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Go Intern, Go!

November 16, 2021 14:12 IST

Ajit Balakrishnan on an idea that could change India.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

The learned-looking professor, complete with his grey hair and lean torso, drew a diagram on the blackboard. He then turned around and looked at the students in the class, most of whom, particularly me in the front row and a few feet from where he was, wore a puzzled look.

'That's an organisation structure chart, a central idea in the study of management,' he said with a smile of accomplishment on his face.

Slowly, a sense of revelation dawned on me. What he was saying, I guessed, was that people in an organisation sat in galleries like the one I often saw in football stadiums -- the ones who were paid higher would get to sit in the higher steps. I could understand this from my years spent playing football in my school and undergraduate days.

Ha! Managers sat in the galleries, clapping when the people did the work like us football players, who actually played the game... and these managers clapped and cheered when we players did a good job and jeered and hooted when we players goofed up in play!

It started making sense to me. A week or so before that, I got off the train at Howrah Junction and made my way by tram and bus to North Calcutta, where IIM Calcutta was then located, to join the first-year class.

Like many Indian middle-class kids, I had only a faint notion of how the world of work operated. I had uncles who were doctors, lawyers and engineers and I saw them 'go to work' every morning, like my father, a doctor, putting on Western-style trousers and shirts.

I, like other Indian middle-class kids, had no idea of what people who worked in 'business organisations' did.

The word 'business' conjured up images of our local shops which sold food and chocolates and where the 'businessman' sat at the counter, collecting cash from you and pointing out new items in his shop.

Organisation charts and such terms started making sense to me when I was chosen to do a summer 'internship' at ITC's Calcutta factory. Two of my classmates and I were chosen because we could ace all the deep mathematical questions on operations research and production.

Imagine my shock and surprise when I went to the factory. It had no resemblance to a football stadium! It was a series of large halls with clicket-clack machines supervised by workers.

The 'managers' and us 'summer trainees' were tucked away in glass-enclosed 'cubicles' where, again, there were no galleries. We all sat around at desks within a room whereas each 'senior' manager had a cubicle to himself!

Suddenly revelation dawned on me! Managers did not sit in football stadium-like galleries and clap or boo at the workers' actions -- they sat at their desk, and computed, wrote and discussed with fellow managers.

The various layers in an organisation chart, I realised, were only a symbolic and graphical way of showing the pecking order and who supervised who!

In the next 45 days I 'learnt' more things than I had in my entire 19-year-old life!

I learnt that complex mathematical production planning equations juggling in my head was one thing, assembling the data was another.

Getting a solution to the complex equation was one thing, convincing others around me that what I had done was correct was another thing.

Of course, dear reader, what I have been talking about were events in 1969, more than half-a-century ago, when I arrived in the big metro of Calcutta from a small town in Malabar.

Young 19 year olds who join the IIMs and other colleges and universities are more knowledgeable about the ways of the world than we, Independence-era youngsters, were.

But in my subsequent years of working, being an entrepreneur and employer myself and observing businesses in varied industries and countries convinced me even more that an internship of a mere few weeks makes an immense difference to a young person's ability of absorbing new knowledge and operating effectively in the grown-up's world.

Since then, the IIMs, IITs and some of our top professional schools have adopted internship as central to their curricula, but the vast majority of India’s colleges and universities do not have such programmes.

An opportunity came my way last year, when I was asked to chair the employment and entrepreneurship subcommittee of the National Education Policy Committee 2020. I spent my energies single-mindedly on convincing my fellow committee members that making internships part of education was critical to our country's youth.

And that is why I was so thrilled when I saw the official notification finally appear, setting out the guidelines for higher education institutions to offer apprenticeship/internship-embedded degree programmes: 'At least 20% of the total credits for the degree programme should be assigned to apprenticeship/internship... the spells of apprenticeship/internship shall be scheduled either continuously or at intervals depending upon the requirement and practicality of the discipline concerned.'

Now, of course, as is the case with any path-breaking public policy initiative announcement the real challenges of implementation begin.

In institutions like the IIMs and the IITs and other top educational institutions in medicine, law, and other fields, finding high-quality paid internships is easy, but how do we ensure that such internships are made available for students in all of India’s 40,000 colleges?

Now, the real work begins!

Ajit Balakrishnan (, founder and CEO,, is an Internet entrepreneur and as a member of the committee that updated the Indian IT Act 2008 personally wrote Section 79 which introduced the concept of 'Intermediaries' and governs Internet platforms.

Ajit Balakrishnan
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