The Birth of an Indian Profession: Agents of change

The Birth of an Indian Profession: Engineers, Industry and the State, 1900 - 47 Aparajith Ramnath Oxford University Press ₹895  

As Aparajith Ramnath says, this is the first extensive historical study of the engineering profession in India. The Indianisation, the author’s term for the replacement of colonial engineers by Indians, of immense public engineering bodies proceeded at different rates and under a range of imperatives in a colonial state which was far more heterogeneous than that depicted in many nationalist narratives.

By the time of Independence, India had a substantially larger industrial sector, with much greater indigenous participation, than most other colonised countries, and Indianisation had already been in progress for half a century, as a result of insistent Indian demands. Ramnath locates engineers’ education, training, and careers in the political and economic history of the period, and examines public works departments (the now-ubiquitous PWDs), the railways, and private industry in turn.

Defined by colonialism

Colonial engineers, needless to say, defined the working culture, and they were always nervous about the quality of Indian engineering education and the maintenance of working standards; the book also gives examples of grossly racist assumptions. The higher posts were almost exclusively reserved for Britons recruited in Britain, and there are salutary reminders of a context which is almost unimaginable today. The senior PWD officers were gentleman-generalists; one listed some 70 different things he had to deal with in a single day. He also wrote that on tour he would have to share a dak bungalow with an Indian engineer and so could not attend the local colonials’ social events.

Nevertheless, India’s status in the empire was negotiated and renegotiated, and the expansion of provincial assemblies’ powers under the Government of India Act 1919 meant that British officers would have to implement policies made by elected Indians. Neither could Indian engineers’ knowledge and capabilities be permanently denied; the Institution of Engineers (India) — the IEI — was founded in 1920, and small numbers of Indians started to gain higher-level posts, though their pay and conditions were far inferior to those of the colonial officers (it is worth noting that various British Labour MPs demanded an end to these inequalities).

Ramnath shows that Indian engineers were not necessarily political radicals or participants in debates on science and modernity; many felt social pressure, for example to divert canals to members of their respective castes. Many also complained of severe caste-discrimination by other Indian engineers. The thinking of some might, moreover, raise an eyebrow or two now; one IEI president’s annual address seems to take it as literal truth that Ram flew to Ayodhya to help his brother Bharat and that there was a bridge across the sea at Kanyakumari. British officers, for their part, were constantly worried about corruption, though they often disagreed about its extent, but they were often asked to resolve disputes and to take decisions, mainly because the locals saw them as being free of local compulsions.

The impact of war

Inevitably, war made an enormous difference; when World War I started, many Britons left India for military service elsewhere, and the need for faster Indian industrialisation became more obvious. After the war, changes in pay and conditions — often driven by British domestic politics — also made India much less attractive; technical progress accelerated, as did Indianisation, though more slowly.

The railways were particularly slow to Indianise. Considered crucial to national security, the service reserved higher posts for British engineers with military experience; Indian engineers’ capabilities and loyalty were openly doubted.

Denunciations in the Legislative Assembly made no difference, and the railway housing colonies could have been a model for apartheid South Africa. Yet, despite their apparent importance for national security, the railways were a mixture of state-owned lines, private lines, and princely-state lines, with complications over gauges and the like. Those arrangements would probably get a knowing laugh from users of today’s privatised British network; India’s private rail companies fiercely defended and exploited their monopoly position, and were the slowest to Indianise their engineering staff.

Ramnath concludes with a very successful private venture, the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO). Unlike the public services, TISCO recruited Indian engineers trained in Germany and the United States, and the seniors were Americans who had started at shop-floor level. These self-professedly self-made and obviously hard men came to realise, however, that technological developments called for qualified engineers. TISCO, rather than rely on the Indian education system, had already founded its own training institute at Jamshedpur in 1921.

One question arising is that of what constitutes a profession. Engineering certification and professional membership are global phenomena now, but it is not clear that engineering certification is a licence which can be cancelled, as licences can be in certain other professions.

That the question arises here is a tribute to Ramnath’s creation of a clearly structured and acutely analytical narrative from a vast volume of material — official records, archives, published research, trade journals, and personal documents; the book is a notable achievement.

The Birth of an Indian Profession: Engineers, Industry and the State, 1900 - 47;

Aparajith Ramnath,

Oxford University Press,


This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 17, 2021 5:17:56 AM |

Next Story