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The Engineering Turn

John Mathew ( is with the Programme in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune.

The Birth of an Indian Profession: Engineers, Industry, and the State, 1900–47 by Aparajith Ramnath, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017; pp xvi + 267, 895.


The ideal Engineer for India is a man who will take £1000 a year as his average income for life, and insist that all under him shall be content with their wages; who can build anything from a Tanjore tank as big as the lake of Lucerne to a cloacae for the last new stockade: who will regard an offer of a commission from sub-contractors as a deadly insult; who can keep accounts like a bank clerk…

— John Black, “The Military Influence on Engineering Education in Britain and India, 1848–1906,” The Indian Economic and Social History Review (Vol 46, No 2, 2009, 116).

At the heart of Aparajith Ramnath’s important book is an implicit assertion: it would be extraordinarily difficult, if not well nigh impossible, to replace the generalist “gentleman” British engineer with Indian alternatives. The assertion is not that of the author’s, but of a regnant colonial mindset, lamentably familiar across far more than just the world of engineering. Engineering, however, is the remit of this work, exhaustively pursued across five chapters and spanning the near extent of half of the 20th century. The result is a meticulous account of a changing tide, relentless in its sweep, despite entrenched expressions of imperial superiority; an account that is masterfully related at the hand of an already accomplished historian.

What the author would readily have bespoken of his effort is a theme that he highlights early on. In his words, “I seek to place the history of science and technology in India firmly within Indian history” (p 8). I have seldom seen the statement elucidated better. Such subjects as the Minto–Morley or Montagu–Chelmsford reforms, the Simon Commission and the Rowlatt Act, all of which are regular fodder in textbooks relating to South Asian history, are described in Ramnath’s book, such that the context for his thesis is always clear. This is one of the great achievements of The Birth of an Indian Profession. With context comes clarity, and the book is richer for such inclusions. Getting the balance right, however, can be a precarious affair. Taking to heart the adage about reinforcement—or as a garrulous geologist I remember as a pedagogue in graduate school was wont to say: “tell ’em, tell ’em, tell ’em”—the author tends to repeat points both within and across chapters. As a result, the reader soon gets a sense of familiar ground being retrodden. In an academic setting, where particular chapters are prescribed for a class, the repetition may make sense from the point of view of insurance of the factoid in question having the best opportunity for student encounter. However, if the whole book were to be consumed, the exercise, at least in this regard, could prove to be a trifle tedious. The shortcoming is venial, however, and does not mar the flow of the compelling narrative.

The Short 20th Century

Central to the work are two themes, industrialisation and Indianisation, in a felicitous appeal to the alliterative. The choice of the 47-year period (1900–47) for study is, at first, a little curious, particularly when attention to “the long 19th century” is notably invoked. The study could have either begun at the transition from the Company rule to that of the Crown at the turn to the 1860s, or in the succeeding decade with the establishment of the Indian Association of the Cultivation of Science (1876). It could have even begun, by contrast, in the short 20th century commencing just shy of World WarI, while still managing to include the Islington Commission of 1912 (an important element in the book). If it is the sanctity of the 20th century, however, that is sought, Ramnath does manage the contrast skilfully, inasmuch as the effects of that long 19th century are still very much in vogue at the top of the 1900s. Against these, the upheavals of World WarsI andII, and the freedom struggle from Home Rule to full-fledged calls for independence, stand in relief.

Another refreshing element about the book is that it does not centre on the stories of particular individuals, except as emblematic of larger trends (for instance, that of G F Hall, who is described as a gentleman generalist, in part of Chapter 3, “Men of Character”). This is not to suggest a wholesale Braudelian version of history—such as found in his seminal work, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (Fernand Braudel [New York: Harper & Row, 1972]), where the chapter on the empire of the said monarch is held in abeyance until page 675—but that equivalent dominant figures, if they existed in engineering (to the comparable world of medicine such as Ronald Ross and William Boog Leishman), do not pepper the pages of this book. The point is worth underscoring because the author does draw extensive parallels with the colonial medical story, not least that of the professionalisation of the Indian Medical Service (IMS). Yet Ramnath takes pains to emphasise that his effort is about the group, rather than the person. In his words,

