Monday, April 28, 2008

Why there should be more IITs

After the recent Supreme Court verdict approving OBC reservations to (Central Govt. controlled) higher educational institutions, Prof. PV Indiresan in particular has focused on what it will mean to the quality of IITs.

Once upon a time (till the early 1990s), IITs guranteed a trip to USA, to pursue higher studies, find a job, get a green card and eventually get a US citizenship. During the late 1990s software professionals without an IIT education could easily accomplish all this (except pursuing higher education). Also during the same period, increasing numbers of non-IITians managed to get into US universities. Today, it is not necessary for one to go to an IIT to find a place in a good US university for higher studies. Top students from any of the NITs and reputed Engineering colleges can get full assistantships in several US colleges.

A substantial number of IITians walked into IIMs and then eventually into FMCG and marketing companies. This prompted a few of my professors to contemptuously mention 'soap selling' in connection with the career choices of my co-students. One doesn't have to get into an IIT to crack CAT and get into an IIM.

Most people looked at getting into IITs as it guaranteed them (a) a trip to US or (b) a chance to get into an IIM; failing both (c) at least a guaranteed job in an Engineering company. This meant a lot in the 1970s and 1980s when well paying jobs were difficult to get.

That is not the situation today. Any smart young man or woman each can find hundred possible jobs. Even if one is not smart enough, one can land up a job with a basic education and some soft skills.

Should we then really worry about whether to increase the number of IITs or not? I think we should. IITs, when they were started, were expected to fulfill one key role. To help build engineers who will help build the country. Several IIT engineers have helped in this process. However, more than 60% or probably 70% ended up abroad, or sold soaps and fresh atta. I myself never did anything useful in engineering. I sold cricket and am now selling books.

IITs are however wonderful institutions. They get good funding. They have decent teachers - far better than several other institutions. They have great laboratories and computer facilities. They have integrated and compulsory hostels. It is in the hostels that students pick up substantial soft skills. The ambience is wonderful. IITians are successful primarily because of the environment in which they grow. It is not the quality of education in the classrooms, as most people think. I know of several of my classmates who never ever attended the classes but are doing quite well in their lives.

Such an environment is possible only because of the liberal funding, autonomy and a student selection process. The selection process can be made more inclusive than what it currently is. Reservation for OBCs will help in a long way. Reservation for women will help too.

In our country, private players cannot build good educational institutions today. Mostly, only scoundrels get into building engineering colleges. In and around Chennai, that is what I see. There may be an odd good one, but mostly the institutions are controlled by uneducated rascals, who are part of this or that political party, who have amassed wealth through illegal means and use the colleges to further this ill-gotten money. They have hoodwinked the entire system to get Deemed University status and are now going by the name of X University or Y University. They have spanking new buildings but nothing else worth underneath. The quality of the faculty is shocking. The students are left to rot by themselves. I can't see a single one of them becoming a world class teaching and research institution in the field of engineering in the years to come.

So, the onus of building great higher education institutions is in the hands of the central and the state governments. The central government has an excellent idea in the form of IITs. There are several trained administrators, Directors, Registrars and Deans of IITs. If we open up another 20 IITs, they can be headed by these Deans. Finding good quality teachers is a problem, but in my opinion, it is a problem which can be solved. Several students who receive PhDs in IITs and IISc can be employed in these new IITs. Several faculty members in US universities can be persuaded to come to India. We should look at setting up one IIT in every state capital.

In addition, the state governments should look at setting up 3-4 engineering institutes modelled on IITs. They should get staff from IITs on deputation to build these institutions. They should fill these institutions exclusively from those students who write JEE. So in effect, we should have around 100 IITs and IIT like state colleges. All of them should have an average funding of Rs. 80-100 crores an year. 25% of these institutions will be funded by the central government and administered by them. Remaining 75% will be funded by various states and administered by them.

This will increase the intake to around 25,000 students every year from the IITs. Just imagine what kind of progress this will take us to.

