INTERVIEW | “Kerala is up north of Europe…don’t confuse Kerala with anywhere else in India”

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Debashis Chatterjee, who was re-appointed as IIM-K director spoke to TNIE on the institution’s journey, what makes it tick, and his observations on Kerala.

IIM Kozhikode has been raising the benchmark in management schools over the past several years, with moves such as admitting over 50% women in its flagship post-graduate programme and designing new digital-based programmes way before other IIMs. Deservedly, IIM-K was ranked third in the Ministry of Education’s rankings for management schools in 2023, unseating IIM-Calcutta from the spot it had held for 50 years. Debashis Chatterjee, who was re-appointed as IIM-K director for another five years in April, has been a driving force in the institution.

You have been credited with transforming IIM-K from a regional institution to no. 3 among the IIMs. How has this journey been?

I wish I could take solo credit, but I can’t. I didn’t create the institution; I just created an aspiration. It was a dream that was waiting for a campus. Usually, you don’t have an IIM in a city that has no real corporate connectivity. I remember my predecessor saying that he had to fly (from Kozhikode) to Dubai to attend a meeting in Delhi, as there was no direct flight available (chuckles). I didn’t have that kind of difficulty. We, however, had to lobby with the airlines and the corporates. I once prepared breakfast for the late J J Irani, who headed Tata Steel. After breakfast, I told him it was unfortunate that Tata Steel had not been recruiting from IIM-K. He assured me it would happen. That’s how we attracted corporates – personalised, backbreaking work.

IIM-K pioneered the digitisation of the programmes.

That was the first in a series of ‘Ds’. In 2001, to overcome our geographical disadvantage, the institution went into a digital mode. We used to call it off-site learning. As a result, we could attract corporate managers who would not be able to come to Kozhikode but still sought an IIM experience. Instead of them coming to IIM, IIM started going to them.

You enhanced IIM-K’s gender diversity. How did that happen?

The second ‘D’ was the diversification of our portfolio. For 50 years of IIMs’ existence, there were only 8-10% of women in a class of, say, 180-200 students. In the case of CAT, women didn’t even take the exam. I wondered why. These girls were much better than boys in school, Classes 10 and 12. However, after that, the playing field became uneven. In middle-class families, the coaching money usually went to the boys; girls were primed for marriage. I asked my faculty: ‘If Sachin Tendulkar was to choose between marriage and cricket, would he still be Sachin Tendulkar?’ Subsequently, we decided to admit Classes 10 and 12 scores as a criterion for selection. Girls did much better than expected in the interviews. They outdid the boys in summer placements.

What were the other novel ideas that IIM-K introduced?

We launched four programmes in 2020 – an MBA in liberal studies, an MBA in finance, PhD for practising professionals, one-year MBA programme in business leadership. We became the first IIM to embrace global accreditation. And the third ‘D’ was disruption. We adopted a mission to globalise Indian thought. My US-educated predecessor called the staircase leading to the main building ‘Harvard Steps’. I said it will be called ‘Arjuna Path’. Alexander is known all over the world. Arjuna had equal capabilities, but he is not so well-known. Why? Because we never had the courage to talk about our own icons. Globalising Indian thought does not mean globalising religion. It is about how we look at the best and the next practices of India. They can be benchmarked, equivalent or better than global standards. We disrupted the IIM narrative that we had to be a second-rate Harvard or MIT, rather than a first-rate Indian institution.

Your take on the difference between globalising Indian thought and religion is interesting. Can you elaborate on that?

Globalisation was believed to be the extension of economic might. That sort of globalisation ended with Covid. The next phase of globalisation will be about values. If there is a war between two countries, the alignments will not be based on economic power or geography, but values. If you want a bunch of people to come together, they will have to share the same values. India has the deepest and the most respected democratic values. This is truly a deep democracy. Despite all the misery and poverty, our ethical standards are much better than in many parts of the world.