This is primarily a book about engineers as a collective, as members of government services or industrial departments. In places I study them as individuals, but only when such a focus is relevant to the overall themes of the book. I treat these engineers as belonging to a profession. (pp 19–20)

In fact, a footnote points to the fact that the celebrated Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, who had graduated from the engineering college in Poona, is not studied in detail on account of his being more of “a technocrat-administrator than a practising engineer in the interwar period” (p 20). When he does find mention in the book, it is in the context of his recognising that he had “hit a glass ceiling in his late forties when he was Superintending Engineer” (p 125), on account of his being Indian rather than European.

It follows from the foregoing discussion that race is a pervasive feature in the book (see p 11 for the comparison with black airmen in the Unites States air force), more than class or especially gender, which get eclipsed in the discussion fairly swiftly, given how dominated the profession was by males. Ramnath, however, makes the point that “ideas of class and gender operated in concert with beliefs regarding race.” He draws upon the work of David Arnold to point out that linking machines intimately with both gender and ethnicity did not find its genesis merely in the colonial moment but also depended upon such long-standing ideas in Indian society (p 12).

The five chapters that comprise the substance of the book are interposed in adroit sequence. The first takes for its remit the twin themes of industrialisation and Indianisation; the second the development of colleges to train engineers for the subcontinent both in Great Britain and India, alongside the establishment of professional societies in subsets of the discipline. The third chapter treats the topic of the public works department (PWD) and is largely concerned with the notion of the “gentleman generalist;” and the fourth considers the railways. The fifth chapter finally looks at private concerns as a study in contrast, employing the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) as emblematic. Even as I discuss each chapter in greater detail, I shall point to salient elements in them that buttress the author’s intent.

Implementation of Indianisation

The utilisation of the term Indianisation is various, with its original usage apparently being in terms of the reorganisation of British administration in Egypt, along lines adopted and optimised in colonial India. More directly in the subcontinent itself, the employment of the term found currency through the Minto–Morley reforms that resulted in the Indian Councils Act of 1909. The act sought to bring “moderate” Indians into the executive council of the Governor-General. While much of the effect was symbolic—for instance, a petition for the Indian Civil Service (ICS) examinations to be held simultaneously both in India and Britain was largely ignored and the service continued to be staffed mainly by Europeans—it was the “first notable step in Indianising the political system” (p 30). Three major types of services were found in India at the time—central, all-India and provincial. The India office in London was predominantly involved in recruiting for the first two, the first for departments directly under central authority like the telegraphs and state railways, and the second for departments whose bailiwick was the provinces. The third service was staffed by individuals from the provinces themselves, working in a subordinate capacity to those in the all-India services.

A disputatious issue was the position of Anglo–Indians (Eurasians) and domiciled Europeans (of complete European extraction) within the category of the “statutory natives of India,” who disproportionately occupied “middle and higher-level jobs in government service,” that is, 14.4%, while forming under 0.1% of the entire Indian population (pp 36–37). Increasing calls for reforms in recruitment for the ICS resulted in the Islington Commission of 1912–15. The commission recommended the merging of the imperial and provincial services and the allowance of greater recruitment in some areas of public service in India itself, while baulking on instituting competitive examinations in India. It did not take into account the low recruitment of completely native Indians even in India itself. The possibilities of a second series of reforms, the Montagu–Chelmsford, in 1919, would bring in its wake the Lee Commission of 1923, which took on the “three-pronged problem with regard to the services—the implementation of Indianisation, the status of the All-India services under diarchy, and the Secretary of State’s need to attract British applicants.” The result was, in many cases, increased recruitment from among native Indians. For both the ICS and the irrigation branch of the PWD, the desideratum would be in the ratio of 40% Europeans: 40% Indians: 20% Indians raised from the provincial services. As for the state railways, the ratio prescribed (“so soon as practicable”) was 3:1 in favour of officers recruited in India (pp 45–46). Further provincialisation through the Government of India of 1935, devolving more autonomy to the provinces in India, would continue the “negotiated process of autonomy,” which would result by 1940 at an approximate 50:50 ratio of Indians and Europeans (pp 47–49).