Instead, if we restrict the IITs to only 7 or 10, or go up in small increments, we will have around 2,500 to 3,000 undergraduates coming out per year from the IITs.

The IIT brand is primarily created by the students and not by the faculty. I believe the top 25,000 to 50,000 ranks from JEE are good enough to maintain this brand, provided the funding and infrastructure are available to the institutions.


Several people worry about more money going to higher education while the primary education is in shambles. But this is a poor argument for couple of reasons.

You should not promote one or the other, but should try to apportion money to both, within reason. If we invested heavily only in primary education, what will all those kids do after they cross the 5th standard? You need to simultaneously invest in secondary education, higher education and professional education.

Primary education is relatively an easy area. Private funding can be tapped wherever possible. Licenses can be given to people to run primary schools, because all you require is minimal infrastructure. Educational voucher schemes can be introduced in several places. Microfinance institutions like SKS Microfinance are looking at high quality village schools funded by micro-loans.

However, institutes of higher learning are not easy to build. Our current regulations do not allow foreign universities to build and operate educational institutions in India. For profit companies are not allowed to provide education in India. While we need to battle with such laws, at the moment, only the Government is capable of building higher education institutions of world class. Therefore, they must be encouraged to do so.

Most problems cannot be solved by just pushing more money in one specific area alone. Primary education will remain a problem for a long time to come, because it requires more people and more infrastructure. To put every child into a primary school, we need millions of new schools and new teachers in far flung areas. Even if we have all the money in hand, we won't be able to accomplish this overnight. We cannot wait for this task to be completed before we can take up the problem of higher education.

Our tax income is growing considerably year on year. If money can be found for NREGA, it can be obtained for education - both primary education and higher education. I see all the state governments projecting low revenue estimates for the subsequent years. If I look at the Tamil Nadu budget, the revenue estimates are considerably lower than the actual revenue realised by them. Because they start with lower revenue projections, they allocate lower resources for education. Then, when they actually make more money, it gets spent on politically expedient areas.

With better revenue projections, the allocation for education can be substantially enhanced by every state. The central government can also increase the outlay for education substantially. Cutting defence spending will help a long way too!

P.V. Indiresan's bad arguments against creating new IITs
IIT and the obsession with exclusivity

Sunday, April 20, 2008 - Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

I had a long association with Cricinfo - from around 1993 end to 2005. I have heard a lot about during tihs period. So when I found out that a company called Live Current Media has done a deal with BCCI to develop BCCI's cricket web site and IPL web site and also the domain name, I was intrigued.

I went through my old emails to look at the history of

In the days when domain names were seen as the 'be all and end all', all sorts of domain names were acquired by Internet pirates and hawkers in the hope that some sad git will buy them for millions of dollars later on., they thought will outsmart rivals such as At that time, already had huge user base, while had to still build the content.

In 1999, announced that it will develop a world-beating cricket site. They were to partner another site called Nothing came of it.

A company called owned this domain name They also owned etc. They were working towards building each domain name into a portal with appropriate partner and then make big bucks. However things were not so simple. The company built around went bust later on. tried finding partners (not buyers) for They wanted someone to pay money, become a JV partner and then develop the site. They wanted offers from in the year 2000. Cricinfo did not respond positively. Then, in early 2001, a rather shady entity called (which was mostly ripping off content from Cricinfo through automatic bots), acquired/partnered to develop Under the terms of the deal, Cricmania would pay USD 1 million, and Communicate and Cricmania will hold stakes in

When Cricmania found that making money from was impossible, they thought of turning it into a betting/gambling site. Even that didn't work out. Probably US/Canada laws prevented this from happening.

By the end of 2001, however, the deal between Cricmania and broke down. The domain was back with in early 2002 and they had no cricket content there either. The site has been dormant with no cricket content whatsoever since then.

Live Current Media is the successor to They are planning to rename the company in 2008. They are hoping to convert their domain names into wonderful businesses. In April 2008, they announced their deal with BCCI.

I do not expect anything useful to come from some domain name hoarders with no experience whatsoever in content management, much less cricket content at that.

