The Soviet connection and a joke on communism
The consistent bilateral support and understanding between the newly independent India and the then superpower Soviet Union were not solely restricted to diplomatic, political and economic standpoints but the 1950s was an era where it struck the Indian leadership that technological and scientific advancement was also extremely integral to the nation’s progress, and hence to comply with the vision, IIT Bombay was established as an institute of national importance through significant aids from the Soviet Union and the UNESCO. The institute holds the distinction of being the first to be set up with foreign assistance wherein the Soviets supplied the roubles and their equipment for RnD and training.
However, not everything was hunky-dory. While the Soviet assistance did indeed enable the institute to sail smoothly in the initially turbulent and resourcefully scarce years, the lack of a proper channel of communication with the foreign benefactor led to some nuisances. IIT Bombay gradually became a passive recipient of goods foisted on it and had a very little say in the selection of equipments, with no coordination with the supplier. For specific instances, Chemical Engineering got excessively huge distillation columns and synthesis plants so ravenous, it was impossible for the institute to afford feeding them the raw materials. The Electrical Engineering got unusable diffusion pumps extracting such a large power that it used to trip the power lines. The Mechanical and Metallurgical departments received machines and steel plants that required a full electrical substation to just run it. The spare parts of most of the tools were extremely hard to get and most of the niche equipments like Electron Microscopes laid idle, hampering research and training. The instructions on the machines were also virtually unreadable as strange Russian characters remained uninterpreted. To summarise in the words of a faculty alumni, ‘the Soviet equipment was about 70% hindrance and 30% help in our teaching and R&D effort’.
On a more amusing vein, an alumni Dr. Madhvan recollects when the second President Dr. Radhakrishan visited the convocation and made a common joke on communism ‘What’s the difference between capitalism and communism?’ and then proceeded to answer himself ‘Capitalism is man exploiting man, and communism……….well it’s the other way round.’ The Soviets in the audience were not very amused by this and asked Madhvan sitting by their side to paraphrase it for them. Being the year of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile crisis, Madhvan remembers having had a hard minute ducking the request, mumbling evasions and obfuscations until the moment passed.
However, the Soviet assistance didn’t go all in vain and was quite indispensable many times. Many Soviet equipments still find resemblance in the current scheme of things and have proven as much needed endowments from time to time. The ruggedness and quality of the equipments is a virtue most users have attested as they still stand in stately grandeur, mute witnesses to the flux of six chequered decades.