Engineering Societies

The onset of World WarI would have profound impacts on industrialisation. In the 19th century, British protectionism had reigned and the Indian economy was consequently dependent. However, the first global conflict of the succeeding century revealed the worrisome implications for India’s security, for its capacity to contribute to war efforts in Europe and to help maintain the stability of the economic system of the British empire, where competition from foreign entities threatened. The result was the formation of the Indian Industrial Commission (IIC) in 1916—under the presidency of a former director of the Geological Survey of India, Thomas Holland—where attention was to be paid in developing local artisanal and industrial education and where purchases of supplies could occur directly between provinces rather than solely through London. Provincial departments of industry would result, and the author quotes the sociologist of science and technology studies, Shiv Viswanathan, in pointing out that the eventual report of the IIC in 1918 formed “a complete grid on which all the later debates on science and technology may be plotted” (p 51).

Other significant changes were seen through the altered fiscal relationship between India and Britain (including the sanctioned raising of import tariffs for the former), and the rise of branches of foreign manufacturers that were not merely British, particularly in the interwar period. Another significant change was the increased establishment of Indian business houses, one major consequence of which was the formation of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in 1927 to stand up to the Associated Chambers of Commerce, chiefly concerned with representing the interests of British enterprises in India.

Industry needed its engineers and the profession received a decided fillip in the early 20th century. At first, engineers in India sought professional credentialing through membership in professional societies based in London, which in turn would lead to the development of new organisations in India itself that would compete with each other, and where the individuals would delineate central roles for themselves in charting the progress of the Indian economy. The outfits in London included the Institutions of Civil/Mechanical/Electrical Engineering (ICE/IMechE/IEE).

The first attempt to localise and integrate these branches into one entity was through the Institution of Engineers (India) (IEI), established in Calcutta in 1920. The decision was important; it was expatriate British engineers that had dominated the field in India across the PWD, military and railways (itself a branch of the PWD until 1905) until the commencement of World WarI. Many of these engineers shared the bond of having been associated with the ICE, or having worked for long years (often career-long) in India. Most of them had trained at the Royal Indian Engineering College (RIEC) at Cooper’s Hill in London, specifically established in 1871 to train engineers for the PWD, and/or at one of four engineering colleges founded in India during the 19th century at Roorkee, Madras, Poona and Sibpur (near Calcutta). Native Indians responded either by trying to start local chapters of the global bodies in the 1910s—such as the ICE, IEE and the IMEchE (the most successful of the three in this enterprise)—to which they belonged, as well as by forming local bodies, like the Punjab PWD Congress in 1912 (which would become the Punjab Engineering Congress).

Indian Institution of Engineers

The IEI came into being eight years later as a direct result of the proposals of the Thomas Holland-led IIC (1916–18). This institution was deemed significant in two ways: first, that it would welcome both public and private engineers, and second, to seek to meet the increasing needs of Indians to “participate in professional meetings and discussions” (p 72). The London colleges supported this new initiative, recognising that they would not find a competitor in it, but crucially, the engineers in the region could start to see themselves as a community specific to India, rather than votaries of a more imperial profession. As for the IEI, it embodied three major aspects of note: it comprised all branches of engineering, it promoted Indian industrialisation, and it attempted to encourage Indianisation. Alongside, an annual Journal of the Institution of Engineers (India) was established, and continued to make strides in terms of international recognition until after independence.

