No, Smriti Irani is not wasting your money on the IITians

Smriti Irani--621x414

The author of ‘Dear Smriti Irani, stop giving my money to IITians’ made several fallacious and superficial arguments in concluding that Indian Institute of Technologys don’t contribute to the country. Here’s why he is wrong:

1) Not into Space/Defence research? Your education is useless
The author argues that just because India has been unsuccessful in some three space and defence technologies – cryogenics engines, submarines, and assault rifles – IITians are a waste of taxpayer money. This argument betrays the ill-conceived notions that he seems to hold about technology in today’s world. It is equivalent to my grandmother claiming that I’m a useless engineer because I cannot repair the air conditioner. Science and technology is much more than rockets and missiles.

Even in defence and space research, failure to indigenously develop a technology that can otherwise be easily imported says nothing about technological development in the country. Whenever it has not been possible to easily import such technology, India has stepped up. Indigenous development of nuclear weapons and the Mars and lunar missions are a testament to that spirit.

2) The meaning of contribution
The author also has a deeply mistaken view of what it means to contribute to a country. The author argues that IITians are not contributing anything to the country because they are not joining the Indian Space Research Agency and the Defence Research and Development Organisation in satisfactory numbers. Ironically, the author takes a dig at Chetan Bhagat and others, saying, “Best-selling fiction is not known to help farmers.”  Sadly, missiles and submarines don’t help farmers either.

To be sure, it is disappointing that ISRO and DRDO are unable to attract the best talent in the country. However, it is not just the fault  of the IITians. People go where the opportunities are. The solution is to make the opportunities in space and defence research more lucrative – not force unwilling engineers to settle for something they are not interested in, when they could do better.

3) Chemical engineers in Flipkart? Traitors!
Our education system is designed such that we expect high school students to decide once and for all what they want to do in their life. But, they do not have enough information to be able to make that choice. Interestingly, many of my friends in chemical engineering were quite surprised to learn that it isn’t really about much chemistry. Yet, we routinely admit 17-year-olds into specialised degree programmes and expect them to stick to it for life.

The founders of Flipkart didn’t want to do any chemical engineering. Instead they went on to create a great online retail company that satisfied a gaping need in the Indian economy. They have also created numerous jobs in the process. In my opinion, they have contributed much more to the Indian economy than a typical chemical engineer in a chemical plant ever would.

What role did IITs play in their journey, though? It  provided them with the right environment and the right set of tools to be able to successfully execute their ideas. Many of my entrepreneur friends would agree. Education is holistic, not confined to narrow pockets.

4) IITians are not sponging off taxpayers
Since IITians are successful in their professional life, the author is enraged that the taxpayers contributed to their education. They can earn lakhs in their placements, so why are they sponging off taxpayers, the author asks.

What he failed to consider is the fact that IITians are also taxpayers. By being more economically successful than an average taxpayer, IITians also end up more tax. Here’s a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation – even with a modest salary of 10 lakh per annum, paying roughly 20% in income tax, the taxpayers’ subsidy is cleared off in five years.  A fancy salary of one crore, which seems to have enraged the author very much, can clear off the subsidy in around six months.

One can argue that paying taxes is their duty, irrespective of the subsidy. It indeed is. However, they would not be earning as much, and the government would not be generating that extra tax revenue, if it were not for the education that they received.

5) Other subsidies and spending?
Being libertarian and shouting down taxes and subsidies all together would be logical and consistent. However, a selective grudge against subsidies for higher education doesn’t make any sense. Why spend on healthcare? Why spend on primary education? What use is educating first graders? The government needs to spend on education because, ultimately, a well-educated population is good for the progress of a country, and all levels of education are important.

This is not to say that there is no other way to fund higher education. However, if subsidies encouraged even one more person to get educated, that money is still well spent.

Note: I have given the benefit of doubt to the author that all data quoted is accurate, without independently verifying it.

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