Chairperson of The IIIT Dharwad, Shrimati Sudha Murty, Director Dr Kavi Mahesh, Registrar of the Institute, Professor S Basavarajappa, faculty and staff members, my dear graduating students, ladies and gentlemen. It is a great honour for me to be here this evening to witness your graduation. When Shrimati Sudha Murty asked me to be here today, I readily agreed for four reasons. First, I have abiding love and respect for her, as does anyone who has come into close contact with her. The second reason is my great respect and admiration for all the IIIT institutions as a whole that have grown from the very first one in Bengaluru and then, replicated without losing the core, the integrity, which is extremely difficult when we build institutions. The third reason to be here is because it is the IIIT, Dharwad’s first convocation. For years to come, batches would graduate, convocation speakers would deliver their speeches, but there is something enchanting to be the very first. It symbolizes the pioneering spirit; that before you, no one was here. It is a great place to be in. My last, but not the least, reason in coming here is that the Hubli-Dharwad twin cities are very dear to me. I believe this is a sacred space that has produced greatness and given it all to the nation in art, literature, culture, science, technology and social innovation. The contribution of the Hubli-Dharwad region to the cause of the freedom movement and the subsequent effort of nation building is known to all of us. The region has a certain guiding spirit, something like a meta-consciousness that makes it unique. This evening marks the culmination of your many years of sincere work to be an engineer in Information Technology. Information Technology is a remarkable frontier of human intellect and endeavor that has pervasive impact on life and living in its myriad dimensions. It is impossible to think of the future of humankind without the contribution of information science and technology; its import is truly fascinating and sometimes, very scary.
I entered the world of Information Technology in 1981 when it was at a very nascent stage in India. People like me who were instrumental in creating the foundation for the now iconic Indian IT industry, were clearly riding a wave at sunrise. But decades after, as I stand here to behold what lies ahead of all of you, I think there is so much more yet to happen, its newness and impact would be so vast that you would still be considered pioneers by people who would come after you. In that sense, the sunrise continues, you are waking up to it and walking into it as a very special set of people for whom the future is already laid out, there is a place in it reserved for you. From here, only you can come between yourself and the promise you hold. In that sense, you have a position of advantage and entitlement compared to millions, trust me, millions of others who cannot ever comprehend your success because they lost the race before the race began and it happened at multiple levels. This evening, I want to speak to you about them. You have probably chosen me as the convocation speaker because of my four decades of work in the Information Technology industry, but my defining experience in life was shaped only after I stepped out of it in 2016, to go to the State of Odisha, to serve the need for employable skill development for school dropouts. It is then that I quickly realized the size of the chasm between people like us and those who constitute the majority in this country. To give you a context, the world of skill development largely concerns school dropouts. These are children, who for either socio-economic reasons or because of poor nutrition would fall off and not go back to school. A little-known fact is that pre and postnatal nutrition problems lead to something called stunting and wasting, conditions that have direct correlation with learning problems in children. India has 1/3rd of the world’s stunted children. 38.4% children born in India have a stunting problem. For every 100 children born in India, only 95% probably get enrolled in school. Of these, only 70% would ever complete high school. This means a vast number of children in our country is out of school. By varying estimates, that is a staggering 6 million, almost the entire population of Singapore!
Most of them must get some employable skills after their fifth, eighth or at best, tenth class of study, either through a short-term government sponsored course or a two-year training at what is called an Industrial Training Institute (ITI) before they can find a job. 80% of these school dropouts would at best get access to the short-term courses that make them ready to be waiters, janitors, dump truck operators, sales assistants in a mall or sewing machine operators in a garment factory. These jobs would provide them with a minimum wage, mostly in an alien city. Only 20% of these young people would qualify to get to an ITI because, the entry level qualification there is a class-ten pass. These 20% would be trained to become electricians, plumbers, carpenters and welders, largely, the “blue-collar” work force for the manufacturing sector. Whether it is the 80% or the 20%, these are people at the bottom of the pyramid who must battle civilisational challenges at multiple levels, to get a toehold in life. Who are these people? Where do they come from, where do they eventually go? Today, I want to tell you the story of 4 young women from this world, far removed from our bubble, so that you feel as inspired by them as I am. I want you to think of them whenever and for whatever reason you feel you had a rough day.
