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The IITian Way of Giving

December 20, 2005 17:13 IST
As IIT Bombay's Class of 1980 begins to board planes, trains and automobiles at points across the globe to get together for its Silver Jubilee reunion, it is difficult to believe that twenty-five years have flown by. The sobering thought dawns on many that the post-intermission period of the movie of life has begun, and minds turn to the matter of leaving a legacy behind and repaying debts of gratitude. Is it really possible to give back enough to truly repay the debt you owe to the alma mater that gave you everything in life? And what does it really mean to 'give back'?

The tradition of Gurudakshina in Indian culture goes back to the age of the sages. Not many may know that Gurgaon, the Millennium City, derives its name from Guru Dronacharya from the Mahabharat, and it is said the village was given to him as gurudakshina by the Pandavas. Of course, it was the same Guru Dronacharya who asked Eklavya for his right thumb, which IITians may not quite want to emulate.

The example of Kautsa who insisted on giving gurudakshina to Rishi Varatantu may be more apt. When Kautsa insisted on repaying his guru, the Rishi finally asked for fourteen crore gold coins, one crore for each of the fourteen sciences. It took Indra to summon Kuber, the god of wealth, to shower gold coins on Ayodhya, leading to the tradition of sharing 'apta' leaves as gold on Dussera.

Crores of gold coins have indeed been flowing back as gurudakshina from IIT Bombay's alumni, who have been at the forefront of graduates of Indian universities in re-establishing the tradition of giving back to the gurus. Kanwal Rekhi started the ball rolling in the late 1990s by donating the funds that led to the establishment of the Kanwal Rekhi School of Information Technology (KReSIT).

The IIT Bombay Heritage Fund (http://www.iitbombay.org) played an instrumental role in setting up a global network of alumni and using the world wide web to ensure that alumni stayed connected with the alma mater. And as recently as last week, Victor Menezes donated $1.5 million as part of a pledge of $3 million for a Convention Centre at IIT Bombay. "IIT Bombay gave me a priceless education -- and this is a small way to say thank you", said Mr Menezes.

American universities have shown how important alumni relations are, and how alumni contributions can be a significant source of funding for educational institutions. Indian universities need to take a page out of this playbook and create a tradition of alumni involvement and support for the alma mater. Harvard and Wharton start courting their alumni the day after graduation, and build a relationship that lasts a lifetime. And even tenured professors accept alumni relationship building as an important part of their job responsibilities. However, fundraising and alumni relations were often looked upon as demeaning and somewhat inappropriate tasks by many a learned professor in India, though that outlook is changing rapidly as demonstrated by IIT Bombay and its administration.

There is more to giving back than just donating money and gold coins. Alumni can persuade their employers to contribute company resources to establish laboratories and research facilities on campus. One of the most important issues facing the IITs is recruitment of world-class faculty in the face of global competition for talent. The Faculty Academic Network (FAN) initiative started by IIT Bombay's alumni has played a critical role in establishing a worldwide network of academics and researchers. As an example, FAN has brought IIT alumni who are senior professors and leading researchers in cutting edge fields such as nanotechnology to the Powai campus of IIT Bombay. The value of such interaction with the leading academics and researchers cannot be measured in rupees and dollars, and it is crucial in raising the IITs to the next level.

Giving back has an element of social responsibility too. IIT Bombay is inseparable from Powai Lake. A large bay of the lake is enclosed by the lush green campus of IIT Bombay, from the Devi Temple to the remnants of the defunct boat club. When the Class of 1980 left IIT in 1980, Powai Lake was indeed a lake, as advertised. It was reasonably clean and it was a great place for fishing and seeing wild birds. IITians used to swap tales about crocodiles, whether mythical -- like the Loch Ness monster -- or real.

Fast forward to the new millennium, and Powai Lake is now little better than a septic tank, choked with water hyacinth and weeds, and the recipient of millions of gallons of untreated sewage and hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of silt. The water level is reduced to such an extent, that within a few weeks of the end of the monsoon season, much of the lakebed is exposed. And when the dry season begins, campus residents play cricket and kabaddi on the lakebed and go for walks on the lake, where once rowboats were seen.

India's race for rapid growth is leading to pollution and over-development, which threatens to poison the environment. Blockages in the Mithi River which starts at Powai Lake and runs along the Andheri-Kurla Road caused flooding in adjacent areas. What has been happening to the Mithi River and Powai Lake, which probably caused the Mumbai floods, has some parallels to the Love Canal tragedy in the US.

Love Canal was a canal that was turned into a municipal and industrial chemical dumpsite, and local authorities later allowed homes and schools to be built on top of the site. Eventually, a record amount of rainfall created a disaster when the ground began to leach noxious substances in backyards, basements, and on school grounds. And then there were the birth defects and miscarriages. Love Canal has been described as one of the most appalling environmental tragedies in American history. The subsequent public uproar led to a complete turnaround in public support for protecting the environment.

The recent Mumbai floods, and what is happening to Mithi River and Powai Lake, should likewise be rallying cries for Indian public opinion to focus on the environment. Quarrying, blasting, vehicular pollution and excessive construction are destroying the lake that was created in 1891 to augment Mumbai's drinking water supply and recharge its ground water resources. The lake is dying, and with it, a landmark of Mumbai and IIT Bombay is dying too.

"Can we let this happen? Should we let this happen?" asked the Class of 1980.

The 80-ites have chosen the 'Rejuvenation of Powai Lake' as their Legacy Project, as a way for the entire class to give back to society at large, and to leave a permanent legacy for their alma mater. It is a huge task and the Class of 1980 is not going to be able to do it all alone. And it's not going to be completed in a few months or years either. It will require the Class of 1980 to work together with the central, state and local governments, NGOs, IIT, industry and citizens to make it happen.

The Legacy Project is a continuation of the work already under way, thanks to the pioneering work of concerned citizens and campus residents. In July 2000, a group of IIT Bombay residents and students came together to take up the cause of the lake and established the Save Powai Lake Team. The team worked with local MPs and MLAs to move a petition in Parliament to release funds for the revival of Powai Lake. The lake has also been included by the Union ministry of environment and forests in the National Lake Conservation Plan. The Save Powai Lake team has also worked with Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation officials to press for measures to prevent further pollution.

The fundraising drive for the Legacy Project is well under way and the cheques and share transfers have begun to roll in. One month's salary or one per cent of net worth are the guidelines that the class has established to encourage the act of giving. The Class of 1980 will symbolically hand over a cheque for almost Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million) to IIT Bombay at the time of the Class Reunion.

The Powai Lake Legacy Project is an example of how the spirit of gurudakshina, a sense of social responsibility, and gold coins from alumni can catalyze a larger effort to save a lake and to build public support for environmental protection.

As the Class of 80 makes its way to Mumbai for the Silver Jubilee Reunion, many may wonder if they have done enough to make Mera Bharat Mahan. The business leaders and professors in our midst can argue that they have indeed helped make India truly world-class in fields ranging from IT to specialty chemicals to quantum physics. Those who have made their home in far away locales from Singapore to San Francisco are often questioned about not doing enough to pay back for what they got from India.

KReSIT and other initiatives funded and supported by alumni are evidence that IIT Bombay's tradition of giving back is second to none. And the Class of 1980 would also argue that Brand India stands tall on the strength of Brand IIT, and what helped build both were the IITians who showed India, the US, and the whole world what Indians are capable of.

Ram Kelkar