The enigma of Indian engineering

My time in South Asia has rewarded me with an enigma: why is engineering so expensive here? Why is it often many times more expensive than in Australia, my home?

My search for answers led me to shanty towns on the fringes of mega-cities. We compared an award winning Indian factory making car parts for Detroit and Stuttgart with a leading Australian factory supplying parts for the mining industry. My Indian PhD student spent months with engineers in both countries, broadening his focus to water utility engineers and small to medium engineering firms. His knowledge of local dialects and customs was critical.

He related a typical meeting. A young engineer quietly reported zero production from the machines in his production cell. His manager asked why but he remained silent. Both knew the reason. The machine operators were newly hired day-labourers because the previous ones had exceeded their 180-day limit. Other engineers said their machines were still not fixed by the maintenance crews. The manager sighed: he would have to raise it with his boss later. Direct authority from the plant manager would be needed to move the maintenance head into action.

Daily struggle

Discussions with water utility engineers revealed their daily struggle to coordinate valve operators who turn on water for an hour at a time every two days in different wards in their city district. Their mobile numbers are well known in the district: the more influential residents will call them at any time of the day with complaints or requests. They have to personally “twist arms” of recalcitrant customers to get them to pay bills, or have their sewerage line blocked at the same time as the water is disconnected. “That usually makes them pay up quicker,” they told us. Sewerage seeps from tens of thousands of such broken and half repaired connections into the scheme water lines.

At a government school in the city outskirts, the principal showed me the smelly green water dribbling from the pipe into a below-ground tank. With no toilet or usable water, the children and staff left after a couple of hours. I glanced at the forest of antennas atop the brand-new mobile phone tower I could see beyond the school wall.

Today, mobiles are everywhere in South Asia and can cost less than 1 cent per minute for talk time.

Villagers on the Rawalpindi outskirts told me they had paid up to Rs. 50,000 to install their own wells with hand pumps. Before I helped install an electric pump at their high school, ironically called “Thanda Pani”, the children had to carry water in buckets for up to an hour a day just to use the toilets.

To understand why villagers would pay so much for a hand pump, I turned to development economics. The ‘shadow price’ cost of unpaid labour can predict the economic cost for women to carry water from nearby wells or district water taps. Rs. 13 per hour doesn’t sound like much. Yet, a one hour round trip to carry home an average of 17 litres of water, often with extra time and fuel to boil it, results in a bulk water cost of about Rs. 1200 per tonne. Today, ultra-clean potable water is being delivered to my house in Perth at a total cost of about Rs. 80 per tonne.

I have checked, rechecked and double checked my data because I was so surprised at this difference. No matter which method you use — a hand pump, bribing government carriers to bring water when you need it, buying it in 20 litre plastic containers — safe drinking water is many times the cost in Perth.

Energy also costs many times more. With intermittent supplies, one needs a UPS or generator to run electrical equipment reliably. In addition, electric machines are usually inefficient and poorly maintained so it can be four-five times as expensive to achieve the same results as in Australia. Bulk users like steel plants have reported to me that they face twice the electric energy cost of their competitors in industrialised countries.

How could South Asian electricity and water services be so expensive and phones so cheap?

Could corruption explain this? Reliable sources estimate the additional cost at 15-25 per cent. However Australia is not immune: dishonest behaviour imposes significant extra costs there as well.

There had to be other factors.

First-hand experience employing local engineers in South Asia taught me to recalibrate Australian performance expectations, even though they had degrees from the best foreign and local universities. This led me to the possibility that differences in engineering practice are a major contributing factor, the ways that engineers perform their work.

My research ran into an unexpected snag. When I started, there were almost no detailed research reports on engineering practice, anywhere. To cover this gap, my students and I interviewed and shadowed engineers across the region. Now we have some answers.

Many people think engineering is applied science. It works the same in Perth, Pune, Paris or Pocheon: you will get the same results from the same experiments.

However, engineering is much more than applied science. Engineering is a coordinated social performance of many people with the technical expertise distributed among them, like an orchestra. Social interactions constrain the results just as the strength of steel limits the height of our tallest buildings.

In South Asia, hierarchical organisations, language differences, and deep social chasms disrupt the performance. For instance, artisans will only speak when asked, and will keep silent if speaking means loss of face for superiors.

It turns out that engineering education, around the world, is almost blind to the realities of practice. We found 40 other critical aspects that educators inadvertently miss or misrepresent. As a result, young engineers seem oblivious to the subtleties needed to coordinate people and their education seems to impair their ability to learn. It turns out that skills like this distinguish the few truly expert engineers.

It is no surprise, therefore, that most young engineers stumble into their first jobs, often feeling incompetent. There is no point blaming educators: it is just an accident that only a tiny number of research studies have tried to work out how engineering is actually done.

A few expert South Asian engineers have overcome these education barriers, and they earn salaries higher than their counterparts in Australia. This is no surprise: they make their enterprises work. Sadly, most young Indian engineers never have a chance to learn their unwritten skills. Even though students in Australian engineering schools learn equally few practical skills, there are enough experienced engineers in most firms for young engineers to emulate.

In Australia, a copious water supply and sanitation takes around 2 per cent of the economic resources of a family. In South Asia, barely enough potable water to survive can take 20-40 per cent of a family’s economic resources. Effective engineering in Australia accounts for much of the difference.

Therefore, it is not the lack of money that influences national poverty as ineffective engineering that imposes crippling high costs for water, energy and other essential services. Good engineering liberates human effort for social developments such as governance, healthcare, education, social services and even recreation.

Mobile phone revolution

The mobile phone revolution has transformed expensive, corrupt, inefficient government monopolies with appalling service into thriving, profitable enterprises providing high quality service at minimal cost, around the world. India is no exception.

Although we can’t be sure, there seem to be some key human factors. First, mobile technology increases investor confidence: people can’t steal the service without paying. The phone won’t work without a pre-paid card or reliable credit. Second, the technology provides reliable and efficient ways to collect a vast number of small payments and reassures users that their credit will be secure. Third, the social chasms between engineers and the technicians who work with the equipment are easier to surmount than in the case of water and electricity. Fourth, the saving in time, measured as an economic value, more than makes up for the cost for users.

Success has come from human factors invisible to most engineers, inadvertently blinded by their education.

I think the next engineering revolution will be based on understanding people. We have come quite far with rather little understanding among engineers: just a little more could lead to large improvements. A new engineering revolution could consign poverty to history, and also enable us to live within the capacity of this planet to support human civilisation. It needs to come soon.

( James Trevelyan is Winthrop Professor in the school of Mechanical and Chemical Engineering at the University of Western Australia. His book How to Become an Expert Engineer is due to be published later this year.)

A narrow education is making engineers oblivious to the importance of human interaction and raising the cost of even simple tasks