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A crown jewel takes a beating

What's wrong with the famed Indian Institutes of Technology?

Engineers work on a multiple rocket launcher on the deck of the tank landing ship, Shardul, under construction at an Indian defense shipyard in Calcutta Nov. 14, 2006. Smart, well-educated workers are India's crown jewels. (Parth Sanyal/Reuters)

NEW DELHI — The Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) are India's crown jewels, producing the country's most famous export: smart, well-educated workers and entrepreneurs.

The seven institutions have turned out some of the world's finest engineers and computer scientists, eagerly recruited by top graduate schools like MIT, Stanford and Harvard in the United States. Many of the institutes' graduates have gone on to become chief executives of American companies and have fueled India's information-technology boom.

Now, thanks to the Indian government, the IITs' international reputation looks set to take a beating. The government has suddenly doubled the number of institutes across the country in what many educators are calling an ill-conceived and poorly executed plan.

"Even primary schools cannot be started eight at a time, that's all I have to say," said C.N.R. Rao, chairman of the standing committee of the IIT council that is supposed to make key administrative decisions. Likely he refused to say more because his fulminations to local media a few days earlier — when he said that "opening so many IITs in one year is a disaster" — had not gone down well.

The first seven IITs — which were established between 1951 and 2001 — have gained reputations that place them among the best engineering colleges in the world. Almost everyone agrees that India needs more engineers, and more IITs to produce them. But the ham-fisted way the process has been handled has left many professors, alumni, students and industry professionals frustrated and more than a little confused.

The government pushed through the creation of six new IITs so quickly last July that they all have students but no faculty members or permanent facilities. Instead, the older institutes absorbed the new students or, in some cases, sent their professors to teach at temporary sites far away. That has placed enormous strains on the institutes which, like many other colleges in India, already face faculty shortages of 20 percent to 30 percent.