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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Inefficient Land Use by Elite Institutes of India

Recently, there was an article in ET which talked about inefficient utilization of land by our educational institutions. It primarily focused on IIMs, but what the author says is applicable to IITs and other Institutes as well.

Prof. T T Ram Mohan, in his blog mentioned that it is important for Indian institutions to have a residential campus, and hence the student density cannot be comparable to that of foreign institutions. But he does seem to agree that the class size should be higher to justify the amount of land that IIMs have.

In this regard, I remember my discussion with the Architect of IIT Kanpur more than a decade ago. Kanvinde (senior) was visiting IITK and I asked him a question that I was curious about ever since my student days. Why did he design the Faculty Building to be a six-storey building, while all other buildings in the academic area were restricted to three floors. He told me that the original brief to him was that the academic area had to be designed for 20,000 students (yes, I asked him twice, if he really meant TWENTY THOUSAND, and he did). The first phase would be for 2,000 students. Even in 1960, when land was not considered such a scarce resource, it was not so free that we design an Institute with a student density of 2 per acre (we have more than 1000 acres of land). The planning even at that stage was that of 20 students per acre. (By the way, it took us 30 years to have a student strength exceeding 2,000.)

Of course, amongst other buildings that he designed early on, he did not want to have multiple storey lecture hall complex, because movement of thousands of students within 5 minutes of break time between lectures would be very difficult. The library could not be much taller since books are too heavy a load. And before he could design the next building in the academic area, he got a revised brief. Just to concentrate on 2,000 students, and not worry about future growth. So all the buildings after that had a maximum of 3 floors.

Fifty years later, we are still at only 5,000 students. Even the 20-year future planning is not getting us anywhere close to 20,000 students for which the land was apparently given by the government.

By the way, IIT Delhi has a density of more than 25 students per acre, and they provide similar quality of education as IIT Kanpur. So, one can't really argue that an ultra-low student density is necessary for excellence. And IIT Delhi cannot really afford to tear down all its old buildings and construct taller buildings instead. We have empty land, and can construct tall buildings on them. So the land we have can actually support a much higher student density. Even on fully residential basis, it should be possible to support 50 students per acre easily. That is ten times the size of current student body.

Of course, many at IIT Kanpur will argue that the issue is not that of student density, but of absolute number of students. One cannot maintain excellence when the size becomes too large. Fair enough. (Actually, I don't fully agree with that. I think we haven't explored more efficient administrative structures. But that is for another blog some other day. For now, let me agree with this, to avoid digression.) But if that is the case, then the government has clearly made a mistake by giving us so much land. They thought in 1960 that such a large institute is possible. Let the Government correct its mistake by taking away the unused land. Let it set up other educational institutions on that land. Let there be a cluster of educational institutions on the land which has not been utilized for the last 50 years, and is not likely to be utilized for the next 50 years.

I am giving example of IIT Kanpur only because I am most familiar with this campus. The student density of most IIX campuses is extremely low.


Biswajit said...

Part of the land can be used as a research park, following another US innovation.

Rajeev Shrivastava said...

Point well taken. Efficient land use can be ensured even if a new campus is to be built in stages, by two ways. First option is to notionally isolate part of the campus while planning and utilize the full potential w.r.t. the FAR (floor area ratio) by building on it. The portion left for future development can be developed as a green area etc.
The second option can be to build foundations strong enough to take additional floors later on, though this will create problems during construction in later phases.

Manjeet Dahiya said...

Quite an insight.


I think both the ideas of Research Park and cluster of other educational institutes like medical and law school are very interesting and have great opportunities.

WebMiner said...

I had no idea who the author was until I got to "here we were on the London Business School". Bingo, smug cross-culture and cross-economy prescriptions again. "five acres [...] yet we graduated over 1,000 degree students". How many of these students live on campus? How many of their professors and support staff of LSB live on campus? Is it a residential campus? I know that if you compare the academic areas of some IITs to urban universities (which excludes Stanford, btw) the density is low, but consider the density in which faculty and staff live. For every square meter of academic area, you need substantial "hinterland", which in the West is provided by sane living arrangements nowhere resembling the bedlam that are Indian megapolis cities. Even mid-size American towns provide infinite "invisible" supporting hinterland to universities in the form of residential blocks, transport, parks, schools, and recreation. In India, the best IIXs (or any academic institution of quality) can do is to wall off the mess and replicate some services inside. I am dismayed that influential people in academia like Dheeraj are taken in by prescriptions of people that have probably not experienced crossing a road in front of an urban IIX in ages. No surprise either, that the author also bandies around millions of pounds and dollars of revenue, again without any concern for the "hinterland" in India, where IIX's mission was, not so long back, to impart engineering education of fair quality to children of lower middle class parents making 50 thousand rupees per year. What is it about business schools that engender such hubris and smug righteousness before/without understanding the state of the world?