While there was some resistance of the IEI’s position from other regional congresses (not least because an element of their number had come into being earlier), they eventually came around, if in different ways: the Bombay Engineering Congress merged with the IEI, while the Punjab Congress remained separate, if cooperative. A key point is that despite Indianisation, the IEI was not a revolutionary institution. Many of the presidents, senior governmental employees were European. That said, there was recognition of the fact, with one British president, E H de Vere Atkinson stating that “this is the country of the Indian,” a statement mirrored by a successor Indian President, Jwala Prasad (1931–32), who proceeded to add, “By this I think he did not mean an engineer in India but an Indian engineer.” (Alarmingly, Prasad also spoke about ostensible acts of engineering in the Hindu epics, which cuts eerie parallels with present-day public musings on the subject.)

Notwithstanding relatively mild rhetoric, discussions on industrialisation found themselves increasingly entangled with those of economic nationalism, leading the historian Gyan Prakash to contend in his book Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India that

What began as an effort to relocate colonial power in technical apparatuses and practices unleashed a political struggle to establish a nation-state that would institute the logic of rational artifice more fully and efficiently. (p 91)

This would be reflected in the diversification of the field from one dominated by government engineers in the PWD, railways and military into more mechanical and electrical domains, even as the racial proportions began to tilt towards more native Indians in the ranks.

‘The Gentleman Generalist’

Ramnath draws attention to the historiographical neglect that the PWD’s engineering service has customarily countenanced in relation to other services, in particular, the ICS and the IMS during the 19th century, something that he seeks to redress. After covering some already encountered ground in greater detail, such as the reorganisation of the PWD after 1920 with the coalescing of the Imperial and Provincial Services into a single Indian Service of Engineers (ISE), and discussions of the Islington and Lee Commissions, he moves into arguably one of the most arresting elements of the book to which attention has been drawn earlier, “the gentleman generalist.” Many of these were products of the Cooper’s Hill College, whose effect was seen well beyond its closure in 1906, with its alumni occupying the highest positions of the engineering services until the 1930s. These were “men of character” to whom “Christianity and riding” were almost inveterate, the concomitants of “a posh accent and breeding” (p 115), and excluding of the brogues of Birmingham and a penchant for rugby.

What they also possessed was the ability to tackle a wide range of disparate issues, the engineering analogue, if you will, of the respectable British general practitioner in medicine—except with infinitely more variety afforded than the limits of the confessedly fascinating human body—with occupations ranging from constructing a school or barracks, to serving as an undertaker to the Christian community. One particular account (that of G F Hall) presents the engineer (in this case, himself) “as a heroic upholder of law and order, and especially as a tough negotiator and manager of men and materials, rather than as the creator of a technically challenging design.”

The breezy account notwithstanding, the reality was that the opportunity that accrued to the writer was in few ways the possession of the Indian engineer, who was already hitting glass ceilings right from the point of graduation from local colleges such as Thomason in Roorkee. The latter was also held to account much more; what would pass as a minor oversight if a European were to make an error, but if it were to fall to an Indian, the patronisation would begin at once, “after all they did not have the skill or the experience; one must be careful with giving responsibility too soon” (from Prakash Tandon, quoted on p 126). The paternalism was the kinder side of things, the other being outright scepticism. Prejudice played a role as well, when an enquiry between the wars regarding the declining popularity of the engineering service among Britons was made, a major reason quoted was the apprehension that they would have to report to an Indian superior (p 128). Issues regarding integrity, impartiality and efficiency in terms of the imputed lack thereof for Indian engineers also frequently entered the discussion. The grumbles however proved to be last gasps; the tide of change was relentless and by the 1940s the ISE was already more than 50% Indian.

Indian Railways

The railways in the subconti nent rivalled the PWD for importance; “by the late 1930s, over 40,000 miles of track were being operated by nearly two thousand officers, around half of whom were Indians and the rest Europeans” (p 135). This was hardly surprising for a country whose network was, by then, among the five largest in the world. There were different categories of railways: those owned and run by the state, those owned by the state but company-managed, those privately owned and company-managed, and those run by the princely states. With the establishment of the Railway Board in 1905, state and company railways had parallel structures, the “superior” and “subordinated” staff of the former matched by the “covenanted and “non-covenanted” employees of the latter.

