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The scientist-engineer who lucidly explained economics

Academics are mostly known for their theories and not so much for proving the practicality of their hypotheses. By and large they are happy focusing on teaching and not in active involvement in social and policy matters. Dr P V Indiresan breathed a fresh air in being different.

IIT-MADRAS BECOME much more known for its work after Indiresan took charge as director in 1979. The portals of IIT-M were opened for visits by media persons and others interested.  There was transparency in its operations. Great stress was laid on continuous up-gradation of the curriculum, making it more interesting and relevant. At a factory producing graduates in engineering, he focused on post-graduate education and research. 
Indiresan’s was an active brain, continuously churning out new ideas. He believed in the relevance of IIT to solve societal problems and not just remain as an island of excellence. He believed that the Institute must involve itself in the spread of skills, knowledge and simple techniques. Collaboration with industry expanded manifold during his tenure as director. He encouraged his faculty to offer consultancy to industry.

Indiresan believed that several small, technology-oriented occupations would be economically viable and need not survive on subsidies. He embarked on an innovative experiment of setting up several small enterprises adjoining the IIT campus. In this he took a loan on commercial terms from the Canara Bank and tried to demonstrate the project’s viability through technology and management. 

He actively involved professors at IIT in mentoring young entrepreneurs from poor families. The tasks ranged from electronics engineering that would enable technicians to repair television sets to simple techniques on drip irrigation. I remember earthen pots buried adjacent to coconut trees with a cotton gauze, dripping water through a small hole to the roots! He understood the need for imparting skills and taking technology to the masses. Brilliant academics were actively involved in this exciting experiment. Sadly, like in politics, with the change of administration, the focus also changes. His successor Dr Srinath firmly believed that it was not the business of IIT to spend energies on non-academic pursuits. The programme was aborted.

Indiresan was a great teacher and a lucid communicator. He could present complex issues in simple terms. For a scientist-engineer his grasp of economics was stupendous. His very many articles on social and development issues were a treat. 

Outspoken against reservation...

His outspoken views on reservation met with opposition. He believed in catching one young and providing him opportunities. He often pointed to the difficulty of setting right the neglect of twelve years of school education at the collegiate level. He boldly suggested that for centuries Brahmins have been known as good teachers and therefore it will make for good economic sense to give higher weight to them in the recruitment of teachers. 

Policy makers wedded to reservation policies were not impressed. When the German Chancellor wanted to honour Indiresan for his contributions, the government was not amused. The Indo-German Chamber of Commerce, Chennai organised a felicitation to present the commendation signed by the German Chancellor to Indiresan and invited him and his family to spend a year in Berlin as the Chancellor’s guest. 

After his stint in Madras, Indiresan served as a professor of electrical engineering at IIT-Delhi. When I informed him of my plan to interview then finance minister Madhu Dandavate, he was interested in joining me and we met the FM together. He was an ardent supporter of the Electronic Voting Machine. At numerous platforms, including one in the US, challenged by a few on the scope for tampering with it, Indiresan passionately defended it. 

Significantly his end came in Pune, where he was to chair the Election Commission’s technical committee meet on EVM.  

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