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Webminer, I am hardly influential. But the points you make have already been made by Prof. T T Ram Mohan, whose blog I have linked to. Even the original article mentioned that people from IIMs are going to point out that we need to provide residences.

The point that I am making (and Prof. Ram Mohan appears to also say the same thing, though not so strongly) is that given that we have to use our land for creating a township, we cannot be compared with western institutes, but even after taking all that into account, the student density is abysmally low. I have talked to some well known architects who have worked on educational campuses in India, and they all seem to agree that an IIT style fully residential campus, built from scratch today with lots of open spaces can have a student density of 50 per acre, as opposed to 500 per acre for LSB. (Note that I am looking at total student population and not just number of graduates in a year.) No where in my article I am suggesting that IITs can have a student density of 500 per acre, while a lot of city campuses in the west have even much higher student densities, more than 1000 students per acre in some cases.

For older campuses where it is not possible to destroy and rebuild, a student density of 25-30 per acre is easily achievable. And mind you, we are talking about an IIT style campus, which will not just have residences, but school, hospital, parks, shopping center, guest house, sports facilities, and more. And I have pointed out in my blog that IIT Delhi almost achieves what these architects are telling me is possible (if you consider the area under their control and not the area that has been encroached upon). And IIT Delhi has all the facilities that one would expect in an IIX, even though they probably have the best support system outside the campus, amongst the IITs.

If I am arguing for 25-50 students per acre on IIT campus, and only making a general agreement statement with the LSB professor that we utilize our land inefficiently, what is the problem with that.

And by the way, I have done serious bit of study on this, sitting with those architects. Counting how much hostel space per student there should be in a good hostel, how much a good faculty office would be in terms of size, how much research lab size would be good per faculty, what all facilities should be there on a good world class campus in India. I have also collected information on FAR and other regulatory issues. I have collected information about hostels from various good institutes, for example. I have been working on all this for the last 3 years, when I joined LNMIIT Jaipur as its Director. And I have been talking about land misuse privately for quite some time. The ET article by LSB prof only encouraged me to go public, nothing more than that. But my study was earlier than that.

So, nowhere I am arguing for 500 students per acre that LSB supports but only 25-50 students per acre. That too, only when the land is of high quality, flat, under your control, etc., as in IIT Kanpur. Obviously, if there are ravines, rocks, hills, then the numbers will have to be adjusted towards the lower side. I am not comparing IIX situation to LSB. But having 5 students per acre of usable land and that too after 50 years of existence, is criminal, considering the pressure on land.

But, in India, there is this serious problem. If you even mention "foreign" you are immediately labled as irresponsible and worse. So just a general agreement with an NRI, and I get this hate mail. Cool Down.

WebMiner said...

Dheeraj, no need to cool down, clearly my displeasure was with the LSB prescription, not you. "But having 5 students per acre ... is criminal, considering the pressure on land." --- One can argue that the pressure on land is what's criminal, but who's listening? I am at an IIX where every open patch has been turned into a building or a parking lot in the last 10 years. I am one of many that join IIXs not because IIXs are epitomes of dynamic work culture and world class professionals but because they are regarded as oases in the vast wastelands of urban India. So the degeneration of the landscape into ugly, ill-maintained man-made structures is very depressing. But my displeasure has no economic worth, says LSB, until I can buy out the land.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Webminer, why not shift from your IIX to IIT Kanpur. We only have plans to go from 5 students per acre to 6 students per acre in the next 5-10 years. So huge amount of open spaces are guaranteed in foreseeable future.

Shishir said...

Though your concern for efficient land use in India is valid given its scarcity, it is not proper to criticize (there is even a hint of ridicule in the blog)the erstwhile planner of IIT/K.

At the time of IIT planning, and I'm privy to certain information regarding the ideas of setting up IIT/K,it was indeed the idea that IIT will develop into a large technical university with focus on research and industry interface. IIT/K was envisioned to be a hub for developmental ideas for technical growth of India. The focus was not so much on to produce undergraduate students to go to US or to join industry straightaway,but to identify the researcher early on who would prove to be a catalyst to the industry in India.

The idea went horribly wrong.
IIT mostly drew its reputation through its UG students and an Institution who could most easily provide them the passport (or visa!!)to US.