You were leading a quiet life in Singapore. Then you chose to come to a nondescript place called Kunnamangalam

Somebody from the Prime Minister’s Office recommended my name. I got a call while I was in Singapore. I had no clue that I was being called for an interview. I asked whether they would pay my airfare. My daughter checked up the internet and found that Kozhikode was the second cleanest and livable city in the world. So I came down with huge anticipation. ‘Metroman’ E Sreedharan interviewed me. I did not know who he was. He said I was too young to lead an IIM. I was in my early forties at that time. I said, ‘If you cannot give me leadership, give me a position. Leadership has to be earned.’ He asked what my vision was for IIM Kozhikode. I said, ‘I don’t have one’. Eventually, I got the job. Sreedharan ji came back after four years. While addressing the students, he said, ‘I saw the director picking up chewing gum from the road leading to his office. That explained how the campus was so clean.’

How are you going to assimilate AI into your programmes?

Artificial intelligence is nothing but natural intelligence augmented by devices that we sometimes don’t even understand. The augmentation process is mistaken as a creative process. There are things that, culturally, we will never allow AI to enter into. You will not depend on AI to decide who you should marry, or the company you should join. There will be a human element in such decision-making processes. I believe face time is the most beautiful experience. I have created a Gurukul, with a capacity to seat 50 people. It has grass on the floor, a vertical garden, and a huge ceiling. That is the most visited classroom. The atmosphere is one of camaraderie. Our classrooms are round in structure. Many Japanese conferences happen in a round-table format because they believe in a shared decision-making process. Our architecture also began to mimic our intent. All our student hostels are named after ragas. [Violin maestro] L Subramanian, who once visited the campus, said that he had never seen hostels named after ragas. Our orientation to the world is musical. Your heart beats in a rhythmic way, your DNA is a dance of molecules. It is part of our inheritance. You can hear music in our corridors. All my classes, even in Kolkata, used to begin with instrumental music. I want students to play music. The classroom wakes up to another dimension of attention. More such experiments will happen soon; I started it 30 years ago. India has music for every season, every part of the day. No other civilisation has music for every mood, every mode. If you cannot exploit that richness in the learning space, where else can we do that?

The government is planning to allow foreign universities to set up campuses in India. Do you see stiff competition coming up?

Competition threatens those who are incompetent. Competent people welcome competition. India’s javelin champ Neeraj Chopra will welcome a challenger, like you saw in the Asian Games. Competition will only enhance the quality. That said, it will take time for any school to come and compete with our kind of institution. IIM is a legacy institution. It is the biggest management school in the world by size, and performance. We are not worried. I don’t think the top 10 schools in the world will be willing to come here so quickly.

Can you explain?

Our orientation to education is directly the opposite of that of the West. Vidya dadathi vinayam means knowledge generates humility. In the US, it will be Vidya Dadathi jobs or money. Moreover, a school such as Harvard will have to reduce its fees to IIM levels. And, if they were to teach courses in languages other than English, Harvard would not be Harvard. So, why would they come over here at such a cost to themselves?

Then, who will come here?

Our education is easily going to be aspirational for Africa, and most of Asia and eastern Europe. We have been locked in the belief that we don’t need anything, that we are Vishwagurus even without doing anything. You can’t be Vishwaguru without reaching out to the vishwa. We have to go out, and test our mettle. Nalanda and Takshashila did that. That’s how Indian education is poised today. The IITs have now gone to Africa, and IIM is set to go to the Middle East.

What makes a large number of students aspire to go abroad for higher studies?

The sheer intensity of aspiration. About 3,00,000 aspirants are attending CAT examinations every year, and there are just 20 IIMs. The ratio is 1:800. Look at the rejection rate in institutions of excellence. Where will the rest go? In England, it is so easy to get admission to be a doctor. You don’t have to stand in a long queue of 3,00,000 people to be a doctor.

What are the changes that you have observed in India over the recent years? And where do you see India in 2047?

