Friday, September 18, 2009

Anand Kumar flanked by his bodyguards. Photo by Subhash Sharma

India's School For The Poor But Gifted

By Anuj Chopra

PATNA, INDIA -- On a recent evening, a gaggle of students huddled together on wobbly wooden benches in a spartan classroom under a tin-shed, celebrating their new-found achievement with milk cakes. “If I hadn’t made it,” remarked 17-year-old Vishwaraj Anand, one the students, “I would have to toil all my life in my father’s paddy farm. Now I’m a step closer to going to Nasa to study about the worlds beyond.” Their teacher, a short, slightly stout, man called Anand Kumar, stood before the dusty blackboard, wearing a beaming smile. These students recently passed an undergraduate entrance test. But not just any ordinary test.
For a whole year, they slogged with a singular obsession of gaining admission to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), a string of 15 top-notch engineering colleges – the Indian equivalent of Ivy League schools – which, since India’s independence, have created some of the world’s brightest tech wizards and engineering geniuses.
IITs are notoriously selective in their admission procedure. About 384,977 students took their Joint Entrance Test (IIT-JEE) this year, hankering after 8,295 seats, indicating an admission rate of around two per cent, the most competitive in the world. (That at Princeton, Yale, and Harvard hovers around nine per cent). Only 10,035 cracked the test this year. Thirty of them sat in this ramshackle classroom.

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