Opinion | India needs more engineers for its economic transformation4 min read . Updated: 30 Sep 2019, 09:07 PM IST
We ought to recognize their role in forming the vast pools of human capital India requires to achieve a $5 trillion economy
Every year, 15 September is celebrated in India as Engineer’s Day (E-Day). E-Day is organized as a tribute to Bharat Ratna laureate Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya.
Visvesvaraya was a statesman, civil engineer and diwan of Mysore who was knighted with the Knight Commander of the British Empire (KCIE) title by King George V in 1915. Throughout a life of hundred years, Visvesvaraya was prolific and productive. He completed his civil engineering education at the College of Engineering in Pune, whose principal was the legendary Irishman, Theodore Cooke. Cooke was a big supporter of Indians in engineering and was responsible for training the engineers for the public works department (PWD) of that era. Visvesvaraya’s first job after college was as an engineer at the PWD in Mumbai. Thereafter, he worked on numerous irrigation and sanitation projects, and patented a system of automatic weir floodgates. He went on to design the Krishna Raja Sagar dam in Mysore and a flood protection system for Hyderabad. Unable to break the glass ceiling of an executive engineer, he joined public service as chief engineer and diwan of Mysore state, where he encouraged private enterprises and helped set up numerous institutions, including the Mysore Soap Factory, Mysore Iron and Steel Works, and the Mysore Chamber of Commerce. In an age when it appears that fact is sometimes fiction, and fiction often fact, Visvesvaraya would have stood out. On being conferred the Bharat Ratna in 1955, Visvesvaraya wrote to India’s then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to say: “If you feel, by giving this title, I will praise your government, you will be disappointed. I am a fact-finding man."
Visvesvaraya was one among the early “Indian" engineers in industrializing India. Most such engineers rose in either public works departments or in the railways. A book that chronicles the story of these early engineers is The Birth Of An Indian Profession: Engineers, Industry, And The State 1900-47, written by Aparajith Ramnath, a historian who traces the lives of these engineers and their contribution to an India that was still trying to shed colonialism in preparation for independence.
India’s famous scientists and mathematicians of that time, including C.V. Raman, Satyendra Nath Bose (of “boson" particle fame) and Srinivasa Ramanujan (number theory), are well known, but the country’s engineers have largely remained hidden. The earliest engineering colleges in India were set up in the mid-19th century in Guindy, Pune, Shibpur (West Bengal), Mumbai and Patna, and it is from here that most of the early engineers came. In addition to Visvesvaraya from Pune, there were L.P. Misra and Ganga Ram from the University of Roorkee, A.V. Ramalinga Iyer and N. Swaminatha Iyer (both of whom rose to become chief engineer of Madras Presidency), and Raja Jwala Prasad, also from Roorkee (chief engineer, irrigation for UP).
While India makes the top 10 of science and engineering graduates each year in the world, it does not make that same list for engineers. According to Unesco, Russia tops the engineering list, while other countries, such as Iran, Japan and Mexico, are ahead of India. In addition, the number of graduate engineers who go on to do a post-graduate and doctoral degree in engineering in India is not keeping pace with a growing economy.
By various estimates, India will need to invest $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion in capital expenditure over the next decade to build infrastructure and establish the production units needed for an economy to reach $5 trillion and beyond. A major part of the human capital for this must come from engineers at all levels—in the government as well as the private sector. Imagine the building activity that took place in the US in the early 20th century and in post-war Japan; India will need talent for that and more in the coming decades. Every kind of engineer will be needed; not just computer scientists, but also civil, mechanical, metallurgical and electrical engineers to help build bridges, highways, power plants, buildings, airports, ports and factories, and to set up sanitation projects, flood control systems, pharma and biotech laboratories, etc.
The quantity and quality of engineers that India is producing annually are not adequate for this task. While the number of Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) has increased to 23 (from the original five), private engineering colleges set up in haste in recent years appear to be shutting down around the country because, on the one hand, employers find their students inadequately trained, and, on the other, students are unable to find internship opportunities and employment. Linkages between education and industry are missing. So, large-scale employers now do their training in-house and graduate engineers switch to other fields like sales and marketing. The whole system needs to be reimagined in such a way that colleges produce employable engineers, and the government and the private sector work with institutions for apprenticeship, internship and employment. There is an old adage that says that “cometh the hour, cometh the (wo)man". Today’s India needs an engineer like Visvesvaraya to drive this transformation with the same clarity, dynamism and courage to speak truth to power.
PS: “Like Mahatma Gandhi, Visvesvaraya is an Indian above all, no copy of an American or Englishman. Yet he has imbibed the modern scientific outlook and made a synthesis of the two," said Jawaharlal Nehru.
Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand