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`We want action, not daya or karuna'

I think India needs more IITs ANANTH


The 84-year-old Gerhard K. J. Fischer, former German Consul, spends half the year at his leprosy and polio centres in India and the other half tending to his farm in Bavaria. From being Prisoner of War in France to actually crawling, in keeping with custom, up to the Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie, and being four-time ambassador, Fischer has had a fascinating life. A part of this was played out in South India, where he — as a representative of the German Government — helped set up the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. In conversation with M. S. Ananth, Director of IIT Madras, Fischer says that "Fortuna" was with him when he heard a colleague in the foreign office saying he was not keen on a Madras posting. Fischer jumped at the opportunity and was soon introducing himself to Professor Sengupta, the first Director of IIT at a little wooden barrack at the end of a sand track in Guindy. Prof. Ananth, who has risen from the post of Assistant Professor to become the Director of IIT- Madras has more than maintained the status of this institute as among the best in the world. Prof. Ananth has been closely associated with the preparation of the strategic planning of the IITM Vision 2010. He has been visiting Professor to such universities as Princeton and visiting scientist to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Boulder, Colorado.

Meera Mohanty took down notes as Fischer and Ananth spoke about IIT's past and future.

Fischer: We had 20 German professors sitting in Aachen, Braunschweig, Karlsruhe...

Ananth: Stuttgart...

Fischer: ...waiting to come to Madras. Where do they go? In a place where there were sands and blackbuck! And Professor Sengupta showed me this blueprint of the construction with thumbtacks for the hostels, lecture halls, workshops and hospital. He said, `We'll start with 1,500 students.' I looked out of the window and said, `What have I got into?'

Then I asked Sengupta, `What is this blue line through your map?' He said, `You know that's a gully... we will fill it with water and row.' At that point I thought to myself: `Gerhard, get back to Bonn!' I mention this in every speech I make in Germany. Two years later, our President came on a State visit.

Ananth: We have the foundation stone downstairs.

Fischer: He was coming here to lay the stone. Before that I was sending reports on the progress with photographs to Germany every month. When I was told about the visit, I asked, `What foundation stone? Didn't you look at the photos. The construction is already finished.' So the students and professors gathered in the amphitheatre and our President just hit on the stone. Success story par excellence!

Ananth: Prof. Sengupta was...

Fischer: The right man, at the right time, at the right place.

Ananth: Prof. Sengupta also made sure he approved plans where the least number of trees were cut. And this was in 1959.

Fischer: I am a rider, so every morning we would ride through here from that stable where old racehorses were kept.

Ananth: The M. A. Chidambaram stables.

Fischer: Yes, Govind Swaminathan ran that. We would gallop through here and then I would call Sengupta from the office: Listen they are chopping trees. Stop them! I made it difficult for him. (Laughing)

Ananth: I came much later... in 1972, there were still residences where we found snakes.

I had only heard stories and was an admirer of yours before you knew me. Most people who knew you have retired but the Gerhard Fischer tournament still goes on.

Fischer: The first sports club in IIT started in 1961and I gave a cup, which is still not rusted or stolen. And every year, there is an All-India Basketball Championship. In general, is it Loyola that wins the cup?

Ananth: Loyola. But if there was a quiz at the end of it, our students would win.

Fischer: My cup was meant for boys, but there is also a girl's tournament.

Ananth: We still have only a small percentage of girls in engineering. In sciences, we have 50 per cent.

Fischer: How many German post-graduates or graduates are there on the IIT campus today?

Ananth: Not many. Right now, have about half a dozen. But the Ministry has agreed in principle that 25 per cent of PG students can be from abroad. Because I have been insisting I want unlike minds. It has even said that in principle that 10 per cent of the faculty can be of foreign origin. After all, there were a lot of German professors who came in the beginning who were very committed. We recently celebrated 30 years of IC and SR (The Centre for Industrial Consultancy and Sponsored Research) with Professor Wagner who had started it in 1973. He's 82 now and came for the celebrations. IIT Madras is the only IIT which still has contacts with the nation that helped start it.

Fischer: How many students do you have now?

Ananth: The total number is 4,900 but we will not go past 5,400. Because I have calculated that with 5,400 we will occupy 22 per cent of the footprint on campus. I think it is impossible for the deer to live with human beings if you increase that number. Any expansion will have to be elsewhere, probably in Tiruchi, where we are being offered 300 acres. I think India needs more IITs.

Fischer: That is a special thing, admission here is based purely on merit.

Ananth: Purely on merit. Here 16 children of IIT directors couldn't get into the system. It's the original Act that has been written so well that it gives us academic freedom.

You are a great inspiration to our NSS students who do a lot of social service. Commitment is absolutely essential. But very few people have that.

Fischer: I tell students and nurses `Gandhiji picked up a leper from the street and brought him home.

We even know how he was called Shastri. No daya and karuna, forget about it. We don't want that, we want action.'

Ananth: Along with daya and karuna, the Gita also preaches action. In fact, it says only action will help.

Fischer: But, of course, it says that. Yes. There you are.

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