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Friday, February 28, 2020

The first Aeronautical Engineering program in India: PEC

The year was 1962. The first Commander-in-chief of the maintenance wing of the Indian Air Force was legendary Air Vice Marshal Harjinder Singh. Here was an officer who was one of the greatest aviation experts. So much so, he had designed and built an aircraft. You can still find the plane “Kanpur 1” in the labs of Punjab Engineering College. He was among the first few employees of the Air Force when it was established in 1932. He had joined as technician and rose to the level of commissioned officer in 1942. He was appointed Air Officer commanding Maintenance Command in 1955, when the command was established. When the level of Command was raised in 1959, he was also promoted to AVM to head the command. He retired in 1963. The Air Force maintenance command was based in Kanpur. He even created a team of Air Force officers who actually manufactured AVROs in Kanpur. “Harjinder Nagar” in Kanpur is named after him. You may read more about the great man here:

But we digress. In year 1962, it appeared that we could have some action on our Northern/Eastern front and he felt that Air Force was not prepared for the action. One of the biggest bottleneck that he as the Commander-in-Chief of Maintenance Command felt was lack of engineers to maintain aircrafts. There was no undergraduate program in Aeronautical Engineering in the country. There were a couple of Diploma courses in Aircraft maintenance and IISc Bangalore offered a research program. There was an urgent need by Air Force for the Aeronautical engineers.

He thought of connecting with IIT Kanpur. But they were still under construction, and a new program would produce engineers five years hence. Air Force could not have waited that long. So he thought of his alma mater. He had done his engineering from Maclagan Engineering College in Lahore which had split into two during partition, and the Indian half had established itself as Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh. He convinced the college that it was so urgent to produce aircraft engineers that he could not wait for a new program to start. The program had to start by shifting students from other disciplines who were about to complete their second year into this new program of Aeronautical Engineering. Since the first two years had a common curriculum, it was indeed a possibility.

The college was ready to do anything for the nation. But it needed labs and faculty. AVM Singh talked to the then Chief Minister of Punjab, Shri Pratap Singh Kairon, who offered all support. He then suggested that Air Force could provide all the equipment necessary for setting up of labs. Faculty was still an issue. There was no way, PEC would be able to recruit several faculty members in a couple of months. The Principal turned to Dr. V S Malhotra, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and he agreed to run the new program.

Option was given to all students to change in the beginning of their 3rd year to Aeronautical Engineering. To make the deal sweeter, AVM Singh announced that all these students will be eligible for recruitment as Pilot Officer right in the 3rd year, and those selected will get a full salary during their 3rd and 4th year. All seventeen went through the Services Selection Board, and 8 were selected as Pilot Officer in Indian Air Force. The other 9 were a disappointed lot. They will not get any money for these two years. But at the end of their program, all 9 were recruited by the fledgling DGCA, and as one of them recently told me, the disappointment of not getting selected as Pilot Officer disappeared when they found out that as DGCA officers all of them will have job till 58 years of age, while in Air Force, the retirement age would depend on your promotions.

Dr. Malhotra had the hard task of training these 17 students with no faculty. He started writing to all institutions in India about various courses. While no institution other than IISc had a department of Aeronautical Engineering, he could find specific faculty members to teach specific courses. So students were sent to IISc Bangalore, IIT Madras and IIT Kanpur for doing certain courses. It certainly helped that a young professor, who too was an alumnus of Maclagan Engineering College, had assumed the role of Director of IISc Bangalore. He was Head of Aeronautical Engineering Department before that. That young professor was none other than Satish Dhawan who would later become Chairman of ISRO.

The students would go to these institutions (and notice that IITM and IITK were just 2-3 years old and had a lot of teething troubles of their own, but they too chipped in because of nation first) for a few weeks each, and go through a compressed course by a faculty member. In the meanwhile, Air Force helped with setting up of labs so that students could come back and do their experiments on campus or at Air Force station. (So our students doing courses at other educational institutions and getting credit at PEC is nothing new for us. It is part of our DNA.)

At the end, the first set of 17 graduate engineers in Aeronautical Engineering in the whole country came out of PEC in 1964, with 100 percent placement – 8 in Indian Air Force, and 9 in DGCA. One of them, Shri H S Khola would later become Director General of Civil Aviation in India.

We at PEC are proud of our heritage and how our alums have built India, one small step at a time.


Wednesday, January 22, 2020

IIT Chandigarh: Many a slip between the cup and the lip

This is the story of how India missed having an IIT at Chandigarh. A large number of people have told me parts of the story and it is possible that some parts are not authentic. But it is a fascinating story anyway.

