September 15 is observed as the Engineers’ Day in the honour of Dr. Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya (1861-1962), India’s pioneering engineer and administrator, who was born on that date. The centenarian was so thoroughly a man of action that his memoir, written at the age of 90, begins only with his entry as Assistant Engineering in Public Works Department of Bombay Government in February, 1884. He leaves out his birth and family details as much as his boyhood days. The memoir focuses only on his working life, containing little personal details. Even his foreign visits that were six in number were generally filled with visits to institutions, factories and workshops with hardly any time for leisure. His mind was focused on nation’s progress, as evident in several books that he authored.
|photo by the hindu newspaper|
Our scroll of nation builders generally contains names of freedom fighters, politicians and administrators. Most of them hailed from professions like law, teaching, journalism and even medicine etc. But the role of engineers who actually built modern India brick and mortar remain understated. Though medicine and engineering were conventionally coveted disciplines to study in India, engineers were perceived only as a professional class working for salary. Their contribution towards nation building was ignored. There is a crying need for an authentic history of engineering in modern India.
Engineering as an academic discipline was introduced by the British in the mid-19th century. The initial object was to produce civil engineers who could assist the British in the development works. These development works consisted of road building, bridge construction, canal excavation, irrigation work, drinking water connection, sewerage work etc. The Thomason College of Civil Engineering, Roorkee (now IIT Roorkee) was established in 1847. Its establishment could be attributed to the Ganga Canals project that British were taking up- on the lines of Western Yamuna Canals and Eastern Yamuna Canals on which work were continuing since 1817. Millions of devotees who watch Ganga Aarti on the banks of Har Ki Pauri in Haridwar perhaps do not know it is product of Ganga Canals project in which many unnamed Indian engineers had worked under the British. Sir Ganga Ram (1851-1927) of Lahore, the first Indian engineer of repute was an alumnus of Thomason College. Later he turned an agriculturalist, who turned thousands of acres of arid land in Punjab arable with his knowledge of irrigation engineering.
A College of Engineering at Pune, from where M. Visvesvaraya graduated in 1884, was started in 1854. In 1859, came the Madras College of Engineering, which trained civil engineers in both military and civil disciplines. In 1880, the Government College of Howrah, later called Bengal College of Engineering- Shibpur, was founded. It started producing India’s first batch of mechanical engineers apart from civil engineers.
The names of most of the early Indian engineering graduates who must have played seminal role in building roads, bridges, canals, water supply facility, sewerage, irrigation is apparently lost to history.
When Benaras Hindu University was established in 1916 these different engineering disciplines were already recognized amongst Indians. Mahamana Madan Mohan Malaviya got included the studies of different engineering disciplines like metallurgy, mining, industrial chemistry etc in the university curriculum. Pt. Malaviya realized the importance of engineers in advancing nation’s prosperity.
M. Visvesvaraya stands out as the pioneering Indian engineer. He began as a civil engineer in Bombay Presidency in 1884. But it was his engineering feat at Sukur in Sindh Province (then part of Bombay Presidency) in 1893-1895 that brought him fame. He devised an ingenious method to filter the muddy and discoloured water of Indus by digging a well on riverbed and creating a tunnel below the river to bring drinking water for the city to the pumping station. Later on, he specialized in irrigation, water supply and drainage works. He was involved in Pune suburban water supply project. He devised sluice gates at Lake Fife in Khadakvasala, Pune for which he took patent. This technology stopped the loss of excess water. He also lent consultancy services to Nizam of Hyderabad after the great Musi floods of 1908. The two projects he advised the Nizam government was related to sewerage and reservoir of river Musi, a tributary of Krishna in 1909.
The role played by Dr. Visvesvaraya in setting up of Hindustan Aeronautical Limited in Bangalore in 1940 is less discussed. He was a close friend of Seth Walchand Hirachand, one of the promoters.
Today Indian engineers have entered global big league. Vinod Dham, Sundar Pichai, Satyendra Nadela, Padmasree Warrior, Vinod Gupta are some of the well-known names to succeed abroad. However, there is a worrying trend that many qualified engineers tend to divert to non-engineering professions like banking, civil services and journalism. While the new IITs and NITs are being commissioned, thousands of seats in engineering colleges are going vacant. The Lok Sabha was informed in March this year that the number of students enrolled in engineering colleges has been coming down. In 2012-13 it was 10,09584; in 2013-14 it was 986817 and in 2014-15 it was 91,9603.
The Government of India’s ‘Make in India’ drive with major focus of manufacturing sector will require thousands of qualified engineers. Thus engineers should be motivated to take the challenge and should willingly adhere to their profession. They need to be recognized as nation builders.
The writer Priyadarshi Dutta is an independent researcher and columnist.