Tête-à-Tête with Prof.KL Chopra

‘How do you feel coming back to Kharagpur?’ isn’t a question that one needs to put to KL Chopra. This Padma Shri awardee and former Director of IIT Kharagpur maintains an association and continues to visit the campus periodically, which seems natural considering how involved he was in its affairs for ten years, from 1987-97. While STEP, VGSOM and SRIC are some of the establishments that are known to be associated with his name, we got a flavour of KL Chopra’s deeper involvement in other aspects of the Kgp administration during our conversation with him. A man of strong opinions and free expression, here are some of his views on issues of importance.

On the Big IIT Family

“The student increase is undesirable,” is KL Chopra’s clear and consistent view. It is one that has been heard before from various quarters, but when it comes from someone with years of experience in education administration, you know it carries weight. He would’ve fought hard with the ministry against this move had it happened when he was in charge, but then, not all Directors can fight against a powerful ministry. There was a time when Directors could meet the Prime Minister to discuss matters, but these things have changed over the years, he says.

There are presently 3,500 private technical colleges and 350 private universities to do the job of producing over 93% of the engineering graduates in India. It is wiser then to concentrate on quality rather than increase the number and intake of IITs which will not significantly change the overall percentage of graduating engineering manpower for the country. The magnified numbers today have become a burden on the existing IITs. Just imagine herding 4 students in one room in the hostel.

As for educating a class full of two hundred students, even Feynman, the great physicist, the great actor, declared his efforts at Caltech a failure. “It is the inspiration from the teacher that makes you a scientist or an engineer,” and this, KL Chopra says, cannot happen unless there is an eye-to-eye contact and direct interaction between the teacher and the student. The IITs were supposed to be the think-tanks of the country, but he believes the kind of reforms being incorporated is converting them to regular universities.

The Decade as Director

KL Chopra says he was greeted by 3000 red flags when he arrived for the first time as Director. A physicist who knew little of Kharagpur, he had nevertheless accepted the challenge of making a difference for the better at a time when the presence of worker unions on campus was strong. They were against authority and had made the smooth functioning of the administration difficult.

Not one to back down, KL Chopra met these challenges head on. In the time when he was Director, roads were repaired,the state road separating the institute into two separate parts was diverted around the periphery, and the characteristic high boundary wall of the campus was built. Land was obtained for the setting up of STEP (the first of its kind in the country) and donations from the alumni were obtained to set up new schools. Often these projects met with official obstacles, objections from various levels of authority and conflicts due to ideology, so that their successful completion required efforts beyond what has gone down in official records.

We infer that KL Chopra would have been an active, lively figure on campus who set plans in motion and saw to their completion, standing by his ideas. As a Director who personally took to reclaiming land from encroachments and appointing faculty, Chopra believes the ten years he was here (as a result of a second term) was an exciting one where efforts resulted in converting a decaying institute into the top ranked one in India.

The Future of Education

The Inauguration was an excellent opportunity to discuss the far-from-perfect state of education with the gathered personalities. “The vision of education in IITs was to create knowledge, which is more important than dissemination. Also, the focus needs to be on translational research,” says KL Chopra. It isn’t that people in the IIT system aren’t competent, but there is nobody accounting for the deliverance of knowledge in a country whose economy is heavily dependent on science and technology. He believes this is a form of intellectual corruption: a condition where no questions are asked. “Fortunately the government did not know what was going on with the IT industry and thus it flourished very well.”

We learned that India is a signatory to the Washington Accord, a document with benchmarks for education quality. The IITs come under its purview and will have to be judged sometime, an evaluation KL Chopra says they will not necessarily pass. While IITans have hitherto enjoyed global mobility, foreign organizations now realize that given the bulk of students, a spectrum is bound to exist. While he believes a transition to a system involving thorough evaluation is going to be difficult for students as well as teachers, that is what the world today demands. It is not what is taught that is important, but whether and what students have learned, and whether they have learned to learn.

The serious talk apart, KL Chopra shared a few light anecdotes with us, making overall for a rare, interesting interaction with a Director of Kgp. The theme of education dominated the talk, and while it is clear that a substantial shift is in order, he hopes that it is the IITs from where that change will come about.

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