Under the present circumstances , when IIT/K is limited to mostly UG classes (PGs are not so well respected there, honestly speaking),your concern for land use is well taken.
But , please , who knows , IIT /K may eventually grow into a big university , for which some plans are afoot already.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Shishir, I am sorry if my writing style has hurt you. I had no intentions of ridiculing what happened in 1960. In fact, in most of my blogs I have maintained that 60s was the golden period of IITK. But I think what has happened is that IITK on its own has never increased student strength. The student strength has gone up only when MHRD forces us to do so. If there is no increase in student strength for 35 years, when you are sitting on 1000+ acres, then that is a criticism of not those who were at the helm in the first 5-10 years (they actually took it from 0 to that number), but a criticism of those who came afterwards. So I did intend to criticize the administrators of 70s and 80s, but certainly not those in 60s, and certainly not ridiculing anyone even in 70s and 80s.

gautam said...

This kind of "ahistorical" analysis will get us nowhere. The admins of the 70s and 80s cannot be dealt with in such a summary manner. There must have been reasons why there was no expansion in student strength for a long period. Could it simply be that funds were not available for expansion? Please let us not indulge in any "blame" game. Let us stick to discussing what should be done with the space now. I dont think IITK should part with any of the land it holds. It should not have any qualms about keeping some of it "empty" for some years to come. Expansion is taking place now and let it take place at a pace that can sustain the quality of the Institution. India is still a large country and a few hundred acres lying idle in the hands of one of the top institutions in the country is hardly a cause for worry.

Shishir said...

I agree that IIT/K has not been as self driven as it could have been as far as development of the institution is concerned.

Since 70s, the fundamental pattern has been the same. The fulcrum of IIT has been the JEE (though, I have begun to have reservations even about that lately given the present state, but that's another matter) , producing good undergrads and sending them abroad, some of them coming back to teach at IIT and doing enough work to maintain links with universities abroad.

IIT preferred to insulate it from Indian environment.Though, this had some good effects and I firmly believe that the reputation of JEE was built upon both academic and 'ethical' standards , imbibed by faculty members during their sojourn abroad, it had some negative effect too.

I guess, the over dependence on JEE , and the huge popularity of admission to IIT 'B.Tech' programme, lulled IIT into some kind of complacency. IIT , over the time ,lost some of its strength to lead technical education .
It was believed that IIT system has been a huge success and so no change is needed, and rather it needs to be replicated elsewhere.
Given the popularity , and given the inertial frame in which IIT system was, it was natural that the pressure for bigger participation in this popular programme came from outside, and in this case MHRD.
IITs, being in public domain, must understand that it has to keep innovating to remain in leadership status and maintain its independence,however popular it may be at any particular time. These are cardinal rules of ecological system any institution shall ignore it at its peril.

I, in my small wisdom, think that IIT should expand by increasing its industry interface. This will have the effect of testing the waters sort of . IIT will have the idea what is needed to contribute to industry,(Indian industry as well as industry per se). This will provide it the glimpses of opportunities to expand. There might be hiccups, but things will be sorted out after some time .
IIT should not fight shy of lobbying, lobbying with the government, lobbying with industry and lobbying within peer groups for such kind of change.
This expansion will need more students , maybe from other disciplines of study, may need more facilities , greater number of faculty members etc. That's the way to go.
If IIT on its own don't take self steps, other stakeholders will step in to teach you how to walk.
(sorry for the digressive comments, but I just felt like to put it down!)

WebMiner said...

"a few hundred acres lying idle in the hands of one of the top institutions in the country is hardly a cause for worry" --- Ah, but IITs are not Tata and IIT land is not in Singur. Otherwise, as you say, this would be no problem at all.

vishwakarman said...

Density in IIX campuses does not bother me so much as the fact that they are all built as closed campuses. I write this not only as an aspiring urban planner but also as an ex-IITian.

It is of course dandy for academics to demand that campuses be walled off from the "wasteland of urban India" as WebMiner calls it. Academics are the direct beneficiaries of such an exclusionary arrangement. But we may ask whether public welfare is furthered by closing off huge portions of centrally located land.

For instance, connectivity to Taramani and Velacherry - two localities neighouring IIT Madras - could be greatly improved if IITM opened its roads for pedestrian cyclist and bus traffic. (I generally favour closing off many streets to private automobiles, whether inside or outside campus) The greenery starved city would also benefit immensely if IITMs forest zone was laid open to the public.

