Challenges ahead

Published : Oct 08, 2004 00:00 IST

Mission REACH comes as a boon to the Indian industry in a highly competitive environment but it has a long way to go to realise its full potential.

M. SOMASEKHAR in Hyderabad

IN 1996, the `Grand Technology Vision 2020', an initiative focussed on about 17 core areas, was unveiled. The broad objective was to transform India, from the status of a developing country to that of a developed one. Perhaps for the first time the Indian scientific community and the industry represented by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) collaborated in the effort, led by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the present President of India and the then Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister. The result was that the Technology Information Forecasting Assessment Council (TIFAC) succeeded in bringing out the roadmap in the form of over 20 strategic documents. These well-thought-out and underlined strategies were perceived to become important inputs to the Planning Commission. They could be dovetailed with the Central social sector departments concerned and specific industries brought in to convert the plans into implementable action that could in the end reach the target customers and create both wealth and value for the country.

The delivery mechanisms developed to translate the Technology Vision 2020 into reality have been christened Missions. One such Mission was REACH, launched in 2000. The nodal Ministry was the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the active collaborators were the identified engineering colleges across the country, the Ministry of Human Resource Development and industries willing to participate in the programme.

The larger motive as understood is to move away from the favoured Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the National Institutes of Technology (NITs) - the erstwhile Regional Engineering Colleges (RECs) - and build quality centres in engineering colleges chosen from among the hundreds that have sprouted across the country in the recent past. The task is quite daunting given the brand that IITs have been able to create and thereby attract industry (including those operating at the global level) and the level of government support for research funds.

The need to churn out students of high quality in order to meet the needs of industries in the competitive market place is rather urgent, viewed in the context of what Bimal Jalan, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, said at the special session of the Pune Science Congress in 2000 on `Can we create Silicon Valleys in our Indus Valley"? He said the country needs a large number of engineers and post-graduates to sustain the high performance of companies like Infosys, Wipro, NIIT and so on. At present though, the university higher education infrastructure is rather poor and needs all the support from the government and industry to improve. Prof. V.S. Ramamurthy, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, and Dr. R.A. Mashelkar, Secretary, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, have often voiced concern over the shortage of manpower and the crumbling infrastructure in universities.

Therefore, the basic objective of Mission REACH - establishing centres of excellence (CORES) in existing engineering institutions to promote areas of industrial relevance and provide trained manpower to the partnering industries - is definitely a move in the right direction. The idea is to bridge the disconnect between the academia and the Indian industry.

The design of the Mission appears to have been well conceived. It has gone about identifying engineering colleges that have strengths but are located in far-flung places, with the idea of providing support in the form of infrastructure or funds and propel them into undertaking research in frontier areas.

THE Mission is also unique in the sense that is uses the matching grant system, which has no precedent in the education sector, says Prof. P.V. Indiresan, former Director of IIT, Madras. No University would normally think of the kind of programmes being evolved. For example, he said, the Industrial Security CORE in Sivakasi, where the fireworks industry is located, would not have occurred to him as Director of IIT. This was happening because of the involvement of the industry, he added. However, according to him, the Mission has not been successful quantitatively. That is, only 20 COREs have emerged so far, and some of them have just started. A matter of concern is also the geographical spread. A majority of these are located in southern India. Why are institutions in other parts of the country not showing much interest? Prof. Indiresan feels that the industry in these regions is perhaps not proactive.

What is also obvious is the fact that of the over 1,200 engineering colleges and technical institutes, the growth in private sector has happened predominantly in the southern States of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. REACH perhaps has to go more aggressively in other regions to make an all-India impact.

The TIFAC team, which has been pushing the REACH programme, is of the view that the industries are willing not only to participate in their specialised areas of interest but in several instances also to invest up to 50 per cent of total funds required to set up a CORE at the academic institution. Under the Mission, TIFAC provides 33 per cent of the cost while the balance amount has to be put in by the institutions and industries. The institutes' burden can be reduced if willing industries are brought into the venture from the beginning. The return on this investment is expected to benefit the industry in the form of skilled manpower and research output. In 2003, after three years of its launch, Mission REACH was reviewed. It was decided that TIFAC would continue its catalytic role, create synergy between educational institutions, industry and government departments concerned, and continue to support the COREs. One important need in this effort is a high quality faculty, which can take forward the programme and consolidate the gains, so that in five to six years, the CORE in a particular college achieves true excellence and does not end up merely showcasing new infrastructure in the form of buildings and equipment. By most estimates, the existing faculty in several engineering colleges, especially those identified by REACH could just be good enough for teaching, but woefully inadequate to handle research projects. It is one thing to start off by organising conferences where top professionals present exciting developments or inviting international experts for a few weeks or months, but building a sound team is a different ball game altogether. Incentives, a challenging work environment and career growth, are key issues to be tackled. These are by no means unique to REACH, but applicable to most educational, scientific or even industrial environments. However, the time is perhaps ripe for REACH to focus more on this aspect now.

Another critical issue confronting education is the relevance of the curricula to contemporary demands from the industry. To address this issue, REACH is trying to involve industry representatives in designing courses and redrafting the curricula to suit the needs of the emerging new industrial sectors. Most textbooks followed in engineering colleges are of a different era. Similarly, there are not many incentives inbuilt in the higher education institutes for faculty to undertake work in collaboration with industry to develop technologies or patentable products. Market compulsions and the opening up of the Indian economy since 1991 have in a way played a crucial role in REACH gathering momentum and the Indian industry, big and small, showing interest in it. The industries' compulsions to buck up in the face of international competition on domestic soil have forced them to scout for talent in the universities and academic institutions. The question is how much investment has the Indian industry brought in by way of long-term participation and what tangible contribution it can make.

Perhaps REACH needs to concentrate on creating awareness among the small and medium enterprises and the small-scale industries, about the need for an interface with the CORE centres and academia to upgrade their capabilities and face competition from countries like China.

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