Need to shift the focus from research to innovations: Prof. SK Atrey

Prof SK Atrey is Associate Professor in IIT Delhi. He is known for thinking beyond the box. He has been taking up innovative projects for some time. Recently, he motivated faculty members from about 30 private engineering colleges of the National Capital Region to float an innovative platform called “Consortium of Innovation” (COIN). The idea behind this project is to help faculty members from different engineering colleges work on single project and utilise the facilities available in any college. Prof Atrey is credited with starting industrial design in IIT Delhi in 1979. Many of his designs have been acknowledged in the country. He also has more than 50 patents to his credit. In 1990, he was felicitated with the National Technology Award by President of India. Dialogue India Academic editor Anuj Agrawal spoke to him in Delhi to discuss the present state of the IITs, engineering education and also the changes to be brought about in the system to achieve good results for battement of the entire sector. Excerpts:

What is the idea behind floating the COIN?

Consortium of Innovation (COIN) is a voluntary initiative taken by some innovators working mostly in private engineering colleges of the National Capital Region. We feel people from various colleges can collectively work on a project. The initiative is at the initial stage and we do not know whether the management of the private colleges will support it. This project can do miracle in the country. I am just a catalyst behind it. I have been organising short term courses for industrial and engineering college teachers for some time. During the last five years we have focused on creativity and innovations. It is a platform for exchange of ideas and promoting innovations. Most of them are youngsters with creative brain. But they were feeling that the atmosphere in their colleges is not fertile for creativity and innovations. They sought my help in forging a platform where they can give their creativity a perfect shape. They have also tried to involve the college administration in this process. However the so-called high profile engineering colleges of NCR have been left out due to some reasons. People from 30 colleges have joined hands together and a team of office bearers has been declared.

This is a fact that few white elephants like IITs are not sufficient to cater to the needs of the country. Although, in comparison to private colleges, the IITs have better facilities, the output is not satisfactory. In the summers of 2013 we organied a training camp for about 80 students from various colleges. The result of that camp was that 40 patents were filed at the end of eight weeks. All these patents may not be useful at the moment they will prove to be useful in future. At the world level too hardly 3 per cent patents are found useful and 97 per cent are hardly used.

There are reports that some patents are fake?

The procedure of filing patent in India is very complex. Here one has to a certain amount for filing it. Then one has to pay consultation charges to lawyer. But in UK it is free. Many countries encourage their people to file more patents. But in India there is no any such encouragement. Rather there is discouragement at various steps. In IITs, there is a section called FITT which keeps the files of patents on hold for months and years without any reason. In many cases they do not even file the patent before the competent authority. What is the use of such white elephants?

What difference do you want to make through COIN?

The objective is to fully use our existed resources for innovations. About 6000 Engineering Colleges in the country have good faculties. The faculty members there need to be motivated to carry out innovations in their respective areas. That is the need of the country. Some IITs or NITs can do nothing in the country of billions of people. Sometime back a Director of IIT Delhi visited China. After coming back he pointed out that China has started 250 colleges with better facilities than our IITs. However language is coming up as a major problem there, they will overcome it soon as they are learning English in a big way. Some IITs in our country too are for namesake. Extending IIT status to some colleges or changing names makes no difference.

You call IITs white elephant. But the R&D infrastructure all over the country is quite unsatisfactory?

Being a poor country we cannot expect world class infrastructure. The basic problem with us is that the infrastructure is not provided where it is needed the most. The infrastructure available in IITs is not allowed to be used by all. The need of the hour is that sufficient infrastructure is provided so that people can focus on useful research. In some IITs, some people own the labs and do not allow others to use them. This should change. Similar discrimination is made in distribution of funds also.

Modiji talks about ‘Start up India, Stand up India’. If the infrastructure is so poor, how will the country achieve this objective?

It is time we should focus more on applied research than fundamental research. The resources and funds should be diverted to innovations needed by the industry today. The quality of Research Papers even in our IITs is very poor. Foreigners take benefit from our research and ideas. We need to orient our research to immediate needs of the country. There are people in our country who still carry human excreta on head. What have we done to help them? People in many parts do not have drinking water. We had designed a project for them during the UPA government. But it was not cleared by the Ministry. There are areas where underground water has access quantity of led and arsenic, which cripples the people. Our project was basically to help such people. If we carry out a study on clearance of such projects the results will be astonishing. About 200 people always grab all the funds. There is one more question why some labs or colleges in South India are sanctioned all the projects? Nobody has ever tried to know output of those projects. Give me a private college with full liberty of utilizing funds I will develop a helicopter in single handedly. The innovators need to be provided freedom and resources.

Do private colleges have that stuff?

Yes. They have. But I say it should be hundred times better in IITs. It is because funds are not provided honestly.

Do the IITs have brain of that level?

It was, but it has dipped for some time, mostly for two-three years.

It is said there is a conspiracy to cripple India’s research?

