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A Walker’s View of India’s Engineering Might

13 March 2017

I sit on the edge of a wooden platform bed, paging through a two-inch thick mechanical engineering textbook. I flip to one of the question pages in the middle, and quiz the two students cooking us dinner on the floor of their violet-painted dorm room about thermodynamics and velocity.

“Mam, we haven’t reached that section yet,” said the future mechanical engineer I’ll call "O" to protect his privacy. He looks over the pot and stirs the milk boiling on the butane-powered portable stove. “It’s still early in the semester. We have only completed the first few chapters.”

I switch gears. “What will you do with your engineering degree after graduation?”

This question has been on my mind for several weeks as we continue our multi-year walking journey and meet and talk with professional and prospective engineers across all fields of study. We marvel at the number of engineering and management schools dotting the roads we walk -- both in big cities and rural communities, like the one these students attend about 14 kilometers east of Lucknow. It’s clear that families, Indian society and global companies still hold a lot of faith in the promise of what an engineering degree will bring their sons and, increasingly, their daughters -- good, high-paying, skilled, white-collar jobs at good domestic or international companies in India or overseas, particularly in the U.S.

The Bandra-Worli Sea Link, Rajiv GandhiThe Bandra-Worli Sea Link, Rajiv Gandhi

Reality, however, seems to deliver another set of challenging circumstances.

Competition is fierce, and only the best of the best--those who excel in their studies, possess a strong engineering, math and science base, have some fluency in English, and demonstrate the soft human and problem-solving skills needed to work in and eventually lead teams -- will get the most desirable jobs. There’s no room for slouching off and if you fall behind, there will be someone equally qualified behind you to take your place--the numbers’ game, in terms of population, keep the odds stacked against you. This is what I have heard from engineers, doctors and business people in West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Bangalore, Uttar Pradesh and around Delhi.

"S", a last-year civil engineering student, hopes to work on one of the many major infrastructure and road projects we have seen along India’s main corridors. Two friends who popped by to say hello, "R" an aspiring electrical engineer, thinks he’ll end up in the corporate world working at a tech company, and "N" is asking my partner and me how he could get a job in Europe as a chemical engineer.

"O" has a different idea, one more reflective of the political momentum Prime Minister Narendra Modi has generated among India’s populous youth segment. Pointing to the poster of Modi on his dorm door, "O" said confidently, “I want to go into politics so I can help make India great. I want to see the rupee be stronger than the U.S. dollar or euro.”

We again switch gears and continue a thoughtful, passionate conversation about India’s economic potential and its place on the global stage. We shoot off practical and wishful ideas that would advance this South Asian giant.

My eyes scan the one desk in the room, littered with books and papers sketched with charts and equations. I smile at the poster of Hanuman, worshipped by many Hindus, taped to wall, and bend my head slightly in reverence to the portrait of "O’s" parents, appreciating their efforts to give their son the best they can. I hope these smart, endearing young men find their way in the world. I tear off a piece of fresh made roti bread and thank these students for their generosity. They ask me for my WhatsApp number.

Many weeks later, the encounter with these young men and other engineers along the way has my head spinning.

I have needling questions about how all these existing and up-and-coming engineers will find work in a world where borders are closing and anti-immigrant sentiments have flared up. I wonder if India can create and sustain the demand for engineering employment with an in-country wave of entrepreneurial start-ups, an increased research and development budget, and the development of hundreds of smart cities that will expand digital mobility.

I mull over what impact the significant government-sponsored “Make in India” initiative will have in attracting investment, encouraging innovation, boosting the country’s manufacturing sector and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs -- many requiring engineering know-how. Will it move interest away from the typical Indian stalwarts of I.T., computer sciences and electrical engineering towards emerging areas such as renewable energy and green tech, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, agricultural and health technology and smart manufacturing? Will it spark a maker's movement and compel new design thinking and product launches? And, what about the fundamental educational engineering curriculum -- is it keeping up with what students will need to compete at home in a quickly evolving domestic market or in shifting global environment? Several reports I read, such as this one from Aspiring Minds, raised some doubts, while other media, including this upbeat video from NASSCOM, an Indian organization that aims to help the I.T. and I.T.-enabled product and services sector, leave me wanting to rally behind India’s untapped potential.