A lot of Indians aspire. India will become more affluent. Recently, I spent some time with the current Danish ambassador, who has been in India for the past 11 years. I asked him about the changes he saw in India. The first thing he noted was the growing confidence of the average Indian. People who come here see that India has an aspirational space. However, we have not capitalised on the aspiration yet in the education space. Indian education should go global. We should compete with Australia, the US and England on equal terms. Indian systems have always had the dynamism of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar… You create, you maintain, and you also destroy. The destruction part is also important. You must destroy the mindsets and institutional structures that don’t serve you well. The vision for 2047 is not to do more, but to undo.

If you were to undo five things, what would they be?

One, the mindset that we don’t have enough. We must also replace the fossilised institutions that have archaic systems of answers, not questions. All teachers are ready with answers. Replace your answers with more and more questions. Today, top IIMs give only 50% weightage to CAT scores because going by a one-time exam score can be misleading while assessing a person’s capability.

Same would be true for our civil service exams, too…

The monoliths – such as IITs, IIMs, IAS – have to rethink the entire process. Nobody’s thinking of course corrections. What has been the contribution of the IIM-K to Kerala, and what have you taken back from the state? We never thought of ourselves as a regional institution. We wanted to create a global institution that represented the soul of the state. Kerala’s greatest gift is its quality of manpower. There’s not been a single stoppage of work in Kozhikode in the past 15 years. During the pandemic, we were a first-line treatment centre. Classes were also going on. Kerala is a world-class state. Once during a discussion at the Australian High Commission, an official commented that education was in a bad shape down south. I said, ‘Sorry, I don’t think of Kerala as ‘down south’. Kerala is up north of Europe. It is equivalent to Europe in the way people behave, in the way hospitals work, in the way people’s minds are… So please don’t confuse Kerala with anywhere else in India.’

How do students from Kerala fare in comparison with the global level?

We get roughly 10% of students from Kerala. In terms of basic global citizenship values, this state is far ahead of others in the country. Every book of mine in English is translated into Malayalam because I know there will be as many Malayali readers. If you have to choose between someone from Kerala and another state, and if they are equal in terms of skill levels, we would probably bet on the guy from this state because of the ethical standards. That would be the differentiator.

What about the work culture over here?

Culture is dynamic. A Malayali here would be one kind, the same Malayali elsewhere would be different. The Malayali in Bengal might pick up the Bengalis’ bad habits. In Delhi, he will be vociferous for his rights. In the US, he will be hardworking, and diligent. There is another dimension to Kerala – commitment to nature, which is important. Also, there are preset notions that if you are from Kerala, you must be good… you will not spit in a train… one makes such assumptions immediately.

The Oommen Chandy government spent two days on IIM-K campus. How has been your relationship with the LDF government?

Well, we don’t deal much with the government, except when it asks us for projects or consultancies. The reason why we do not work directly with the government is that our mandate is a centre of excellence in management education.

What happened to the proposal for a Kochi campus near Infopark?

The Oommen Chandy government had promised to give us five acres of land. However, subsequently, they said we would have to pay for it. It was not the government, but the bureaucracy. Later, we got a piece of land from Kochi Metro. It’s a smaller plot, and wasn’t free.

What changes have you observed in Kerala over the past decade?

There is now an awareness that the same-old mode will not work. You have changed the political voting pattern after a long time. You were voting for an assertive, courageous guy. The musical chair stories in politics changed. What happened during Covid, the way you took on Nipah… the respect for Kerala’s due diligence in that sector grew at a global level. The [health] minister became very prominent. I have never seen a minister’s book being available in bookstores, published by Penguin. I have seen a desperation to solve problems. And people now want to return to Kerala from Kuwait and other places. I see the return of prodigies.

Some of your books have been inspired by mythological characters. What prompted you to take that line?

I have not gone to Jerusalem. I have not gone to Mecca. I did not get a chance. I have only gone to Krishna temples. I once asked a management professor why people thronged these places. And I was told by Karl Marx that religion was the opium of the masses. Fair enough. But opium has medical and therapeutic value as well. It has delusional and therapeutic value. I pick the therapeutic value. Religion is the most powerful organisation in the world. And I am a student of that organisation.

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