Sundar Pichai, Alphabet Inc.’s CEO, returned to his alma mater, the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur in West Bengal, to talk to 3,500 students on a bright day in early 2017. He told stories about missing classes and meeting his college girlfriend, who is now his wife, as he was greeted as the “rock star” CEO of the “world’s most creative business.” He also made a presentation to the soon-to-be-graduates in the audience about Google. The interviewer inquired as to how many people wanted to work there. Many hands rose up in the air. Pichai joked, “Wow, maybe we should open a campus in Kharagpur.”
More About Technology Firms He Talked:
It doesn’t get any better for Google in terms of feeder schools than this network of 23 highly competitive colleges, government-funded IITs. Hundreds of their graduate students join the world’s largest technology firms each year. Bill Gates gave a keynote address at the school system’s 50th anniversary in 2003, praising graduates who’d gone on to work for Microsoft Corp. Over the years, indicating that the corporation had, in turn, invested more funds in the IITs than any other organization outside the United States and the United Kingdom.
Despite the IITs’ expertise in training and placing students, the coders, developers, product designers, and engineers who are flocking to global technology carry the problematic legacy of India’s caste system with them. On-campus, students are accompanied by a culture of bigotry, intimidation, and segregation that affects students from India’s Scheduled Castes, also known as Dalits, and in some cases engage in it. While the IITs officially prohibit such violence, discrimination towards these students persists.
In India, caste, like race in the United States, refers to centuries of demographic, cultural, and financial divisions. Unlike the United States, India has had a national affirmative action program in place since 1950 to address the legacy of bias. It includes provisions that assist Dalits and other marginalized groups in enrolling in and paying for college. For nearly half a century, IIT admissions have been subject to a reservation system that’s still hotly debated on the campuses. In recent years, the schools have opposed attempts to extend affirmative action to faculty hires, arguing it would dilute the quality of the applicant pool and undermine their meritocratic image.
Many Indian Institutes of Technology are notoriously cutthroat, starting with the admissions process. Some 2.2 million people have registered to take the 2021 entrance exam, to vie for roughly 16,000 slots. Around 15% of those would be allocated to applicants from the Scheduled Castes (SCs), and then another 7.5 percent to applicants from the Scheduled Tribes (STs), indigenous people who have been oppressed and whose position has been formalized by the law.