Interview with… M.S. Ananth

Director of IIT-M, M.S. Ananth tells DIVYA KUMAR about his love for academia, the setting up of the Research Park and his future plans for the university

PHOTO: S.R. Raghunathan

The view from M.S. Ananth’s fifth floor office window has to be one of the most beautiful in the city — a sprawling expanse of lush green treetops for as far as you can see below a clear blue sky. It’s enough to make you gasp when you first see it, but Ananth’s reaction is slightly different.

“We found out that a lot of these trees are invasive — there is 70 acres of Prosopisalone,” says the director of IIT-Madras ruefully, looking at the 630-acre campus. “Did you know that South Africa has launched a multi-million dollar project just to get rid of Prosopistrees?”

Of course, IIT-M can’t afford anything of that sort, so they’re working out alternative strategies — like selecting the spots with these rogue trees for future development. That’s just one of the many responsibilities, big and small, this unassuming man has shouldered with grace and a certain philosophical pragmatism during his tenure as director (since 2001).

“You know, I haven’t had too many major surprises in this job,” he says in his no-fuss way. “Conflicts arise, but it’s important to recognise that you’re no more ‘righteous’ than the other party in an argument. I try my best to have my way. But if I don’t, I know that in some larger perspective what happened is for the best. That acceptance is important.”

If all that sounds very philosophical and Zen, it is — Ananth is deeply influenced by the famous lines from the Bhagavad Gita: Karmanye Vaadhika-raste, Maa Phaleshu Kadachana…, perhaps a reflection of the time he spent attending discourses as a child. “It may sound facetious, but I’ve believed in it for a long, long time,” he says.

Academia is another thing this Ph.D. in chemical engineering has believed in for a long time. “I think I made up my mind in the sixth standard,” he laughs. “My maternal grandfather was a professor of English; other men I met were in the civil services, and he was the only one who never seemed to have a boss — so that was my major criterion!”

And he never saw a reason to change his mind while growing up, though if he’d had his way, he tells me, he’d be a doctorate in something else. “My interest initially was in history, of all things,” he recalls with a smile. “My father chose chemical engineering for me.”

He has no regrets — his love for history today finds expression in his interest in scientific history, particularly in the biographies of great scientists. Besides, he’s a firm believer that your discipline of study shouldn’t confine you. That is the basis of his grand ambition for the university — a radical, experimental restructuring of science and engineering departments — that unfortunately hasn’t happened yet.

“This ambition has been unfulfilled for nine years because I can’t get a consensus,” he says.

But another grand plan has finally come to fruition after nine years of pushing by Ananth and other professors — the Research Park that has recently become functional at IIT-M (30 companies have already signed up), the first of its kind in India. “The whole idea is the generation of a large number of ideas by the meeting of unlike minds — of industrialists, professors, and students,” he says. “All that’s required is one idea that clicks. That’s the basis of innovation.”

He experienced this ‘meeting of unlike minds’ as a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida, with innovation occurring due to the meeting of people from different cultures. “I had a lovely time —the American graduate school is an enviable place,” he says. “I’m fighting to try and recreate that atmosphere here — to have 25 per cent post-graduate students and 10 to 15 per cent of faculty from abroad.”

But as much as he loved college life in the U.S., Ananth knew that he wanted to return to India from very early on. “The first time I came back for a vacation, the moment I set foot here again, I knew,” he says simply. “The sense of belonging was here, not there. I’ve gone subsequently to the U.S. as a visiting professor — first to Princeton, then to Boulder, Colorado — and that feeling hasn’t changed.”

His passion for academia has obviously been passed on to both his children — his son is a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, his daughter in theoretical chemistry. His son has even followed in his footsteps and returned from the U.S. to teach at IISER in Pune. And the entire family, especially his late wife Jayashree, has always shared his love for the campus they have lived on since 1972, when he first joined as an assistant professor.

“Jayashree was very involved with the campus — she came up with pocket guides on the animals and birds here, she worked to keep the campus clean, with the Tech Kids crèche and the Atma charity wing,” he recalls fondly.

“As far as we were concerned, living on this campus was always a great boon.”

* * *

Striking a balance

* M.S. Ananth’s vision statement for IIT-Madras reads thus: “The institute should be in dynamic equilibrium with its social, ecological, and economic environment.”

* A biodiversity report of IIT-M’s campus was commissioned, invasive plants identified and poisonous plants removed. Fences were moved closer to buildings to make more space for the deer.

* A new hostel building was delayed by six months because an alternative route was created for black buck in the area.

* At urologist Dr. Ravichandran’s request, IIT-M professor S. Sankararaman created a phosphate binding agent for dialysis patients at one-tenth the original cost. (Other such projects have been undertaken since.)

* As part of IIT-M’s involvement in the ‘ Rural Technology Action Group’ (RuTAG), the Chemical Engineering Department developed a way to solidify vegetable dyes to reduce transport costs for artisans in Gandhigram.


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