So Who Decides What an Institute of National Importance is?

Despite the budgets they command, the faculties they boast and attention they get from the Centre, India's so-called Institutes of National Importance aren't well defined

Last fortnight, I stated that I’d be writing further about certain institutions that seemed to operate outside the ambit of the UGC called ‘Institutes of National Importance’. You can see that the full list of these special institutions contains some of the premier academic bodies in India. This short post adds data about them to the main map and introduces you to the major subdivisions of the list. To see just the new data added, use the filters and skip to the 1920s.


One of the things I wanted to do for this post was to find the definition of an ‘Institute of National Importance’. It was easy enough to locate – an institute ‘which serves as a pivotal player in developing highly skilled personnel within the specified region of the country/state’. But the source for these words remain elusive. When quoted, they are usually preceded by the phrase ‘as per the UGC/AICTE/MHRD’.

But these bodies aren’t people. They can’t speak except through legal statements. I hunted for the act or notification or circular that acted as the primary source of the term but I haven’t been successful. The first reference to the phrase that I found was in the founding document of IIT-Kharagpur, the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur) Act, 1956 which was repealed with the passing of the Indian Institutes of Technology Act, 1961. In both the acts, the term is referenced without being defined implying that it has been previously defined somewhere else. I’ll keep looking but this post will have to do without a definition.

Looking at the list, one organisation stands out for being the only non-technical institution. The Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha in Chennai which was formed by Mahatma Gandhi to facilitate the spread of Hindi among the non-Hindi speakers of south India. I can say from shouting out the name at my office that this organisation is well-known, primarily for conducting certification courses in Hindi. Without putting down their good work in homogenising the country, I have to say they do look out of place in a list of ‘pivotal players’ developing ‘highly skilled personnel’.

There are 4 major subdivisions within the list of INIs:

  • Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs)
  • National Institutes of Technology (NITs)
  • All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS)
  • Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIIT)

Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT)

There are currently 16 IITs in India. The first 5 were built between 1951 and 1963. Then, in the next 44 years, only 2 were added – one in Guwahati and one in Roorkee. Then in 2008, 7 were launched at the same time with another 2 added in 2009. (2008 was generally a huge year for higher education with 80 universities being founded.)

The first IIT was built in Kharagpur, the brainchild of several members of the Bengali intelligentsia who saw the need for a premier technical education institution. Before the report of the panel constituted to explore the issue could be finalised, Nehru was convinced and with the offer of Hijli Jail in Kharagpur as a ready-made location, he pushed through a special act to form the first IIT. For the second IIT, to counteract the Bengali hegemony, Bombay was proposed and was built with Russian support. The Cold War equation meant that the US was more than willing to support the third IIT in Kanpur. The fourth IIT was built with German support in erstwhile Madras and then since Kanpur was technically in the central region, Delhi got an IIT, thus covering all five geographic zones in India.

INIs formed in 2008.

INIs formed in 2008.

Interestingly enough, Wikipedia (you might have heard of it) has a citation-free paragraph about the formations of IIT Guwahati and IIT Roorkee. IIT-Guwahati was formed after student protests in Assam wrung a promise out of Rajiv Gandhi who didn’t expect a 1500 crore bill. IIT-Roorkee seems to have been formed apropos nothing except Murli Manohar Joshi’s (Union Cabinet Minister, Human Resource Development, Science & Technology and Ocean Development from 1999-2004) mandate to boost technology education in the country. I haven’t been able to find corroborations though so if anybody does know the story of how these institutions were formed, please write to me.

For more information about the history and politics of IIT, this Frontline article is dated but still remains an excellent overview.

National Institutes of Technology (NIT)

Before 2002, NITs did not exist. They were called Regional Engineering Colleges (RECs) and were operated by their respective state governments. The purpose of the REC scheme was to increase accessibility of technical education with a presence in every state. In 2002, the 17 RECs that had been formed were converted into NITs, effectively making them deemed universities. The rationale behind this major move isn’t very clear but it definitely involved Murli Manohar Joshi. The next major event in the story of the NITs is the passing of the National Institutes of Technology Act of 2007, declaring them as INIs and formalising an organisation structure with a council at its head like the IITs.

This same act also effected the formation of the 5 Indian Institutes of Science, Education and Research (IISERs). NITs receive their regular funding from the central government and expansion funding from a World Bank program called TEQIP-II which I’ll explore in greater detail in a separate post. In 2010, the government formed 10 new NITs covering all the missing states, most of which were in the North-Eastern Region.

INIs formed in 2010.

INIs formed in 2010.

All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) For more than 50 years, there was only one AIIMS which was situated in Delhi. But keeping with the trends, in 2012, the government announced 6 new AIIMS, located around central and north India.

INIs formed in 2012.

INIs formed in 2012.

Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIIT)

There are currently 4 IIITs (pronounced: triple-eye-tee) that have been granted INI status. Prior to the passing of the IIIT Bill in December 2014 (after a previous version failed to pass in 2013), they were simply deemed universities with the institute in Allahabad granting degrees since 2000. Even then, this makes it a recent innovation by the MHRD. Its stated goal as per the IIIT-Allahabad website is to “strengthen the indigenous capability necessary for exploiting profitably and harnessing multi-dimensional facets of IT at all levels, and attaining expertise to enable the country to emerge as a leading player in the global arena”.

Apart from the four institutes mentioned above, there are 20 new IIITs that have been proposed to be established. 15 of them have sites finalised with 11 having MOUs signed. These are being operated on a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) with the investment being shared 50:35:15 between Centre, State and Private Industry. The future of these IIITs is unclear as the government has setup a panel to see whether they become INIs or just Deemed Universities.

Insights and future questions

The politics of location. It’s probably not news to you that given the prestige that these organisations carry, their locations are a matter of great political weight. The history of the IITs is a history of political wrangling and point-scoring starting with the very first one in Kharagpur. Given that fact, the foresight of the founders to insulate their operations from interference is commendable. Researching these premier academic bodies, it is clear that the simple act of founding an institution is seen as a victory. The actual operations are never trumpeted about in the same way. In fact, once founded they seem to only become centres of controversy.

As previously mentioned, the huge number of universities (80, to be precise) formed in 2008 is extremely interesting. Is it just a co-incidence? Or is it tied with the end of the first tenure of the UPA? There isn’t information enough to say, but the question is worth exploring.

Universities and INIs formed in 2008.

Universities and INIs formed in 2008.

Indian Institute of Management (IIM)

You might have noticed that IIMs are not included in the list of Institutes of National Importance. That’s because they’re not INIs or even universities. As autonomous bodies directly under MHRD without an affiliation to any university, they can only offer diplomas certified by AICTE. A Post Graduate Diploma in Management (PGDM) is strictly not a Master’s Degree. It is not (automatically) globally accepted by universities or employers. IIMs have to undertake separate steps to give them equivalency to a Master’s degree.

So it’s quite baffling that IIMs weren’t just bestowed Deemed University status and given the power to grant degrees much earlier. There has recently been talk of IIM Bill 2015 that will grant them this status but it’s still up in the air. This is a topic that I’ll have to revisit once I’ve explored how UGC and AICTE creates and approves courses because I definitely do not see the full story here.

Still early days yet though. As always if you have corrections or feedback or would like to collaborate with me on this project, please do write to me at [email protected]. Last week, I received a number of emails and I’m still getting back to some of them so if you wrote to me, please be patient. I’m definitely going to get back to you. Thank you for reading.

Thomas Manuel is a freelance writer and playwright based out of Chennai. He curates content at the Urban History Project, where this piece first appeared.