It has two aspects. IITs are known for B.Tech level students. But the intake in IITs has deteriorated for some time. It needs a serious thinking as to why it is happening. Our selection process is faulty thanks to the changes made by Kapil Sibal. The general atmosphere of IITs too has deteriorated—values are degrading and vulgarity is touching new heights. The potential of faculty is high but that is not being used. People do not focus on the research area of their expertise. That is why the industry happily pays huge amount to outside researchers but nothing to Indian researchers. Even if anybody is ready to take help of the Indian researchers they do not get satisfactory results.

Do you feel any change with the change of guard at the Centre?

One of the commendable decisions by this government is to impart training to workers i.e. skill development. But what worries the people like me is that one year has passed there is no progress on it.

In government record only 3.5 per cent people are skilled in India, whereas this figure in South Korea is 96 per cent. How this gap will be bridged?

The gap can be bridged through a strategy. Not only the government, the private institutions too have to contribute in it. Government focus today is on government institutions. Funds for research too are provided to these institutions only but they misuse that fund. I feel the private institutions should also be encouraged by providing funds, etc. Secondly, there are brains in our country who may not be much educated, but have huge potential. We today have no mechanism to identify those brains. The challenge is to bring that talent in the mainstream. Those who have developed something in their own way should be promoted. Their creativity should be given right direction. Apart from it the experience of retired professors should also be utilised.

How do you look at the latest slogan of Modi “Start up India, Stand up India”?

Modiji has a vision. But his execution team seems to be weak. PM alone can do nothing. He has so many other tasks. The slogan of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ was also catchy. But where is the change?

What kind of change do you want to see?

We want work on the ground. What you say show in practice also. The PM gave the slogan of ‘Make in India’. But its implementation is weak. We need to shift our focus from research to innovation. Also utilize the skills for production. If we are not able to produce useful things, we should not waste the funds. About six years back we had given a proposal to Union Government for an Innovation Centre. The proposal exchanged hands including Smt Sonia Gandhi and Sam Pitroda. Pitroda declared to open six universities for innovations. The Ministry also sought proposals on it from IITs. We too submitted a proposal. The proposal was accepted, but nobody knows what happened then. Unfortunately, the people who are provided funds do not show the output. There is total misuse of funds. The funds for research are sanctioned by the Department of Science and Technology (DST). But majority of the funds are granted to South Indian institutions only, where is misused. There should be audit of the funds granted to such institutions including the IITs. The DST must ask for output. I also suspect that some people dealing with research are not honest. Why patents are held for months also develops doubts.

What should be done to ensure that patents are not leaked?

They should be taken up immediately. Full secrecy should be maintained. It is the responsibility of the office where these are filed.

There is a proposal from MHRD to create patent registration centres in colleges. What do you say?

I do not know anything about such a proposal. But I would say that before opening any such office, we should encourage innovation.

Do you think the curriculum in private colleges boosts innovation?

It definitely needs upgradation. Majority of the projects taken up by the students there are fake. We need to utilise the energy of the B.Tech and M.Tech students in private colleges judiciously.

A hospital is compulsory for each medical college. Should there not be an industry with every engineering college?

Yes. It should be. There is no such mechanism right now. If made, it will benefit both the students and the industry.

Why don’t you suggest it to the government?

The idea is definitely good. We will take up it. But there is very disappointing atmosphere in the IITs. I cite an example. There is one department for humanities in the IITs where mostly English and Economics are taught to the first year students. There have been normally five faculty members in this department. But some time back 50 faculty members were recruited in that department. Will the IITs now drift from technology to humanities? Such decisions discourage people.

Management is also being taught in the IITs?

That is okay. It was started with the view of connecting technology and management.

The engineers in India do nothing but assembling. Why are we teaching this art in four years? It can be taught in one year also?

Fact is that majority of the IIT students today do not know assembling also. That is why they are shifting to civil services or management in large number.

Will the innovations benefit ‘Make in India’ initiative of Modiji?

Yes, it will hugely. It is impossible to materialize this project without innovation. Today those who are working on fundamental research should be told to focus more on innovations and applied research.

Do you say there is no need to focus more on fundamental research?

I don’t say to stop research totally. Our research should be target oriented. The focus should be on design innovation.

Allowing Ph.D just after post graduation is also being questioned. It is claimed that brain is not fully developed in that age. Therefore Ph.D should be allowed only after gaining experience in the field for several years. What do you feel?

I don’t think so. Ph.D can be done after completing B.Tech. It is permissible all over the world. The brain is sufficiently developed after doing PG.

There are questions over GATE score also. Don’t you feel the need to start some other courses also like this?

In IIT about 12 lakh students appear in entrance exam. Only about 9000 of them are selected. Rest 11.91 lakh are denied admission.

All these facts project a negative picture of the IIT and engineering field. Would it not discourage the students already studying in IITs or planning to join in future?

I do not say they should not seek admission in IITs. IITs still have good reputation. We need a watch dog, which can keep a vigil on malfunctioning of the IITs. Admission through AIEEE is also wrong. The old system where the IIT faculty members were involved was far better. Students should be selected by the institutions which will teach them and not by outside agencies.