/ The Personal Blog of Basil Labib / blog

The IIT Dream: Decoding India's lust for engineers

September 18, 2021

India suffers from an unusual sort of disease today. Spotted on walls in metropolises and small towns alike, will be colorful posters with portrait sized photos of teenaged students, posing in institute branded t-shirts with big proud smiles on their faces and occasionally V signs made with fingers. Accompanying them will be a number AIR XXXX, decreasing in font size and prominence as the numbers grow larger as if to suggest a decrease in the importance of the student and their aptitude. This is the description of a typical Indian coaching institute advertisement, a booming billion dollar industry, used to lure students and sell them the IIT dream.

India, given the moniker the land of engineers, is home to the reputed Indian Institute of Technologies (IITs), a cohort of elite technological institute considered equivalent to the US Ivy League institutes such as MIT. The legacy of these institutions, envisioned by the first PM of India Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru as centres of technological excellence, is evident in today’s world. Fortune 500 companies actively seek out IIT graduates, most Silicon Valley MNCs have IITians at their spearhead frequently quoted among them is perhaps Mr. Sunder Pichai, CEO of Google Inc, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc. Further, it is not surprising to note that most unicorns (private startups with over a billion dollar valuation), found by IIT graduates, are shaping the future of the youthful country. IIT achieves this via a rigorous and unique teaching pedagogy. It ensures flexibility in coursework, early industry exposure and a cornucopia of tinkering and opportunities. The IIT alumni is strong and well-recognized throughout the world, with leading researchers and enterpreneurs calling the IITs their alma mater. It is also telling by the fact that the number of IITs has risen from mere 6 in 1991 to 23 in 2018.

With the almost mystical aura, hype and promise of a bright future, the IITs are highly in demand in the second most populous country in the world (soon to be first). Getting admitted into IIT is a gruelling and highly competitive affair in India. High school graduates have to take the JEE Advanced, the sole conduit for admission, a 6 hour objective examination in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. The blind and uninformed craze of getting into an IIT is what powers the $40 billion+ coaching industry in India.

The psychology

The self-enforcing Indian fervour of IIT can be traced to few factors:

  1. Poor households
  2. Glorification by coaching institute. Insitgated.
  3. Lack of imagination and freedom

Poor households

Perhaps the strongest driving force is poverty. India is a third world country. Most of its population is still below poverty line. The top 10% of the population owns 50% of physical assets. Corruption, inequality, ineffective welfare, outdated education, illiteracy – these are the variables India has to deal in. Parents, most of them who have grown in poverty and hardship and are wary of insecurity and distress they have endured, pour a significant portion of their incomes and even sometimes their entire savings on the hopes of their kid’s “better future”. How is this not different from disguised gambling on their own kid? (1)

Kota, the coaching capital of India, welcomes around 1,00,000 students to its coaching institutes each year for the sole purpose of preparation for JEE Mains (a preliminary exam) and Advanced. Many cannot keep up with the grueling and rigorous regime. Kota recorded ~70 suicides between 2013 to 2017 also earning it the grotesque sobriquet of the “suicide capital of India”. Exclusive focus to promising students and neglected attention to others cultivate a dreadful sense of worthlessness in these youthful minds. How many artists, musicians and sportsmen we have lost and are losing this way?

Glorification by coaching institutes

Today, these institutions have become behemoth profit maximization machines. Deprived of any state regulation, they have enjoyed unfettered growth under Economic Reforms 1991, a bill that encouraged private educational institutions. Big, catchy billboards stamped with beaming faces and numbers are supposed to speak for the repute and excellence of these institutions. Parents and students are enticed by claims that are often unchecked for credibility. This cut throat competition has resulted in degraded quality of education, a surplus of mediocre educational institutions in the market, rise in shady activities such as student and teacher poaching, bribery among others. Though these claims have not been investigated because as I said, India has bigger problems to deal with, they are certainly underway inside the glassed air conditioned walls of these firms. Human tendency is to pay heed to situations and problems that have a substantial visible destruction. This is why these activities have slipped through unnoticed, and damages the lifeblood and true value of this country – the shockwaves of which will be felt later.

The JEE Mains and NEET scam this year are instances of how nefarious practices have evolved around an examination in order to sustain what I call a pseudo-economy.

Lack of imagination and freedom

The typical Indian parents are wary of sending their kids on the “road less traveled”. As it has been noted, Indian parents crave security as they are aware of otherwise. Marriage requires a respectable job, and a respectable job requires a respectable degree. But nobody asks the kid of what they wants to do. Of course, they are all reassurances, having watched web series and mainstream Bollywood movies that brought these issues out of its tabooistic stasis (3 idiots and Chhichhore come to mind) and vowing never to be that “kind of parent”. Perhaps, it’s the guilt that kicks in. (2) Though one may sympathize with the parents’ concerns, here is the fallacy in their reasoning: The world is changing at an exponential rate, hence the change faced by kids today is many factors of what they faced as kids themselves. Their minds are a victim of linear extrapolation of an exponential function — which is obviously disastrous.

Moreover, to note is the fact that the major fallout of this disaster is bore by the child, who is essentially committing to a lifestyle decided by their parents in lieu of the minor fallout of the parents who have already spent most of their lives. It is very difficult for a sufficiently talented individual to starve to death in a modern society. Even “absurd” (as Indian parents would no doubt love to put it) talents like comic drawing and magazine design have successfully built an empire around themselves. What parents should strive to cultivate and I cannot emphasise this enough, is a love of learning. Of facilitating the process for them to find out what they love. That is where true value lies in a society.

Please note that the author doesn’t claim that the IITs or even the coaching industry are a nuisance. On the contrary, his grievances lies with what Nietzsche calls the “herd psychology” — the frivolous hype created around one particular examination.


(1): This won’t count as investment as the will of the kid is not acknowledged or even entertained.

(2): Your author can personally vouch for this guile and hideous behaviour, being a victim of it himself.

Basil | @itbwtsh

Tech, Science, Design, Economics, Finance, and Books.
Basil blogs about complex topics in simple words.
This blog is his passion project.