To put context around what I saw and what people were telling me, I wanted an insider’s view. My thinking is that trends happening here on the ground in India will have an near-term and possible long-term impact in many other corners of the world, especially within technology design and manufacturing hubs -- already important economic engines in North America and Europe, and something India would like more claim on.

I was glad when Prof. (Dr.) V. Ramgopal Rao emailed saying he wanted to chat.

Rao has a long list of credentials. He is currently the director of IIT Delhi, part of the Indian Institute of Technology network and a campus that has consistently earned high rankings as a top engineering school in India. Rao has served as a P. K. Kelkar Chair Professor for Nanotechnology in the Department of Electrical Engineering and as the Chief Investigator for the Centre of Excellence in Nanoelectronics project at IIT Bombay. He is a co-founder of NanoSniff Technologies Pvt. Ltd. at IIT Bombay, which is developing nanotechnology products, and he is a fellow at IEEE (E360’s parent company), the Indian National Academy of Engineering and the Indian Academy of Sciences, and currently serves as vice president at the Materials Research Society of India and sectional committee chair for the Indian National Academy of Engineering for the Electronics & Telecommunications area.

Engineering, he told me during a Skype call, remains one of those professions that families encourage their children to pursue -- the steadily growing number of young people who want a degree from IIT reflects that. More than a million students sit for the annual Joint Entrance Examination (JEE), which is used to offer places across IIT’s 23 schools. Only about 10,000 test-takers are accepted, each year, Rao said. IIT Delhi’s total student body of undergraduates and graduates stands at about 9,000, and according to Rao, the 1-10 teacher to students ratio helps ensure a high level of educational excellence.

That’s not to say that the school isn’t feeling the pressure.

As demand grows, the IITs, which are heavily subsidized by the government, are looking for ways to expand, gain recognition outside India, and balance the urban-rural and boy-girl equations, Rao said. In addition to building and providing more student and staff housing where possible (some of the first IITs are located in crowded cities and physical development is limited and/or very expensive), the IIT made the JEE available in six countries last year as a way to extend its international appeal, a move that may help it rank among the top 50 engineering schools in the world, he said.

IIT, with the Delhi branch taking the lead coordination role, has also recorded 200 hours of lectures in each of the main JEE subject areas--physics, chemistry, math and recently added biology, and is making them available online for free, in downloadable formats and broadcasted on dedicated television stations throughout India. Rao said this may level the competitive field, while also adding even more qualified students to the pool. Under the current system, high school students need to prepare for the JEE two or three years in advance of the test, and many of them attend coaching schools to ensure high scores. However, this creates a disadvantage for girl students whose families may not allow them to travel or stay near the coaching centers, and also for rural or lower-income families who may not have centers near them or cannot afford the extra lessons.

So, with all these high-level government promises to create a smart, digitally connected, innovative and entrepreneurial India, is the engineering focus shifting on a school level? Not yet.

“The choice for a bachelor's degree is still decided by the availability of jobs. And, for now, in India, IT, software and computer sciences are where the high-paying engineering jobs are, so that is where the interest is. After that is electrical engineering, and then chemical engineering,” Rao said.

“Programs like ‘Make in India’ take time for us to see it in the admission process,” he added, saying that some of the focus will trickle into the classrooms over the next few years as faculty keep an eye on these emerging sectors. “Initiatives like this along with smart cities and digital India are now creating interest among our faculty for research projects. We see that starting to happen.”

And where will all these aspiring engineers end up? Will they stay local or will they take skills abroad? Rao said changes have already begun on that front.

“When I was a student 20 years ago, nearly the entire class went abroad. About 80 percent left for the U.S. Only the U.S. It was a very popular destination. They got jobs in Silicon Valley, made a career for themselves in the U.S. and settled down there," he said. “In the last five years or so, that has changed. Only about 20 percent of graduates from IIT are going abroad. The interest in going abroad is down. It’s difficult to go there and stay there now.”

Down the road, this is what could create opportunities for India and the companies that want to strengthen their ties here.

“This could be a good thing for India, and good things may come from that. This is a big country, and there is a start-up movement here. we are seeing that in Bangalore, Delhi and major other big cities,” he said. “If more our graduates stay here, maybe they will create new things and all of us will benefit.”

I’m curious how this will play out in the next few years, and how my new engineering student friends near Lucknow will fare during this transition.

I’m sure they’ll keep me posted. That’s what WhatsApp is for.



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