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.

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