BCCI have never understood the web. They are proving that they will never understand it.

Aviation Entrepreneur Gopinath

I have great admiration for Gopinath who started Air Deccan, India's first low-cost airlines. He is now out of the merged Kingfisher-Deccan, and is moving on to a new Air Cargo venture.

When I was in Cricinfo, I once received an email from him. At that time, he was running a charter aircraft company. He had asked if any of the TV production companies such as TWI, Worldtel etc. will require chartering of flights to lug their equipment and personnel across India. BCCI is notorious for the most ridiculous cricket scheduling. I can't now remember what I replied, but I did give him some contact at TWI.

In the first wave of privatisation of Airlines in the 1990s, only two out of 7-8 players survived. One was jet Airways, the other Sahara. The rest completely crashed. Sahara just hung on. Jet, on the other hand, thrived and went on to become number 1 player in India, and went on to buy out Sahara. In the second wave of liberalisation, unquestionably, it was Gopinath who was the real hero. He had the vision for the low cost carrier. Others simply followed him. His biggest handicap must have been the money. Other players in the second wave were all rich and well backed with money from other ventures they were running. But it was Gopinath who showed what could be done to the Airlines business.

Air Deccan had its detractors. The service was average, the delays horrendous. But, it did serve people who could never think of flying. Gopinath democratised air travel in India. He connected places that no one thought would come on the air traffic map. He offered tickets at prices no one thought was possible in India. He was bolder than anyone else.

His success, as he says in this article, also resulted in an unsustainable growth. The losses were huge and PE players wouldn't support him fully. He had to sell out to someone like Vijay Mallya, brimming with money. It was clear to me that Gopinath wouldn't last long in the merged entity. Their styles are so different.

In a way, it is good that Gopinath is leaving. We do not have serial entrepreneurs in India, who after successful building, move on to create more challenging new ventures. Promoters should not hang on to their ventures for too long. They should just move along.

I wish Gopinath success in his new Air Cargo venture.

Friday, April 04, 2008

TheOnion type desi website

I came across The Career Pigeon, (via gilli) which is almost exactly like The Onion, but on desi topics.

From what I have read already, it is not bad at all! It would be great if these guys don't copy the features from The Onion, but rather, improvise and innovate.

Tamil Nadu: 101 Entrepreneurs

Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) launched a coffee table book on the history of entrepreneurship in Tamil Nadu last week. The book had featured narratives on 101 Tamil Nadu entrepreneurs, and the list of entrepreneurs was selected by a CII taskforce.

My company was involved in interviewing and writing the stories on these 101 interesting men and women and then making the book.

No such list can be exhaustive. The people chosen were all first generation entrepreneurs.

As one can guess, most of them built their businesses in the 1990s, thanks to liberalisation and the opportunities created by this process.

However, a majority of them are not geared to take the next step by raising substantial funding through private equity or IPO, to become a pan-indian company, and then from there to become a global company. Excluding the listed companies mentioned, only one entrepreneur mentioned wanting to go IPO and he is in the healthcare sector. Another person indicated that he wouldn't even raise any form of equity/debt funding for growth and would depend entirely on internal accruals! His company creates software for managing securities and he has developed software for NSE!

The book, titled 'Star Trek' may not be available in the book shops. However, one can contact the CII Chennai office to find out if copies can be bought from them.

Shoaib Akhtar ban

It is good that Shoaib Akhtar has been banned for five years from playing cricket for Pakistan, though for not so serious an offense. He has done less on the ground and has talked more off the ground. I can see that he is an extremely divisive force in the dressing room.

Can this ban be contested in a court of law? My view is that such a ban is unenforceable in any country where the laws are decent. It is quite possible that Pakistan courts will 'unban' Shoaib.

What PCB will have to do is, to quietly inform the selectors never to select Shoaib for Test matches and probably also the one-day matches. He can play in the IPL, shoot his mouth off, collect his fat paycheque and enjoy life as a playboy. Test cricket is far too serious to have a Shoaib hanging out in your dressing room.