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Friday, July 12, 2024

India’s Elite Tech Schools Are a Golden Ticket With a Dark Side

A place at an Indian Institute of Technology is a golden ticket. There are 23 IITs across India, the country’s most elite technology training institutions: a production line for CEOs. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and Flipkart’s founder Sachin Bansal are among their alumni. So are Infosys founder N. R. Narayana Murthy and FedEx CEO Raj Subramaniam.

Dhaval Raghwani hadn’t even considered going to an IIT until, in 2017, a coaching institute—a finishing school designed to get kids into elite institutions—opened up in Thane, close to where he lived in Mulund, Mumbai. Possibilities unrolled in front of him. Each year, the media runs headlines of students leaving these prestigious institutions with “2 crore per annum jobs” (nearly $245,000). Raghwani was swept up by the promise of earning in crores.

Taking a run at an IIT involves, counterintuitively, leaving school. To get into an engineering college in India means passing the Joint Entrance Exam, or JEE, and coaching centers specialize in preparing students for these grueling tests. Just 0.5 percent of candidates are accepted into undergraduate courses at IITs.

Raghwani quit school—completing his high school diploma as an independent candidate—to enroll in the coaching center. Classes at the coaching center would normally have cost him the equivalent of $6,000; however, with a scholarship, Raghwani paid $2,500. It was an intensive program. “I had no social life,” Raghwani says. “I [went] to coaching classes early morning and used to come back home late. I didn't have a phone. I just used to study, eat, sleep.”

The intense work paid off. In 2019 he got a place at IIT Madras in the southern city of Chennai. But there was an even steeper hill to climb. The average IIT student is expected to spend 50 to 55 hours per week on their academic program, to secure internships and placements at prestigious companies, and to maintain a variety of extracurricular interests and activities—including up to two hours of mandatory physical education per week. The definition of exceptional has become inflated over the years. It’s no longer enough to have good grades. Now you have to have edited the university paper and raised money for charity. With every student having been top of their class, the academic environment is fiercely competitive. Current and former students say that campuses are often hypermasculine, with female students facing overt harassment and abuse.

Unsurprisingly, the dropout rate is high. For some, tragically, the pressure of the IIT pushes them into crisis. Since 2018, 33 IIT students have died by suicide, according to government figures. This year alone, the IITs saw six suicides in the first four months of the year. In late April, IIT Madras, the top-ranked IIT, reported its fourth suicide in three months.

“I guess it depends on the individual,” says Raghwani, now a 22-year-old Bachelor of Technology student, “how they [handle] the pressure.” His voice lowers as he proceeds: “In my hostel, [last semester] there was a suicide,” he clicks his tongue between every second word. “I knew that person very well—and in front of my room, he committed suicide.”

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IIT Madras did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

But even as the IITs lurch from scandal to scandal, tragedy to tragedy, they remain the cornerstone of India’s tech landscape. They’re still the fastest track to a career in the country’s booming technology sector. And they’re going global, with plans to expand into Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Their continuing, and growing, influence poses questions about the future of the Indian tech industry. The intense competition for places—and the cost of securing them—makes it so that the IITs have historically skewed toward wealthier and more privileged groups. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds or castes face a double burden of high expectations and discrimination, which in turn makes it harder for them to get in and harder for them to succeed when they do. What does it mean for India’s pipeline of tech leaders—and for the world’s—that it is developed in a hothouse of hypercompetitiveness, one where privilege and misogyny are embedded into the institutions?

“The lack of caste diversity in the technology sector in India, and therefore the global sector, is a major problem, and one that is very rarely addressed,” says sociologist Devika Narayan. “It is a [dominant] caste boys’ club.”

India’s education system is notoriously cutthroat. Due to a lack of affordable and quality higher education slots for the majority of the population, the pressure to get into a good university starts young, with parents enrolling their children in individual or group private tutoring sessions to get them ahead of the competition. In April, a student went to India’s Supreme Court to increase his final exam mark by 1 percent, from 98 to 99, because admission cutoffs were that high. In 2021, 1.5 million students took the JEE to qualify for 13,000 seats in each of the 23 IITs—meaning there were 115 candidates competing for each seat. And success tends to breed success—you’re more likely to get into an IIT if you have resources in the first place.

You’re also more likely to be male. Coaching centers, of the kind Raghwani attended, typically involve living away from home, so parents often discourage girls (who can be as young as 13 or 14) from taking the exams. Women accounted for around 20 percent of IIT students in the 2022–23 admission period. The first female IIT director was appointed earlier this year—not at an IIT in India, but in Tanzania.

Priyanka Joshi, who graduated from IIT Madras with a five-year dual degree in 2021, describes her experience there as “tough.” She was one of just three women on her course, surrounded by 57 men. Most of the faculty was male too. Women on IIT campuses often say they have made their peace with an ambient level of harassment. “Little issues, like a guy touching you inappropriately—these things happen a lot,” says Joshi matter-of-factly. She never complained, she adds, because she knew that people in authority would question her accounts, “and there’ll be a lot of back and forth.”

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Several IITs have been criticized for their handling of women’s safety. In 2022, IIT Madras responded to a sexual harassment complaint by requesting that students follow a “buddy system” for their safety. In 2021, IIT Guwahati reportedly overrode recommendations from committees investigating sexual offenses on campus, letting offenders off the hook with lighter-than-recommended penalties for sexual assault.

In 2017, the IITs introduced an affirmative action scheme for women, and the gender balance has improved. But when campus recruitments began, Joshi found that a lot of roles, such as work on oil rigs, were still marked as “women not applicable.” With fewer options than her male counterparts, Joshi applied for a job at an investment firm. She was one of two candidates selected out of 400 applicants—a win that her peers didn’t take well to. “There was a lot of talk behind my back,” she sighs, “[People said], ‘She got in because she’s a girl.’”

