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Power and passion at play on PanIIT stage

Power-packed sessions, 2,500-plus delegates, entertaining evenings — the PanIIT Global Conference 2012, partnered by The Telegraph, was an all-action affair.

The three-day event at Science City, which drew IIT alumni from across the world for the first time to Calcutta, came to a close on Sunday with participants already looking forward to the next conference in Houston, Texas.

“The success of the conference depends on whether we have achieved what we wanted to give you — a platform for networking and communicating to you PanIIT’s vision and mission — and I think we have,” said Sandipan Chakravortty, the conference’s steering committee chairman.

Over three days, IITians discussed everything to do with nation-building — the prime focus of the conference — from strategies needed to take India forward, the role of information technology in the transformation of the country and collaboration between academia and industry to future technologies, the competitiveness of India’s IT industry and the future of clean politics in India.

Hundreds of IITians deep in discussion about the politics of their state and business opportunities, exchanging email IDs and phone numbers meant that the organisers had achieved their objective in the eastern India debut for the global conference.

The inaugural session set the tone for the rest of the event with governor M.K. Narayanan calling for an optimistic outlook towards India and civil aviation minister Ajit Singh highlighting the need for greater focus on higher education.

A surprise Santa trick by chief minister Mamata Banerjee — she handed out over 1,500 jute bags with cha and chaal to the “golden brains of the world” — went down well, though most delegates agreed that Bengal has “fallen off the investment map”.

Powerhouse speakers like Nancy Powell, Nandan Nilekani, Yogi Deveshwar, Kris Gopalakrishnan, Srikumar Banerjee, N.R. Narayana Murthy and B. Muthuraman attended the event.

One houseful session deserving special mention had IITian-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal in the spotlight speaking about parivartan and raising doubts about the political paribartan in Bengal.

A stock-taking of the goals and achievements of PanIIT Alumni India and an appeal to the delegates to search for and start new nation-building initiatives and to become more actively involved in the existing ones brought the curtains down on Sunday.

The packed food court and the buzzing adda zone in the exhibition area, the response to the performances by Bickram Ghosh, Usha Uthup and Mamata Shankar, showed that IITians knew how to have a good time even while discussing serious issues.

“We wanted this conference to be the biggest ever and I think we have raised the bar in terms of the numbers that have attended, the kind of speakers lined up and the diverse topics covered,” said Chakravortty during the valedictory session.

Raising the bar further will be the job of PanIIT USA when the global conference travels to Houston, Texas, in 2013.

Chakravortty handed over the ceremonial baton to the chairman of the next conference, Witty Bindra, and launched the conference’s official website.

“We have a formidable act to follow and we hope to meet Sandipan’s challenge and raise the bar higher,” said Bindra.

Tech boost for millions

Passion was the power point at the second-last session of the conference. After all, the men on the dais were N.R. Narayana Murthy, IIT Kanpur alumnus and chairman emeritus of Infosys, and R. Gopalakrishnan, IIT Kharagpur alumnus and director, Tata Sons. The chair for the session? Hemant Nerurkar, MD, Tata Steel. Their talking point? Harnessing world-class technology for millions.

According to Narayana Murthy, harnessing technology was critical to creating a successful and modern nation. Citing the examples of Great Britain, France and USA, he referred to technology as the “key to unlocking a nation’s potential”.

He spoke passionately about the three things that needed to be addressed to improve quality of life in India — affordable technology to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, designing sustainable technology solution, and innovating to improve existing technology.

Narayana Murthy cited examples of E Health Points, units that take medical services to rural areas, and chotuKool, the affordable refrigerator from Godrej, as examples of how technology can improve quality of life.

“Things like chotuKool strengthen my belief that innovation can help millions of people,” he said, further holding up examples of innovation like Ajit Narayanan, an IIT Madras alumnus who created Avaz, a Rs 40,000 communication device for people with cerebral palsy, and Anirudh Sharma, who has developed a haptic feedback-based shoe called Le Chal to help the visually impaired navigate and walk.

“I believe we Indians can create technologies to improve the lives of people, not only in India but all over the world,” said the man who made Infosys what it is today.

Gopalakrishnan spoke of innovation not just in the field of technology but also in the scope of services and business models.

According to him, innovating first in the market maybe important and useful but was not sufficient. The crucial thing was to create something difficult to replicate.

