybody else and by the next year we want to work out something that is much more feasible.
BC Roy Hospital was a big problem during our time and it still is. What is the institute doing about it?
See the hospital here, because we are in a surrounding area, for years, health care of the highest quality that is available in a city, or in a cosmopolitan city, is not available. We have been continuously improving the structure of the hospital. I have started discussing how we are going to get major facilities in the hospital. As you may be knowing, IIT has already got a fund to set up a 400 bed hospital and this 400 bed hospital is going to be set up in the next two years. It is going to have super speciality capabilities and we are going to have a medical school. Within two years to three years, I think this problem will be solved. But, in spite of that, within these two years also, I am trying to make sure that we are going to enhance all our facilities. I have already got the digital areas of all the diagnostics. We are buying and repairing all the new equipment. We have already ordered to get more specialists into the picture. I think that there is going to be a quantitative and qualitative improvement and then when the hospital comes up, I think we will become one of the best equipped people here.
In the US, it’s a big thing to be a part of an athletic team or a team of the university. Are you doing anything about how the-
We are interested in getting the best people, you know. What happened was that the students want to practice and they want the best of class, and the best of quality. So when they came for having the selection committee, I said, where are you getting the selection committee members from? Then I said no, no, there is an Olympian who is there in Jamshedpur, make him the expert member of the selection committee. So we have finalized Charles Bromeo, if you know, who was one of India’s representative athletics. So he is going to be the expert. I want experts to choose people, not get somebody from somewhere else. So these are the issues. We will get the best people. There is no issue about that.
Even you being quite open with the students, they are still feeling that they are not a part of the decision-making process. Will you like to do something more about it?
I think student participation in a large number of decision-making is helpful, because they come up with new ideas. On the other hand, they also lack the maturity of the overall problem. That is why talking with them, listening to them, getting their ideas, but then taking a decision on our own about what is going to be the best is useful. So that is why I have decided that I am going to have an open house with the students. We are putting them in every type of phenomena – for example, the hospital. I’ve said that now let the students be part of the discussion. The mess – let the students be a part of the discussion. Anything I have now announced that the students can come up with, any innovative idea, and we would implement it.
In my last PANIIT meeting, there was a suggestion that you should give an email ID to anybody who joins.
A lifelong email ID. We have implemented life long email ID.
Getting into the hot seat. How do you feel about it?
You know, my first feeling is whenever I had a great idea, I used to run to the director and tell him, sir, this is what they were supposed to do. Now I know that I have to do it.
One more last very important question, which we feel is that, I myself, knowing that I speak seven, eight, nine, ten languages, it’s very important to know language to be a player on the global field. So there is a proposal by Vinod Gupta, by Rosetta Stone. What can we do about that? What is your take on that?
This is a very interesting proposal, you know. Language is something. The last few days ago, we were discussing that we want to do a scientific study of culture and of which language is going to be very, very critical. So it is just not the study of languages that we are interested in. We are interested more in the deeper study of the scientific basis of these languages – how they developed, how they grew – as well as make our students proficient in languages. So there is going to be a deeper phenomenon in the study of languages. And I am yet to receive a proposal from the faculty, because I really don’t want to push things top down, it is better come bottom up. But I still have in my own heart the view that we are going to do languages and a very, very deep study of languages. Suppose I would love to have a technology, where I speak to you in Bengali and you hear it in French and you speak to me in French and I hear it in Bengali – real time. And then we would love to have people here who know many languages because language forms international and national integration. Language is the science about which we are all trying to understand. The day we understand the science of languages we have solved everything from computer programming onwards.
Looking forward, what are your priorities?
The first thing IIT Kharagpur will do, is IIT Kharagpur will become more international. That we will, instead of trying to go out and become international, we will bring the best in the world into Kharagpur. So that Kharagpur imbibes the best talent in the world. Second thing we will do is benchmark our quality levels to much, much higher levels. And say if now you will go to higher level, you will get better things. We will reward people who do well. So quality, infrastructure, research, innovation, scholarship, and another important thing that we have decided to do – Kharagpur IIT is surrounded by villages. The 20 kilometers around Kharagpur IIT within the next five to seven years will prosper due to the technology and output. So what we have said is we are now going to take our technology, our output, whatever we can do and improve the lives of the people. We have two thrusts; international thrust, try to be the best in the world in certain areas, and second is local thrust; improve the lives of the people around. These are going to be the two things because we are supposed to be the global people who are Indians and dedicated to the service of the nation.