Every year since 1972, as the JEE qualified hopefuls assemble for the ritual to choose their campus and branch, they give Institute of Technology -- Banaras Hindu University more than a passing thought. Almost one out of seven go on to graduate from IT-BHU.
However, the much-envied IIT brand continues to elude them.
That hasn't been for not trying. Soon after the founding of the Original Five IITs in the 1950s and 1960s, IT-BHU applied to become IIT Varanasi with the erstwhile German Democratic Republic's technical assistance.
Just like the IITs, it had a beautiful campus, a national character of students, distinguished faculty and state of the art laboratories.
Founded by the visionary Madan Mohan Malaviya in 1919, IT-BHU also claims a rich heritage as one of the pioneering technological institutions set up by nationalists in pre-Independence India. The other institutions are Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, founded in 1909, to fulfill J N Tata's vision, and BITS Pilani, founded in 1929 by G D Birla, a close associate of Malaviya.
IT-BHU lost the 1972 IIT bid at the last minute due to political reasons.
Its hopes were revived in the 2000 by the National Democratic Alliance government that announced creation of seven IITs by converting existing institutions and creating new ones. The government constituted a committee of scientists and educationists that visited campuses and compiled a detailed evaluation.
IT-BHU reportedly ranked at the top of the shortlist.
However, power changed hands in New Delhi soon afterwards and the new government had its own vision. It seems political fortunes always have a way of playing with IT-BHU's future.
The IIT brand hasn't eluded it for meritorious reasons either. Despite constrained by an annual budget that is several times smaller than that of any other IIT, IT-BHU has managed a technological edge. IT-BHU's quality of research in engineering has been comparable to that of the IITs, at least as measured through the late 1980s.
In 1995, G Prathap (of the Centre for Mathematical Modelling and Computer Simulation (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) presented a scientometric analysis in the publication Current Science that compared publication output and impact of major engineering institutions in India.
IT-BHU came fifth in terms of output as well as impact, and third in terms of relative impact. Only IISc Bangalore and IIT-Delhi were clearly ahead of the IT-BHU on all parameters.
IT-BHU pioneered degree courses in mining, metallurgy, ceramics and pharmaceutics in India. Its alumni continue to do as good as the IIT, BITS and IISc alumni in the industry and educational institutions in India and abroad. Its departments and faculty regularly win recognitions, medals, awards and fellowships.
However, the resources crunch of several decades, further dilution of the brand equity since addition of two more IITs and the administrative dependence on the Banaras Hindu University will sooner or later take a toll on the quality of education.
It remains to be seen whether this fine institution gets a seat at the IIT table along with the much needed boost in resources and the autonomy to adopt best IIT practices that the JEE qualified students richly deserve or continues to wait behind in its quasi-IIT status.
That will determine whether the country reaps the full potential of this national treasure or keeps it mired in the struggle of meager resources and administrative subservience.
IIT alumni may consider weighing in with the Human Resources Department as it determines IT-BHU's future.
The author is an alumnus of IT-BHU and is based in San Francisco. He has drawn upon two previous writings on this topic: S S Vasan in The Hindu Education Plus in April 2005 and Yogesh Upadhyaya in rediff.com in March 2005.