Academics in India have a not-in-my-backyard attitude that is hardly proper among those who are supposed to be finding remedies for social problems. IIM Indore got a TB Sanatorium demolished even though it had no need for additional land.

IIXs need to reflect on their net contribution to society given that their impact on their neighbourhoods is overwhelmingly negative.

gautam said...

Alas! Our campuses are islands of plenty in a sea of poverty. The average income of the residents of a campus are an order of magnitude higher than that of the people living in the surrounding areas (if you include the income of the parents of the students, then the gap increases even more). So, theft, dacoity, and a general issue of security is always a cause of worry. Having roads passing through a campus which is used by the general public is therefore a huge source of insecurity. This problem is bigger, smaller the urban area the institute is located in. Probably the problem in Chennai may not be so bad, but for example, IIT Kharagpur, after many years of struggle, was able to build an alternate road outside the campus so as to be able to close its roads to the public. There are many campuses in India that have security problems because some of their roads are used by the public. Such campuses find other ways to help our environment. Ways, other than allowing the public to use their roads and other facilities.

Shishir said...

Though I am all for efficient use of land, I find it quite unacceptable the argument that IIT/K (or for that matter IIX) land be surrendered or be made open to public use.

Any such populist sentiment will only hamper the functioning of the Institute.
IIT/K may not be the epitome of world class professionalism, but it certainly is a very good institution. And it is good because it is somewhat insulated from physical surroundings. I needn't elaborate on it.

The way must be found out for better use of land available keeping provision for future use.
In fact, we must think of meaningful and gainful expansion first and then think of land as one of the resources which is already available. It shouldn't be other way round.
I'm not enamoured of the idea of expansion just by increasing the intake in undergraduate courses. It is a forced expansion and I think it has affected the rhythm of the institute.

WebMiner said...

Ex-IITian vishwakarman's exhorting IITs to be open campuses proves already that IITs are a failure when it comes to teaching people to think, and they should be dissolved. The last three ministries leading up to Kapil "an IIT in every chawl" Sibal are at the job, and the demolition is well under way. Fret not, vishwakarman.

new-faculty said...

I wonder why the govt would waste hundreds of crores more on new IIT's when a relatively simple solution would be to increase the students at IIT's specially ones where space is not an issue (
I am assuming that creating infrastructure in an existing institution is cheaper than building from scratch - just considering the money part). Why not have IITK faculty mentor new faculty at their own backyard instead of having to travel hundreds of kilometers ? (Cynically I can think of many reasons but hopefully there is a scientific reason)

The world over the emphasis is on collaborative research. Creating islands of excellence is much more difficult. Could it be that part of the reason indian science is where it is (along with tens of other reasons) because we want to go alone in things we do ?

As a recent hire, at my institution I see that most people are happy in isolation and there are no institutional mechanisms to encourage people to talk. An institution in the middle of nowhere might be good living for some but scientifically does not make sense to me.

Ankur Kulkarni said...

As far as keeping IIX campuses closed is concerned, I think there ought to be no confusion. All IIXs are by inception required to commit themselves to excellence in some sense. If that requires closed campuses, seclusion and exclusivity, why not grant them that? I don't think anyone would doubt that a closed campus is indeed more conducive to research, student-faculty interaction, entrepreneurship etc than an open non-residential campus.

IIX campuses are not dense, at least not as dense as to achieve their potential for excellence; but this is a very different matter from closedness.

What the LBS guy is suggesting should instead be viewed in the following way: why aren't other nonresidential institutions in India, with similar acreage not showing similar throughput in graduates and research?

VaibhawC said...

"By the way, IIT Delhi has a density of more than 25 students per acre, and they provide similar quality of education as IIT Kanpur."
I must put it, very humbly, that IIT Delhi student density is way higher than that.
Certainly, 'they' are the teachers in classes who speak, write, present the same stuff to students there as in IIT Kanpur. But it will be unfair to call it the provision of education.
IIT Delhi UG hostels don't even have enough space for students to keep a table and a chair. The land used by students on campus is about a third of the campus, and half of that are sports grounds.
First and Second Year students live in jail like conditions.
It is disappointing to see the comparison of IIT Kanpur with IIT Delhi in terms of land. Land is a luxury in IIT Delhi. Please have someone first go inside the UG hostel and peep into a room. The question will change from person over land to land over person.
Pardon me sir, not meaning an offense. But teachers and professor of IIT community are seeming to become more and more insensitive to students, where the worry is more about land than the reception of great ideas by the pupil.
...or may be, great ideas are all exhausted.