Why science education didn’t help the common man

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The Nehruvian model, in laymen’s understanding, is an essential step to modernisation, often interchangeable with Westernisation. In the colonial period, with the Calcutta University being the sole centre of postgraduate studies, scientific education, and industrialisation at large, had always been on the backfoot. It began only through private initiatives, undertaken by the nationalists of the middle class.

The Nehruvian insights, conceived in post-independence India remain rooted in this backdrop. Nehru’s defence of higher education ranges from the logic that unless there are institutions to train teachers themselves, it is impossible to penetrate into the grassroots.

Technology and industrialisation were the needs of the hour to achieve self-reliance in foundational industries. To supply managerial and technical staff to the industries a modern labour force was required, fostered in a scientific temper. Nehru followed the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) model, whereby specialised scientific laboratories were formed for research all over India on public enterprise.

The formation of IITs, as a model devised by NR Sarkar, materialised with the establishment of IIT Kharagpur in 1950s followed by IIT Kanpur. The case of IIT Delhi hints at the hierarchy that still exists between the IITs and the polytechnics – the institute was elevated from a polytechnic to the status of an IIT. The term elevation itself, hints at the presumable formation of a hierarchy, a ‘caste system’ developing among students.

I joined IIT Kanpur in the 1970s after my Hindi medium schooling, and found the atmosphere foreign. The style of education was intensely westernised and the atmosphere was non-Indian, non-Kanpur – the IIT graduates were not intended to serve the textile or the tannery industries of Kanpur.

Ashok Rastogi | Professor of Physics, JNU, New Delhi
Ashok Rastogi | Professor of Physics, JNU, New Delhi

The majority wanted to go to America and were indeed, not trained to remain in India. I also remember how the demand for reservation for the deprived classes at IITs was outrightly rejected.

Within this model of elitist education, individuals were trained for corporate India, particularly the management sectors. The direct entry from IITs to IIMs became a dominant phenomenon in the mid-sixties. Management institutions are perceived as an American concept, where training is imparted on managing technology of a corporate.

The Nehruvian scientific temper and the IITs helped only those who interacted with the high society, and the bulk remained outside. The demand from the hinterland has come now.