Late 1950s. After no one challenged the establishment of IIT Kharagpur through an act of parliament, it was time to establish the other three IITs as suggested by Sarkar Committee Report, one each in North, South and West. It was decided to set them up at Kanpur, Chennai (then Madras) and Mumbai (then Bombay). Since IITs were to be at a level higher than any other engineering college in the country, foreign help was sought and received. The three new IITs would be setup with the help of US, Germany and Russia.

UK wasn't happy that it wasn't asked to play a role in India's development, and it offered its help for any other engineering institute. But their offer initially was less than what other countries were doing for the other three IITs. Indian government welcomed the offer, and was thinking of two options: Starting a new college which will not be an IIT, or converting an old college to an IIT. Both options will need less support consistent with the offer of UK.

A small college in Chandigarh had a great visionary as its Principal, Prof. R N Dogra. To add to that, Dogra family was rather close to Nehru family. And Chandigarh was the most favorite city of Pt Nehru. He brought more state guests to Chandigarh than to Agra. This college which was the oldest college East of Thomson College in undivided India, and had a great reputation, sent a letter to Government of India asking that it be made the 5th IIT of India.

However, the Government in Delhi had other pressures. There was to be one IIT and two RECs in Northern India. The IIT had gone to Kanpur, and one of the two RECs was to be in Allahabad for obvious reasons. The central government was keen to convert Delhi College of Engineering into REC Delhi, but people in Delhi protested. So the second REC of the North was planned for Srinagar. An earlier Chief Minister (the post had been abolished in 1956) had been demanding that a city of the stature of Delhi must get a second engineering college. Eventually, central government decided to establish an engineering college in Hauz Khas with the help of UK. Soon thereafter, UK decided to increase its commitment, and the college was renamed as IIT Delhi. For the Chandigarh college, there was a slip between the cup and the lip.

Not only the college in Chandigarh was not converted to an IIT, but its visionary leader was snatched away and made the founding Director of IIT Delhi. He had built PEC from scratch. We had shifted to Chandigarh only in 1953 and a lot more infrastructure needed to be built, lot more labs, new departments, more faculty, and what not. He had done all that, but more needed to be done to be truly world class.

At IIT Delhi, the initial architecture/planning/hostel names borrowed a lot from PEC. But while he built the new IIT, he remained loyal to his first love. If we could have a 5th IIT, why not a 6th IIT. He lobbied with Indira ji, the daughter of the then Prime Minister. And finally, the government agreed. The date was decided. IIT Chandigarh were to take admission from 1963. But in 1962, the China war happened. The finances which were already stressed became much worse and the date for conversion was postponed to 1964. Once again, there was a slip between the cup and the lip.

A new condition was added for the conversion. That Punjab Government must continue to fund this IIT to the same extent as the funds they provided to PEC at that time. This wasn't too difficult. Shri Pratap Singh Kairon was the Chief Minister, who had been arguing for the establishment of a world class college in Punjab long before he became CM. He had helped in getting the 146 acres of prime land in the new upcoming city of Chandigarh for relocating PEC. But he was fighting to clear his name of corruption charges, and there was this Punjabi Suba movement. IIT Chandigarh wasn't the top priority at the moment. But as soon as the the commission of inquiry exonerated him of corruption charges, he suddenly resigned in June, 1964, and Shri Gopi Chand Bhargava who was the first Chief Minister of Punjab after independence, was made a caretaker Chief Minister for two weeks. Within this brief period, he called a cabinet meeting and approved that Punjab Government would pay the same amount that they granted to PEC that year for eternity. While it was too late for July 1964 admissions, the central government decided that IIT Chandigarh would come into being in 1965.

At the 3rd Inter-IIT Sports Meet at IIT Madras in December, 1964, Brig. Sisir Kumar Bose had announced that from the next year, there would be six teams participating in the sports meet, the sixth one being from IIT Chandigarh. He hadn't realized that with the death of Pt Nehru, Chandigarh had lost its biggest supporter in Delhi. No notification of IIT Chandigarh came. Instead, it was decided to seek another letter of support from Punjab Government, since the earlier letter was from a caretaker government. There was a slip between the cup and the lip.

The Punjab Government decided to wait till the picture of division of Punjab was clear. The Punjab Reorganization Act was implemented on 1st November, 1966, creating the states of Punjab and Haryana, merging some of the hill districts with the Union Territory of Himachal Pradesh and making it a state, and most importantly for us, converting Chandigarh into a Union Territory. The PEC was no longer in the state of Punjab, and therefore, there was no question of Punjab Government promising any financial support to PEC (or IIT Chandigarh).

India had to survive without a sixth IIT for the next 3 decades.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Can a Tier 2 institution have a culture of excellence

I have been to a large number of Tier-2 and Tier-3 institutions in the country, and at every place, I make it a point to argue that they can imbibe a culture of excellence, that they can do better than what they are currently doing. This is almost universally resisted. Typical argument on the other side is that a culture of excellence can only develop in a resource rich environment, where the quality of students and faculty is high, and all that. "We don't get IIT type students," "Our faculty is not like that in Stanford," "Our budget is only 10 percent of IIT Kanpur," it goes on and on.

Is it really true that we can only have a culture of excellence in a resource rich environment.

Let me change gear briefly and talk about one more experience. IIT Gandhinagar organizes a 2-day event every winter. On one day, they invite a select group of academicians from around the world to discuss excellence in academics at IITGN. On the second day, they invite people from academia, industry, government, alumni, and discuss excellence in non-academic issues at IITGN. It has been going on for a decade and I have been luck y to have been invited to each of these events (and I have attended all of them). I love those two days at IITGN as there is so much learning for me.

In one of the early years when they hadn't even graduated the first batch, they discussed excellence in one of these meetings. After a lot of discussion, it was opined that IITGN should try to be like a top class institution. You can not be the top ranked university in 10 years, but you can be like a top ranked university very soon. I wasn't sure if I understood the import of that statement fully. But after a few years, I started realizing how important that statement was.

Let us consider teaching. A tier-2 institution would argue that they don't have faculty of the same quality as Tier-1 institution and hence cannot offer teaching programs of the same quality. Even if this is assumed, can Tier-2 institution imbibe some of the cultural aspects. The difference is not just in the competence of the teacher (which in today's world does not account for much) but how other aspects of the course are handled. If you are teaching programming, for example, your students may not be capable of building a large project within that first year course (actually, one will be surprised, if one were to try, but let us leave it for now), but do you even give them a programming assignment every week, and do you even penalize when students copy. Those things do not require competence and rich infrastructure. Every engineering college today has a course on communication. Do you only do some grammar and have an in-class presentation, or do you ask your students to read up 4-5 books in the semester, may be even watch a few English movies and write a critique. (And the teacher can spend 5 minutes with each student to figure out whether that has indeed been done honestly or not.) Today, you don't need competence to suggest a few books/movies, and you don't need rich infrastructure for students to read/watch. One of the biggest problem with teaching/learning in Tier-2 institutions is that we don't engage students beyond the contact hours. And that requires neither very high level of competence nor resources.

Consider faculty recruitment. All IITs would go out of the way to attract faculty. They would all have a mailing list of people, typically department heads in top places, or alumni who are in academia, to whom they will keep writing. They would meet PhD students in conferences and tell them about faculty openings. They would invite PhD students closer to graduation to visit the department and give talks, etc. How many Tier-2 institutions do this. To create a mailing list of heads of 50 departments from where you expect most of your faculty to come will take a student in your department not more than a few hours. Sending an email to this list every 2-3 months will take 5 minutes of your time. Similarly, putting out this information on platforms like LinkedIn would take a few minutes, and all this is free. How do you treat an applicant. Do you think you are doing a favor by offering a job, or do you think that the process of recruitment is not just about "evaluation" but also about attracting that person to join you. Do these things require competence or resources. Of course, not.

When we do performance evaluation, clearly the criteria for recruitment/promotion, etc., would be different in MIT, IIT, and NIT. But what cannot be different is the need for performance evaluation. The need for performance evaluation and accountability is independent of competence and resources. If you start doing time bound promotions in academia, that is the end of excellence.

How do you treat your students. Are they kids to be "controlled" or are they grown up who can be trusted with many a decisions. You would find that in most Tier-1 institutions, students have a far greater freedom and a role in institute administration, while in Tier-2 institutions, there are all sorts of restrictions. Do you need a lot of resources to have students as members of various committees in the Institute.

There are so many other aspects of an academic institution where becoming "like" a better institution (or inculcating a culture of excellence) can improve  quality significantly, but these examples should suffice to make a point.

There is no doubt that greater competence, and greater resources can improve things a lot, and I would certainly like to see a larger funding of all academic institutions in the country. But one can be "like" a good institution even with lesser resources and we can have a higher quality of academics than what we see currently in our Tier-2 and Tier-3 institutions. What we need is a culture of excellence.