Kerala gets a world class IIT; first director Sunil opens his heart on challenges (Kurian Pampadi)

Published on 12 November, 2023
Kerala gets a world class IIT; first director Sunil opens his heart on challenges (Kurian Pampadi)

Indian Institute of Technology Palakkad is decidedly a world class institution unrivalled by any of its rivals in Kerala. Nestled on a 504-ac sylvan setting in close proximity of Silent Valley National Park on the Western Ghats, it can boast of plush new academic blocks, research labs, hostels and mess halls that reminds me of my visits to Harvard. Yale and MIT that host Nobel Laureates. 

Aerial view of IIT Palakkad at Kanjikod

Lunched in 2015 with the motto Nurturing Minds for a Better World, India’s youngest Institute has grown from a token number of 120 students to more than 1300 in ten departments by 2023. It has also established a Techin-Technology Innovation hub to promote entrepreneurship and public participation

If Harvard can be the haven for an Indian like Amartya Sen or MIT an India-born Abhijith Banerjee, why can’t the nascent IITPKD’s 1300-strong student community, a cream from the world’s largest population, produce global innovators not only in the field of science and technology but also humanities and social sciences? The sky is the limit for researchers in economics, sociology, ethnography, philosophy, psychology, public health, immunology, linguistics, environmental science, data science and whatnot. 

Sylvan setting on the Western Ghats

At the Ohio State University in Columbus I met Rajan Babu, doing his PhD in Chemistry after obtaining his MSc from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. He did his postdoctoral at Harvard under Prof. Robert Burns Woodward who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1965.  After a stint with DuPont Central Research in Wilmington, Delaware, Rajan returned to academics in Ohio. He told me that he is planning to retire after finishing the doctoral works of a dozen students under him. Son of my father’s teacher-colleague Kurup from Mavelikara, Rajan remains a friend.  

In Palakkad, I was chaperoned by an old friend from my neighbourhood in Kottayam- KV Biju of the Centre for Education Technology who has been busy with the digitalisation of the campus with Wi-Fi and LAN connecting all blocks including hostels and rooms. The entire campus is named Nila after River Bharatapuzha and each block named after musical ragas like Kedaram, Tilana, Brindavani, Manogatha, Bageshri and Kapi. There is a multi-purpose hall named Agora, a Greek word meaning a meeting place.  

 Director Sunil Kumar at Golden Gate bridge San Francisco; at Pkd 

After a hearty breakfast at the campus mess that can tickle mostly the north Indian palate, Biju drove me around the sprawling campus where sky-high new structures were coming up with students and teachers jostling to reach academic blocks or labs. 

“Look at them,” Biju stopped his car to join a security beat to point at the top of the bluish hills afar where some elephants were moving like turtles. ‘We have accounted some seventeen of them grazing on the thick vegetation atop the hills,’ he told me. The next nocturnal foray comes from peacocks, hundreds of them. They were too far away to spread any scare in the campus which was cordoned off with solar fencing and digital monitoring. The campus is 15 km from downtown Palakkad with another 15 to go to the Walayar Check Post on the border with Tamil Nadu. Palakkad is the nearest railway junction and Coimbatore the nearest airport, at 45km distance by NH 544.  

IITM’s Rajan Babu at Ohio, his Prof Nobel Laureate Woodward 

“Well, we have made a good beginning, building up the infrastructure and romping in students and teachers,” Dr. Sunil Kumar, the first director of the Palakkad campus told me in a candid interview. Chair Professor of Physics at IIT Madras, Dr. PB Sunil Kumar had the onerous task of building from the scratch that he did with aplomb. Born in Kozhikode, he did his masters in the University of Calicut, his PhD in the Raman Research Institute, Bangalore and postdoc at Max Planck Institute, Germany. Here are excerpts from his account of initial challenges:

Students, national and international at Pkd

As a new IIT, the biggest challenge was to get good faculty on board. We recruited more than 100 persons, and the attrition was less than 3%. The next challenge, which is no smaller, was to get the land allotted in time, complete the first set of construction and move completely to the new campus.  We could get the first thing done in time, in fact better that the other IITs started at the same time in spite of the initial bungling by contractors. 