For students from marginalized communities, affirmative action has been a double-edged sword. Under the scheme, students from marginalized backgrounds have different JEE cutoff marks to compensate for historic socioeconomic hardships, among other factors. That, students say, has created opportunities for discrimination once they arrive at an IIT. “When people ask our rank, they’re doing the guesswork of finding out [our caste],” says Ravi, a Dalit [oppressed caste] student at an IIT in Delhi. Ravi asked to use an alias to avoid retribution.

Their families often warn Dalit students to hide their backgrounds to avoid discrimination. “Our families usually tell us to not discuss our identity,” Ravi says. “We’re usually sent to these institutions and told not to talk about it.” But their caste was outed when a course coordinator shared a spreadsheet containing personal details on a class mailing list, which made its way into a WhatsApp group. They were planning on telling people themselves at some point, “but it happened within the first week.” The student says there are often cases of “ragging”—a college initiation ritual that involves abuse, humiliation, and harassment—on the basis of their caste.

The Indian government mandates that 15 percent of faculty professors should be from marginalized castes, and 7.5 percent should come from Indigenous communities. In January, a report from Nature found that less than 1 percent of professors come from these social groups. The report also found that the number of students from these backgrounds in STEM is consistently low, and concluded that the reason was that institutes weren’t following the reservation policies, and the government wasn’t holding anyone to account for failing to meet quotas. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that students from marginalized castes are often in the first generation of their families to go to college, and don’t have access to JEE coaching facilities to begin with.

Many students from disadvantaged backgrounds coming into the IIT system struggle with intense imposter syndrome, says Lekh Bajaj, a clinical psychologist and former IIT Delhi graduate who carries out mental health workshops at IIT Delhi. Caste discrimination is a huge problem in India, Bajaj says. “But in IITs, it becomes an even bigger problem, because the narrative in colleges is that [oppressed caste] people have gotten some sort of advantage.”

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The issue of how caste plays out in these academic spaces was briefly headline news in February, after a Dalit engineering student, a freshman at IIT Bombay in Mumbai, died by suicide. In March, a student group from the school filed a police report against their head counselor for casteism. To date, no action has been taken against the counselor, who remains in full-time employment.

What happens at the IITs doesn’t stay at the IITs. Since dominant castes make up the majority of IIT graduates, tech executives tend to come from dominant castes, too. The result is an exceptionally slanted tech ecosystem tilted in favor of dominant caste men—a system that has been mirrored in the US too. In 2020, it was a Dalit graduate from IIT Bombay who filed a suit in the US against Cisco Systems Inc. and two of his fellow alums, alleging caste-based discrimination at their hands while employed at the company.

“Given all the research on the reproduction of caste and gender in the IITs, it seems that these ideals of gendered middle class [and dominant caste values] shape startup worlds,” says Hemangini Gupta, a researcher in entrepreneurial economies at the University of Edinburgh. “Continually, the middle class [dominant caste] man is centered as the ‘imagined entrepreneur’ … workers need to already have key advantages to survive in such economies.”

Even though women account for 43 percent of total graduates in STEM in India, only 3 percent of CEOs in the sector are women. With a persistent glass ceiling, pay inequity, and a prevailing social structure that expects women to first marry and then quit their jobs on doing so, this statistic doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon.

Startups often try to look like they’re diversifying their hiring, but they’re often doing little to make it happen, says Madhura DasGupta Sinha, founder of Aspire For Her, an NGO that aims to support women’s career aspirations. Indian startups are known for choosing not to hire women to save on maternity costs. “Culture in the startups often is not very woman-friendly—they need [to work] long hours and to travel.”

Indian startups are notoriously toxic workplaces, and are often in the news for glorifying a culture in which employees are sleep-deprived, overworked, and expected to reach impossible targets. Scandals have been reported at unicorns, including edtech giant Byju’s and food delivery app Zomato.

The dominance of dominant caste men within the tech ecosystem is likely to be self-reinforcing, since the economic opportunities that the tech sector affords remain concentrated in a single social group.

“The software industry generates high concentrations of wealth and offers a passage for upward mobility,” Narayan, the sociologist, says. “If it excludes everyone except social elites, it becomes one of the main sites through which social inequalities and hierarchies are reproduced.”

Although it is much harder to measure, the skew in the leadership of India’s tech sector and its lack of diversity and representation—which starts at the educational level—is likely to be influencing business models and technologies, from the way workers are treated to the design of algorithms.

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“What entrepreneurs and funders understand [and celebrate] as ‘risk’ and ‘innovation’ are deeply tied to gendered and [dominant] caste ideals and practices,” Gupta says.

Tech company founders and senior executives are most likely to come from an IIT-driven, hypercompetitive, move-fast-and-break-things work culture, combined with a fair degree of privilege that insulates them from the negative consequences of taking risks. But the majority of Indians aren’t highly-educated, wealthy urbanites. That means architects of tech products—such as food delivery or other gig work platforms—have a fundamentally different experience of society from the people who will be working further down the chain. It may be no coincidence that gig workers in India routinely report discrimination, shocking working conditions, and arbitrary dismissal, and that tech policymakers often make sweeping decisions that disadvantage millions of people in poor and rural communities.

“Masculine risk-taking that emphasizes scale and speed as central to how startups map and materialize their growth and imagine their success [is prevalent],” Gupta says. “A migrant single mother living in cheap housing in one of the newer residential areas of Bangalore would be spatially placed at a disadvantage. Gender and caste thus shape her experience of gig work—surviving [in] the startup economy is only possible for workers who already have safety nets to navigate these new spaces of work.”

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