Noted historian and former director of IRMA, Dr Vivek Bhandari, returned to India after 15 years in the US to re-establish his connect with a dramatically transitioning India
EDU: From studying history in college to being a tenured professor in the US, how did your academic path bring you to IRMA?
Dr Vivek Bhandari: Initially, history was going to be a stepping stone to the civil services but then I really got into it; and I studied it at a time when India was going through a tectonic shift. I am talking about the late 80s and early 90s. Liberalisation happened in 1991; the Mandal Commission when I was a student in DU. The communalisation of Indian politics reached a crescendo in the late 80s. I saw this first-hand and wanted to study it further. And when it became possible to go to the University of Pennsylvania for a second masters and PhD, I grabbed the opportunity because it gave me a chance to step back and process my Indian experience. At the heart of it was my confusion about how the institutional apparatus of independent India was serving or failing to serve the needs of Indias incredibly complex population. Then I proceeded to take up a job at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts and over time found myself a happily tenured professor.
But somewhere along the way, I had this sense of being disconnected with the rough and tumble of an India in the throes of a really dramatic transition. IRMA, (Institute of Rural Management, Anand) as an institution, represented a very interesting hybrid between a professional education and a larger social and political vision, which I did not find in the mainstream business schools or in the social science and research universities in the country. In the latter, it was largely about research and understanding what the normative frameworks of Indian life were. Professional schools were all about creating professional managers who could walk into an organisational setting and solve problems. How do you bring the two together? That is precisely what IRMA was trying to do. As chance would have it, I was invited to apply for the job and thats where I ended up.
Q. How was IRMA unique and how did it walk the middle path between understanding the needs of Indian life and creating managers to solve problems?
A. IRMA was set up partly because of a need. Dr Varghese Kurien was the architect of much more than just Amul, and he realised that if you want to achieve scale, you need a very particular kind of manager who not only has the skills that are necessary to manage an organisation, but also the sensibility to understand what the producers and those whose lives are being affected actually want.
Basically, Kurien Sahab felt that you need to create a very particular kind of rural manager, a person who could work in partnership with rural producers. IRMA, recognising this need, set up a curriculum that did something which I think no other programme in the world does, even today. They created an MBA programme in which students spend roughly 40 per cent of the time working in the field, away from classrooms. The classroom sessions are a hybrid of management and development studies, and some humanities which again is a rarity in the firmament of management education. But what keeps them all together is the field orientation. This gives them not only the critical voice and perspective that they need to ask difficult questions, but also teaches them to build relationships of the kind that simply arent possible if you are being parachuted in and out of rural settings because you are the expert or at the very least an expert-in-training, which MBA students seem to be.
IRMA had a pretty different sensibility and I would say that for a very long time, this vision remained completely undiluted.
Q. Did changing political and economic circumstances impact the fortunes of an institution like IRMA?
A. From a distance, it looked as though it was almost losing its way in the late 90s to the early years of the new millennium because I think it was not entirely sure how to locate itself within Indias growth narrative. They embraced the co-operative model, which is obviously Kurien Sahabs big achievement, but they werent sure what to do with a privatising economy. But IRMAs core promise was very attractive. It remains a very strong institution with the kind of network of close to 500-600 organisations scattered around the country, all of which focus on grassroots development. I dont think any management school has that. And for me, the idea of being able to shape an institution that was trying to work its way into the new economy was really interesting. Deep down, I dont think I necessarily sympathised with the directions most business schools were taking. I actually felt that IRMAs version of management was more pertinent to an India that was in the throes of a transition.
But the rules had to change because the economy was changing a co-operative in 1999 was not what it used to be in 1979 (which is the year IRMA was founded) and were now talking of public-private partnerships, and the state itself withdrawing from welfare in the way that it hadnt done in a long time. In fact, the relationship between the civil society, the market and the state, was in complete turmoil. This was the opportunity to reposition itself. The challenge was to rebuild the faculty, to redirect IRMA without losing sight of its core commitment to the rural poor, and perhaps hardest of all, to somehow shake this institution out of complacency about its own sense of right and wrong. That is what I came back to when I left the US after 15 years of living there.
Q. Do you think more such rural management institutions or models need to be worked out? What is happening within management institutes in the country should they adopt broader based programmes?
A. Firstly, management at a generic level is undergoing a profound shift. What earlier used to be a much narrower and smaller space with a certain number of very elite institutions is now becoming massive. Everyones doing it a lot of hole-in-the-wall places, a lot of management shops where you can literally go and buy yourself a degree. And the fact that a lot of management institutions, including some of our best ones, are nothing but placement agencies, angers me a great deal because it is potential being wasted. These institutions have a lot to offer and shouldnt be serving as placement agencies for the highest bidder.
I think rural management as a field is also in flux. The original version was a product of the Licence Raj economy and not the liberal Indian economy we have now. So some of the fundamental questions remain. How is it that we come up with a management paradigm that serves the greater common good? I do believe that a disciplinary synthesis is required for management education to achieve its fullest potential. And rural management did attempt it in a way that the basic management schools just did not. The fact that you were able to combine experiential learning with social science insights, the odd course in humanities and the core of management education in one programme, was a pretty audacious and important intervention in higher education. More such programmes are necessary.
Management education also needs to become more political: to raise questions about power, and how political pre-suppositions need to be managed. Unless you understand the power dynamics, you arent going to get very far with addressing larger societal concerns. For all their many strengths, the fact is that mainstream Indian educational institutes exist as silos. I think the best management schools in the world have succeeded because they exist in larger university structures. There is a lot of cross-pollination of ideas. IRMA, in its own way, did try for that cross-pollination. But I dont think our mainstream elite institutions are cross-pollinating in quite the same manner or to the degree that is necessary.