To set up the research and innovation ambiance was another big challenge. I am also proud of the central facilities we set up for research and innovation. We made sure that every equipment purchased was installed and put into use immediately, nothing was allowed to idle on the corridors.  This in turn attracted good students to come and join. We started two section 8 companies to kickstart the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem, one hosting a one of its kind centre for sanitation technologies. 

Panoramic campus-KV Biju with the author

We set up teams to interact with other institutions in the neighbourhood, the local government and the state government to convey the message that this IITs is for everyone and is determined not to stay as an isolated centre of excellence. I believe my greatest achievement was to get the faculty to own the activities of the institute. 

One of the last things I did was to get a purpose and vision statement written for the institute.  I knew we had arrived, when I saw that some of the faculty who were the biggest skeptics of this exercise had taken over the task and completed it. 

Students from Andra Pradesh

I was born in Kozhikode, did my schooling till the 8th std at BEM school at Parappanangadi and then my high school at St. Joseph's high school Kozhikode.  Did my college up to BSc at Guruvayoorappan
College, Kozhikode. My father was working in the state health department as a health inspector.  Both my parents are from Kozhikode.” 

Palakkad IIT welcomes students from all over India and provides admission to all branches of engineering,  sciences, social sciences and humanities. Graduate and post graduate courses and research leading to PhD are already on stream. There are 1300 students representing every corner of India and also a few foreign countries. In the mess hall I saw a table around which a bevy of girls were huddled for breakfast. All were from Andhra Pradesh. Another table was monopolised by a boy and a girl from Gujarat. 

From Gujarat

A headcount of all professors available on the Meet the Faculty site of the IIT lead to the realisation that at least a third of them were potential Malayalees. I found at least one-Dr. Anoop George, an Assistant professor in Humanities and Social Sciences on sabbatical leave with  SUNY (State University of New York) at Albany, USA. I was awed by the range of his research interests: Phenomenology and Existentialism, Philosophy of Technology, Continental Philosophy.

Another academic, Dr. Anoop Akkoorath Mana of Mechanical Engineering can never be anyone other than a Keralite. Sure, he is from Pattambi. He called me on the fifth day to tell me he had been busy being the COO of Techin, a platform for startups in and out of the campus and an incubation centre for business participation from outside. His interests are in vibration and acoustics. Best wishes Anoop.  

Anoop Akkoorath Mana, Reenu Punnoose. Veena Venudharan

I made it a point to learn more about two brilliant academics-Reenu Punnoose of the Department of English and Veena Venudharan of the Department of Civil Engineering.  Reenu, a product of Stella Maris, Chennai has research interest in linguistics and world Englishes. She did her Masters in York and PhD in New Castle and postdoctoral in JNU. Had also a stint in the Central University of Kerala in Kasargod. I am proud that she hails from my hometown Kottayam. 

Veena with a PhD from IIT Kharagpur is a specialist in transportation and pavement engineering. Joined academics after garnering excellent industry experience. She graduated in Civil engineering from the University of Calicut. In response to my mail she apologised for her delay and welcomed me to her campus. Well, thank you Veena who will have to wait for my second coming.  I was specially happy that she chairs the Media cell of the institution. However, Reenu, though she spoke to me for a moment, did not respond to my mail. 

Convocation-S. Somanath, chair guv Ramesh Venkateswaran, dir Seshadri Sekhar

The IIT just held its fifth convocation where graduates, post graduates and PhDs were awarded certificates and rolls of honour.  Dr. S. Somanath, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation was the guest of honour. Chairman of the Board of Governors Ramesh Venkateswaran and current director A. Seshadri Sekhar were on the dais. 

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Mary mathew 2023-11-12 08:26:25
So happy to hear about the IIT in Palakkadu like Harvard,Yale and MIT .This is a proud moment of India .I think it is in the right place filled with natural beauty and other amenities.
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