First, let me tell you about Muni Tiga. In the very first month of my work, I travelled more than 30,000 kilometers by road in Odisha to see the 30 districts of the State to get a firsthand feel of the size and the complexity of the problem at hand. My charter at the time was to enable employable skill development for 1.1 million youth by 2019. In every district I visited, I would stop at the ITI. ITIs are the oldest skill training institution of the Government, started even before the IITs and IIMs were envisioned. Yet, with time, as IITs and IIMs have surged forward, for myriad reasons, the ITIs have receded. It is no surprise then that, in most places, they are in a state of decay. My task was to get back their selfconfidence. As part of that, at every ITI I would visit, I invariably started with one question: tell me the names of ten students you have produced that you are truly proud of. But the question had conditions attached. Of the ten, six must have been able to secure a job outside the State, competing with the best anywhere. Of the ten again, tell me the names of four girls who came in here and went on to take up a technical career. This one is important because social stereotypes exclude the girl child from technical and skill education. And finally, of the ten, I needed to know the names of two that the ITI is proud of because they went on to start a small business. Through this, I wanted every ITI to be first proud of their work through the talent they produced. For an educational institution, it must be all about students. There was another angle to my query: in most institutions, teachers came and went, no one knew who the students were. As a result, the institutions didn’t produce “role models” for others to look up to. Young people need role models; give them their idol and they can figure out the path. Thanks to the simple question, today, every institution can name the ten students in the order I wanted them to, each one has a hall of fame you must cross before you enter the classrooms. In that larger backdrop, one day, I came to visit the ITI at Bargarh in the western part of Odisha. Upon my arrival there, when I threw the 10/6/4/2 challenge to the ITI and asked them to name 4 girls they are truly proud of, an old teacher haltingly recalled the name of Muni Tiga.
Muni Tiga was born in a tribal family of seven children. Upon finishing high school, she learnt about the ITI. She came here and studied electronics for two years and now she is a loco-pilot with the Indian Railways. I asked the Principal to get her on the phone. In minutes, she was speaking with me. She said, in her own words, “I am Muni Tiga. I am a locomotive pilot with the Indian Railways. Every day, I haul the Shatabdi Express from Bhubaneswar to Palasa and bring it back.” I asked to see her in person upon my return to Bhubaneswar and here is what I learn about her: as a child, her task at home was to graze the cattle. She had a few books which she would take with her to the forest and read while the cattle grazed. The villagers ridiculed her. What was a tribal girl doing with books? She didn’t care. She loved to read and through her perseverance, she finished school. Now came the big challenge. She needed money to go to a college. To earn some money, she decided to become a daily wage worker in a factory that was a good 37 kilometers away. For an eight-hour shift, she earned fifty rupees a day. To get to work, she had to leave home well before the Sun was up and return after Sundown. The village people didn’t like this. They taunted her. What if she brought bad name for the village? But she persisted. Amidst all this, Muni Tiga lost her father. Around this time, she met well-wishers who advised her to go to the Government ITI because they had a hostel and the education there was free. That is how she came to the ITI, finished her studies and got selected by the Indian Railways where, like her, and unknown to people like you and I, there are a handful of women who haul trains. I once heard her speak at a public event to honor her where she said,
“There is a certain inevitability to pain in life. But there must be a limit to how much we must suffer. Somewhere, we must intervene to alleviate that pain, to whatever extent possible. That capability is innate in us.”
In a State like Odisha, for generations, there has been societal disapproval for anyone who wanted to be an entrepreneur. Yet, entrepreneurs are the ones who create jobs. But there is a catch. There is a big lag factor between entrepreneurs starting their business, some succeeding, most failing, before jobs of any reckonable numbers get created. There isn’t a short cut to this.