Icons of Modern India
Seventy institutions that shaped independent India’s march to progress
ITis fashionable to undermine the vision of Jawaharlal Nehru, but a quick run-through of his speeches can restore faith in one of the founding fathers of the Republic. Here is Nehru in 1956, at the first convocation of the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, built on the site of an erstwhile British Raj detention camp: “The people of my generation joined ourselves to the great purpose of freeing India. Because we allied ourselves to a mighty cause, something of the greatness of that task fell on us also.” He then exhorts the young graduating engineers to “dare and go in for the really big things of life” because the higher you act, the higher you think, the nobler your enterprise. India’s first prime minister was a great builder of enterprises and creator of institutions, unlike his daughter Indira.
The story of India’s iconic institutions is as much of brick and mortar as it is of the adventurous men and women who built them, and who ensured that these outlasted them. From Vikram Sarabhai, who created the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and Space Research Centre, forerunner of the Indian Space Research Organisation, among others, to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, who steered the establishment of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and was a fierce protector of its autonomy; from Pupul Jayakar, who founded the National Institute of Fashion Technology after establishing a series of cultural organisations ranging from the National Crafts Museum to Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, to E. Sreedharan, who went from Konkan Railway to establishing city metros, there have been men and women in government who have ensured that buildings are more than mere brick and mortar.
The story of independent India is also of public-private partnership, of giant corporations such as the Tatas, Birlas, ITC or Infosys, which have done more than generate revenue for their shareholders. They have created empires which have boasted of India’s finest hotels, most efficient public transportation systems and best-known academic institutions. Some of these have been necessitated by pure self-interest— Infosys created its centre because it needed a particular skill set in its engineers. Others have been formed for altruistic purposes—the story goes that J.N. Tata founded Taj Mahal Palace in Bombay in 1903 because he was refused entry on account of his nationality at the Watson’s Hotel in the city.
The visionaries behind these iconic institutions fought against odds in their path to find a way to fulfil a dream. It could be Verghese Kurien, who set up the Anand Milk Cooperative, or Dr Prathap C. Reddy, who persuaded Rajiv Gandhi to enable setting up India’s largest private healthcare network. In the 70th year of Independence, india today pays tribute to the building blocks which now have the global seal of approval, whether it is the IIT graduates who now run the world’s most cutting-edge corporates, or the National School of Drama graduates, who topline some of cinema’s biggest blockbusters, or National Institute of Design alumni, who are blitzing runways from Paris to New York.
There is a lesson in each of these 70 icons india today has chosen to celebrate 70 years of freedom—a list that is representative of industries and ideas. These institutions have bred generations of leaders, they have contributed to society more than mere economic value, they have kept the bar high on excellence in public life, and they are widely admired. It is easy to make showy gestures and instal glittering schemes. It is difficult to create an imprint that lasts. In the following pages, you will see institutions that have spurred revolutions, expanded markets, elevated the quality of education and healthcare, connected Indians better, and sallied boldly into areas where others have walked in trepidation.