“There is a myth that you have to be the first in the market.... But what you remember is not who came first but who came second or third, who survived,” said Gopalakrishnan, giving examples of how people thought of Apple as the first computer when it was actually Altair and how it was not Pampers but Chux which first produced disposable diapers.

He also went on to point out how innovations like iPad and iPod, that are on the top of the innovation pyramid, are fewer in number, have great visibility but lesser reach than those numerous innovations at the bottom of the pyramid, which have poor visibility but a greater reach.

“This is a subject of passion. There may or may not be profit but there has to be passion,” concluded Gopalakrishnan, whose latest book, What the CEO Really Wants From You, was unveiled by Narayana Murthy on the Science City stage.

“I wanted him to unveil both of my previous books but it never happened. We are sharing the same podium here so what better a place than the PanIIT meet!” said Gopalakrishnan, who explained that the book was about looking at the boss not as an iconic person but as a human and to treat him as a client.

Call to repay debts to the system

IITians have emerged as the privileged class, enjoying all the privileges the Indian education system has made available to them. They must return favours by guiding the same system on the path of excellence.

These were the words with which Rudrangshu Mukherjee of The Telegraph concluded a panel discussion titled ‘Building a developed India through excellence and education to bring in transformational and sustainable changes for its people’, at the conference on Sunday.

Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi, Tata Steel vice-chairman B. Muthuraman and strategist Partha S. Ghosh were among the speakers at the discussion, presided over by Mukherjee.

The session began with Ghosh asking IITians to deliver on nation-building following in the footsteps of Acharya Jagadis Chandra Bose and Satyendra Nath Bose. “IITians have to prove that the IIT system has really delivered. IITians must acquire the zeal to serve the nation,” said Ghosh, urging fellow IITians to reach out to the villages and take up projects aimed at improving the standard of primary education.

Chief minister Gogoi highlighted the relevance of education in attempts to solve problems like ethnic clashes and insurgency, ills currently plaguing his state. “Once we manage to provide education to the marginalised, it will lead to generation of employment. The more we can give them employment opportunities, the more will we be successful in tackling such problems. I urge IITians to make education available to the deprived segment through their schemes like Gurukul,” said Gogoi.

“In my view, the purpose of education is gathering of knowledge, developing in people some fundamental traits, creating in people an ability to think, imagine and ability to create and innovate,” said Muthuraman, urging fellow IITians to help design an education system to drive students to think and imagine.

N-power loses the ‘plot’

Nuclear power has become a must in India given the growing demand for energy, feels Srikumar Banerjee, nuclear scientist and former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

“There is no alternative to nuclear power plant if India has to meet its energy requirement. We must tap nuclear energy, to be supplemented by solar, wind and other sources, if we are to meet the demand,” Banerjee said on Sunday at a discussion on “Alternative energy — is nuclear power an answer to India’s growing energy needs post Fukushima” at the conference.

Banerjee referred to the proposed nuclear power plant at Haripur in East Midnapore, which has been abandoned over fears of displacement and radiation hazards. “We have not yet given up on the project. But if the plant can’t be developed in Haripur, an alternative site has to be found,” Banerjee said.

State power minister Manish Gupta had asserted in August that the government had no plan to set up nuclear plants anywhere in the state.

The erstwhile Left Front government had mooted the Haripur proposal but it soon ran into a protest wall, with Trinamul leading an agitation by a section of local farmers and fishermen who feared displacement and radiation-related harm.

Banerjee sought to allay public fears, saying: “Nuclear power plants have long developed technology to deal with nuclear waste, by converting them into non-hazardous waste. Plants are also capable of absorbing any shock that might be triggered by tsunamis, earthquakes or dam-bursts.”

Nuclear scientist Bikash Sinha, another speaker at the session, echoed Banerjee’s views and pointed out that land issues might impede development of nuclear energy.

“Getting land for any project has become difficult. So conceiving any nuclear plant is not a viable option now,” said Sinha, the former director of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics.

He suggested power generation tapping geo-thermal sources — a model that could help Bengal evade the knotty land tangle.

“In Bakreswar, in Birbhum, we have hot springs — a geo-thermal source. Tapping the heat, lying at the bottom, by drilling into earth and channelling the energy to develop power by running a turbine can be a model. Italy has this model. This is suitable for us as it does not require acquiring land — a must for setting up nuclear power plants,” said Sinha.

Partha Ghose, physicist and former professor at the SN Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences, chaired the session.