The historical roots of our Engineering obsession

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Indians have always had a fetish for the engineering profession, as most youngsters thronging summer IIT coaching classes will attest to. What has made the career so attractive?

What is the secret behind Indians’ love affair with engineering?

The birth anniversary of M. Visvesvaraya (September 15) is marked each year as Engineer’s Day. As another Engineer’s Day arrives, the now-familiar statistics will be rolled out again: lakhs of engineering graduates are produced in India each year from the thousands of engineering colleges that dot the country. This should lead us to examine some questions. What is the secret behind Indians’ love affair with engineering? Are there socio-cultural factors that make the Indian particularly suited to engineering, or that make engineering particularly desirable to Indians?

Source: Wikipedia

Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya was an Indian engineer, scholar, statesman and the Diwan of Mysore from 1912 to 1918. He is a recipient of the Indian Republic's highest honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 1955. He was knighted as a Knight Commander of the British Indian Empire by King George V for his contributions to the public good. Every year, on his birthday, September 15 is celebrated as Engineer's Day in India. He is held in high regard as a pre-eminent engineer of India. He was the chief engineer responsible for the construction of the Krishna Raja Sagara dam in Mysore as well as the chief designer of the flood protection system for the city of Hyderabad.

The Krishna Raja Sagara dam, constructed under MV's supervision, created the biggest reservoir in Asia at the time.

A number of answers are commonly offered. Engineering is a professional qualification, which forms a safety net in career terms, and this is a great attraction in a society in which poverty is still rife. A career as an engineer is a tool of social mobility. Some commentators speculate that the affinity to engineering stems from a culture that, since ancient times, has prized mathematical skill.

Here I offer some additional hypotheses, based on my research into the history of the engineering profession in India.

The first group of people in India to identify themselves by the English term ‘engineer’ was the East India Company’s corps of military engineers, whose task it was to build roads, bridges and fortifications required by the army. In the mid-nineteenth century, as colonial rule began to consolidate itself, a separate, civilian, Public Works Department (PWD) was established. The PWD, the fast-growing railways, and the military accounted for most of the engineers working in India at this time — and they were nearly all imported from Britain.

The bureaucratic organisation of the PWD and the railways (whether run by the state or private companies) was broadly similar to the civil services, and the engineers working in them saw themselves as ‘officers’ as much as technical experts. A typical PWD engineer’s duties were managerial as much as technical: he had to oversee accounts, order materials, manage contractors, examine designs and conduct inspections. Character was emphasised more than technical skill. British policymakers who criticised Indian engineers in the twentieth century did not claim that their technical skills were poor, arguing instead that they did not possess the integrity, courage and resourcefulness of their European colleagues.

For the ‘native’ Indian engineers who did succeed in the government services — and increasing numbers did after World War I — their job came with great prestige precisely because of their status as government administrators. The perks included a stable job, government housing, a retinue of servants and subordinates, and government honours for long-serving officers. This, we may argue, is one of the main reasons why engineering carried great prestige — which continued even though the contours of the profession had begun to change in the interwar years. K.L. Rao, a famous hydraulic engineer turned minister, recorded in his memoirs that he trained as an engineer in the pre-Independence period because his ‘brother … was observing in my village the style in which the officers of the Irrigation Department were living and the launches and boats in which the officers were travelling in the Masulipatnam canal near our village.’

In 1900, the profession had been dominated by government employees; by the 1940s a substantial proportion of engineers were working in private industry, and the proportion of Indians in the profession had risen considerably.

A further avenue would soon open up for Indians who wanted to break into the engineering profession. Circumstances during World War I opened the colonial government’s eyes to the need for developing India’s industrial capabilities, and in the years between the World Wars the government relaxed its laissez-faire stance and began to introduce some pro-industrial policies including protective tariffs for selected Indian industries like steel, paper, jute and sugar. Membership statistics of professional societies indicate a corresponding rise in the number of industrial engineers in this period. In 1900, the profession had been dominated by government employees; by the 1940s a substantial proportion of engineers were working in private industry, and the proportion of Indians in the profession had risen considerably.


What was the common ground between the two types of engineer? Professional institutions provide the key. Until World War I, engineers working in India (both Britons and Indians) aimed to join one or more of the three prestigious professional societies in London: the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and the Institution of Electrical Engineers. These Institutions had governmental sanction, codes of conduct, and minimum qualifications (in terms of education and experience) for membership. They discussed technical papers and published the proceedings in journals. Increasingly, engineers in India began to feel cut off from these societies, and formed a new one, the Institution of Engineers (India), headquartered in Calcutta, in 1920. Here public works engineers, railway engineers and industrial engineers met regularly and discussed their work.

The new professional institution helped engineers in India forge a common identity.

They evolved a common language of economic nationalism and the role of engineers in promoting the country’s development. Unlike its metropolitan cousins, the institution was not subdivided by branch of engineering: mechanical and electrical engineers mingled with civil engineers under its auspices, just as British engineers mingled with Indian engineers.

^ Jawaharlal Nehru and Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya both received their Bharat Ratna the same year, 1955. | The Hindu

In the years following Independence, most of the remaining British engineers were replaced by Indians. As the historian Daniel Klingensmith has ably shown, the Indians who now came to prominence saw themselves as building not just dams but also the nation. This went well with the Nehruvian emphasis on a modern nation with a ‘scientific temper’.

The pre-Independence association with government jobs and high status, combined with the post-Independence link to nation-building, may go some way to explaining the prestige of engineering in this country. Of course, what we call engineering today is not the same as it was fifty years ago. The railway engineer and the dam-builder are but distant cousins of the desk-bound software engineer. But that’s a different story. Suffice it to say that the reverence society had for the engineer, however defined, has remained.

(This article draws upon a speech given by the author at the Asian Cultural Week, Goodenough College, London, in 2009, and the author’s doctoral dissertation. His book manuscript titled The Birth of an Indian Profession: Engineers, Industry and the State, 1900-47, has been accepted by a leading academic press.)

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