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doi:10.1038/nindia.2015.160 Published online 7 December 2015

Premier Indian institutes to find development solutions

T. V. Padma

A frequent criticism in India about its premier Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) is that while their alumni move on for jobs in the West, the institutes have contributed few solutions for the country’s myriad development challenges. Some of that could change with the launch of a Rs 10 billion research alliance involving India’s 16 IITs and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore.

An initiative under India’s ministry of human resources development (MHRD), the Impacting Research Innovation And Technology (IMPRINT) programme is India’s first pan-IIT and IISc initiative, says its national coordinator  and director of IIT, Kanpur, Indranil Manna.

Launching the initiative in November 2016, MHRD minister Smriti Irani announced an initial Rs 75 million for 2016-17 to cover 10 domains – healthcare, information and communication technology, energy, sustainable habitat, nanotechnology hardware, water resources and river systems, advanced materials, manufacturing, security and defence, and environmental science and climate change. The projects would be funded jointly by MHRD and India's Department of Science and Technology (DST).

This is a major departure from the past, when only a few projects at IITs aimed at technological solutions in some of these sectors, says Manna.“For the first time, top engineering and science institutions in the country are coming on board to address typically Indian problems and a million engineering challenges that India faces," he said.

India’s development challenges cannot be addressed through individual interventions, Manna points out. “This is a huge opportunity for IITs to get together to provide evidence-based engineering solutions. It could well be a game-changer.”

IISc Director Anurag Kumar says the programme will direct some of the research being conducted in these academic institutions towards solutions for pressing problems facing the society, such as depleting water resources, widely available and affordable healthcare, and sustainable energy supply.

“The IMPRINT programme's main goal is to make higher education and research relevant to our society,” says Govindasamy Bala, professor at IISc’s Divecha Centre for Climate Change, and lead coordinator for the environmental sciences and climate change theme. IMPRINT will also provide a clear road map to improve India's international standing and competitive edge in engineering innovation, he adds. The priority, he says, is to create national data centres and national supercomputing centres for climate change.

The IMPRINT blueprint was envisaged in 2014 and its initial priority included drawing up a new engineering education policy document and creating a roadmap to address engineering challenges and identifying research themes and targets.

“Money is not the issue,”says Anil Rajvanshi, director of a non-government organisation Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI), based in rural western Maharashtra, and alumnus of IIT, Kanpur. “The issue is lack of passion in the IITs to address the needs of poor Indians.” He says India’s needs range from the simple to the complex, for instance, simple low-cost solar-powered refrigeration units for remote areas without electricity to efficient cooking and lighting technologies; autonomous small farm machines such as drones, weed removers, planters and harvesters to electric and air-powered motorcycles.