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Is there any merit in the argument that doctors and engineers need not apply for the IAS?


IAS officers come from different streams, so will the move be valid?

"NO engineers. NO doctors." That, at least, is how it will be if a parliamentary standing committee has its way; as far as the IAS is concerned, engineers and doctors need no longer apply.

On the face of it, there seems to be some merit in the argument: doctors and engineers do specialised professional degrees, which are subsidised by the State at enormous cost to the tax-payer. And every engineer who goes into a general job and every doctor who goes into something similar deprives the country of their much needed services. If they had opted for a non-specialised degree in the first place, someone more committed than them would have found a place for study and qualified to serve the community. The parliamentarians who are part of this special committee, you would thus think, are doing the right thing.

Are they? Examine it closely and you will find a lot of loopholes in their basic argument. To start with there is the assumption that engineering and medical degrees are way, way superior to all other degrees. IAS officers come from all streams of the syllabus: there are people from the pure sciences, from humanities and social sciences, from commerce, from law and even agriculture. Why shouldn't someone who has done a Maths degree concentrate on mathematics? Or an outstanding student of physics become a physicist? Or a graduate of agriculture work only on agricultural projects? By going away from their chosen subjects of study, are they also not doing a disservice to the country? After all, their education has also been subsidised by the tax-payer, so why should they have the luxury of abandoning their career-paths to choose the far more generalised career of being a civil servant? There is an even bigger flaw in the parliamentarians' argument, and that flaw shows how poor the support system must be for parliamentary committees. Or, alternatively, how undemanding MPs are in their need for background papers containing facts and statistics. For they have fallen into the usual trap of thinking that what we believe in must be so only because we believe it is so. So when we feel that engineers are needed in our country, that is a fact. Or if doctors are needed in our country, that is so too.

As it happens, this is no longer so. With the rapid increase in the number of engineering colleges since independence, more and more engineers in all specialties are being produced every year. With the simultaneous decline in manufacturing, there is in fact a glut of engineers.

Surprisingly, a similar situation exists in the medical field too: there has been a rapid proliferation of medical colleges (it is a very profitable business) and consequently a large number of young doctors qualify every year. Since our population increases very rapidly too, there isn't a glut of doctors as there is of engineers. What there is, is an imbalance. That imbalance is in the number of doctors in urban areas and the number of doctors in rural areas, these numbers being inversely proportional to the needs of the areas. But we are India, not China. So we can't force doctors to leave the cities and trudge barefoot in villages. If they do so, it's out of their own free will. In any case, there is a greater chance that doctors will reach villages through the indirect IAS route than the direct free will route. That's what parliamentary committee, in effect, wants to nix.

Over and above all this, there is the more general question of what education is all about. Is it to train our brains or to narrow them? Two examples of managers from the top echelons of Indian corporates will illustrate this point. Vindi Banga is Chairman of Hindustan Lever Limited, India's largest FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) company. His first degree was in mechanical engineering from IIT after which he went on to do an MBA at the IIM, Ahmedabad. Did he ever use his engineering degree in the sense of being hands-on with machines? Would he have served better his own cause and HLL's and the larger community's if he had become a research engineer or a maintenance engineer or a production engineer? Because these really are the only avenues open to an engineer if he has to be a pure engineer. Once he becomes a manager, the engineering part of his education recedes into the background. R. Gopalakrishnan, Executive-Director at Tata's is also an IIT graduate (in electronics). He worked with HLL for years, rising to become its vice-chairman before moving on to Tata's. How many electronic circuit boards did he handle in the last 30 years? On the other hand, you could get someone like C. Umashankar, an IAS officer who established Tiruvarur in Tamil Nadu as the first e-district in the country, possibly the first in Asia. His e-governance made procedures simpler for the public and introduced transparency in the administration. Could his background have included electronics? If it didn't, did it matter? Or take the case of V. Venu, an MBBS from Calicut, who joined the IAS in 1990.

His stint in the civil service in Kerala has been a success story. Guess in what? In establishing the State on the international tourism map! So narrow restrictions on people because of educational backgrounds would stop them from finding their special interests and making a success of their lives, which is what ultimately helps society.

A last thought. Would the parliamentary committee also debar engineers and doctors from standing for parliament?

Anil Dharker is a noted journalist, media critic and writer.

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