INDIA: Science and technology vs the humanities

In the past 50 years, science and technology institutions, or STIs, in India have acquired global recognition whereas the humanities and social sciences institutions - the HSIs - are still struggling for national acceptance despite a living tradition of education in these fields.

The Indian STIs have more and bigger projects, produce more publications, more graduates attractive to global employers. They do not face questions such as "IIT who?", or "what is the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research?" as the humanities and social sciences institutions do.

The Indian Institute of Science Bangalore celebrated its centenary last year while the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur had its golden jubilee in 2004, as did IIT Bombay in 2007-08. Year-long celebrations commenced at IIT Madras last year and IIT Delhi and IIT Kanpur may follow suit.

IITs have made a name for themselves and seven more came into existence last year. Similar institutions were started at about the same time in the humanities and social sciences: the Central Institute of English Hyderabad, now known as the English and Foreign Languages University or TEFLU, was opened in 1959 and the Jawaharlal Nehru University of New Delhi in 1964. Yet they do not have the same standing as the IITs.

There are some obvious reasons for this anomalous situation. Most ST institutes have the President of India as their Visitor and it is the President who appoints their directors, chairmen and boards of governors following professional advice.

Outstanding people have been appointed to positions of power in the institutions. M S Swaminathan, an eminent agricultural scientist, and Kasturi Rangan, chair of the Indian Space Research Organisation, have chaired boards of governors of the IITs. Similarly, M J K Menon and Raja Ramanna, principal scientific advisers to the government, occupied this position at IIT Bombay while eminent businessmen have also held the office.

The humanities and social sciences institutions have been less fortunate. They have rarely had people of this calibre and they have limited autonomy. Although appointments are a local matter, the HSIs still need the approval of the government and, for many, the Public Service Commission appoints staff.

That can take a long time and often the institutions work without a director, surviving as an extra load on an already over-burdened vice-chancellor or director of a neighbouring university. The consequences have been disastrous - world-class institutions have been reduced to the status of a second-rate city college and some would better serve the nation by shutting down.

There are enormous differences in funding between the two types of institutions. The STIs are funded by ministries of science and technology, defence, IT, industry and so on while the HSIs receive only crumbs. Each technology and science institute receives some US$20 million a year for routine expenses, plus millions more from foreign agencies, non-government organisations, foreign governments and international bodies, as well as alumni donations for non-routine expenses.

Faculty members receive higher pay, perks and privileges than their counterparts with comparable qualification at the humanities and social sciences institutions. While finance is not a problem for the STIs, it is a big problem for the others.

Whereas India's University Grants Commission awards about 500 research fellowships for all humanities and social sciences disciplines, a single STI awards as many research fellowships every year without reference to any other agency. Few HSIs, therefore, attract graduates of sufficient merit in sufficient numbers to their research programmes.

The HSIs are starved of funds. They cannot provide even a minimal standard working environment for their academics and neither can they for their students. They mostly, therefore, attract only those without another option. Peanuts do not attract lions.

At a university, one works in a team among cooperating, and sometimes even competing, equals. It is not that the ST institutions have always had great teams but they do have decently functioning ones.

That a test such as the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for admission to the bachelor of technology programme of IITs has been run at more than 200 centres for over 40 years without a scandal, in a country like India that is ranked among the top 10 most corrupt nations in the world, is a huge compliment to the teams the STIs have created and maintain. They also have generally transparent systems.

There is little transparency at the HSIs. Rather than work as teams, their academics are driven by jealousy, suspicion, distrust, pettiness, backbiting, malice, character assassination, slander and sabotage. Professors feel jealous of lecturers, teachers feel jealous of students and so it goes. They do not live together, they live in spite of one another. In such a situation, what is striven for is survival, just about a stage before death.

A graver crisis at the HSIs is due to 'in-breeding'. Nearly all faculty members at TEFLU, Hyderabad, for instance, are its alumni. A similar situation prevails at other HSIs. The science and technology institutes escape this pitfall by demanding three-year post-doctoral research and teaching experience before they hire an academic.

In-breeding has at least two unwelcome consequences: because of inherited prejudices, it prevents any change except for the worse and it also blocks any new ideas. While the HSIs have become back numbers, proud only of their past, the STIs have stayed state of the art.

Should the HSIs go on? There is only one answer: the STIs can help create skills which, in turn, can create wealth. For using that wealth with wisdom, we need the humanities and social sciences. Investment in science and technology alone could not save Eastern European nations.

So even a modest investment in the humanities and social sciences has kept India going but now that India wants recognition as a world-class power, it must also have a world-class education and that includes the humanities and the social sciences.

* Professor Shreesh Chaudhary teaches English and linguistics in the department of humanities and social sciences at the IIT Madras

Professor Chaudhary's article is a true account of the neglect meted out to humanities and social sciences education in India. His institution, IIT Madras - Deptt. of Humaities & Social Sciences has done a pathbreaking experiment to improve humanities education in India by introducing a five-year MA programne.

All other IITs should follow IITM model, if they really care to improving humanities and social sciences education in India and thereby creating a quality talent pool of scholars, economists, linguists, grammarians, philosophers, etc. for which India will be known for ever.

I feel the IITs at Kharagpur, Bombay, Delhi and Kanpur have resources to implement the program at earliest.

Thanks Professor. Chaudhary and UWN for publishing such a relevant article.

Anand Prakash Mish

This is the scenario all over the world but is rampant in the developing world. The Humanities is the mother of all disciplines. Humanities contributes to the development of the mind of the people and thus contributes to the development of society.

Unfortunately most people do not want to understand this. People behave as if it had no value at all. For example, students taking up humanities at educational institutions are looked down on. I must thank the contributor for bringing this serious issue to the notice of readers.

Abdul Hakim,
International Islamic University Chittagong,