A major characteristic of the superior service was that they were largely European in what was already a rank-conscious service with strong military influences. By 1925, two of the largest company-run lines, the East Indian Railway (based in Calcutta) and the Great Indian Peninsula Railway (based in Bombay) were nationalised, a trend that would become nearly universal in the country by 1944. Indianisation also came to the fore, with the 3:1 recruitment ratio in favour of Indians being invoked by the same Lee Commission of 1923–24. This was not necessarily welcomed in European cadres with murmurs about Indians based on inefficiency (on technical grounds) and suspect loyalty (if not quite so technical). However, external factors would drive the Indianisation process, and these were on grounds of the onset of the Depression and subsequently World War II resulting in considerable “white flight.”

These factors were arguably as important as the recruitment of Indians. Significantly, the lowest native presence among all branches was in civil engineering, owing to the fact that it was “considered the department with the greatest responsibility … and hence the one for whichIndians were least fitted, given the prevailing conceptions of their character and abilities” (p 180).

Private Indian Enterprise

A different story presented itself in the world of private Indian enterprise, taking TISCO, for example. TISCO was the first major producer of steel all over India and held close to a monopoly domestically. While economic historians have foregrounded TISCO’s success in overcoming several constraints on industrialisation under the colonial government—ranging from the government’s fiscal policy, to lack of technological knowledge, and cautiousness on the part of industrialists in India—Ramnath suggests that most of them miss an important element: the strategies that TISCO employed in the recruitment and training of its engineering personnel. Importantly, it was not British, but experts from the United States and Indians trained there (among other international workers), who would come to dominate the running of the technical operations of the enterprise. Furthermore, he demonstrates that the experience of these superintendents and managers in their home countries would serve to fashion a culture that valorised “practical experience, physical fitness, and presence of mind on the shop floor” (p 184). For mastery of the theory of steel manufacture to be partnered with practical learning, such characteristics were indispensable.

A key difference from the government technical services, however, was that Indianisation was, in the main, powered internally. Starting in the early 1900s, the Europeans largely fit the covenanted services. However, Indianisation was furthered when World WarI broke out and German employees suddenly found themselves interned in Ahmednagar, as subjects of a hostile nation. Indian employees cost less (at most two-thirds the salary afforded to a foreigner at an equivalent level) and it proved possible to find a number that could occupy covenanted positions.

A plea for economic protection by TISCO after the war was linked to an expectation that it would keep its costs low, as well as a major expansion project demanding steel during the war, also allowed for Indian staffing and the creation of training facilities for them. These facilities, in light of the paucity of university courses in metallurgy, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering in India, were deemed indispensable. What resulted was the Jamshedpur Technical Institute (JTI) in 1921, with a first phase, including a three-year programme that found funding support from the provinces. However, the inability of a number of students to complete the programme indicated that a demanding admission procedure notwithstanding, not everyone possessed requisite aptitude. Obligation to sponsoring provinces also limited the extent to which the management could choose students at its own liberty. A sea-change appeared necessary, and that occurred with the deployment of Phase Two in 1935, redesigned as a two-year graduate programme, with no umbilical need for finances from the provinces, and hence greater freedom to choose candidates “solely on merit and physical stamina” (p 215). The establishment of the JTI, both in its first and second phases, was considerably in advance of comparable efforts, not least in governmental engineering colleges.

The Indian Engineer

The historian Ramachandra Guha was recently quoted as saying that two of the things that keep Indian together are cricket and Bollywood. We might add a third: engineer-worship… Where once the maharaja and snake-charmer were stereotypes of the country, it is now engineers that the world thinks of when it thinks of India. The Indian character Asok in the popular Dilbert comic strip an IIT graduate, illustrates this perfectly. (p 223)

With these words, the author embarks upon an engaging conclusion. In it, he points out that his work is the “first extensive historical study of the engineering profession in India” (p 224), focusing on the period 1900–47. He reiterates his findings relating to the increase in the size of the profession in this period (particularly mechanical and electrical engineers in comparison to civil engineers) and its change in racial composition in favour of Indians, both key components that were in place by the time independence was attained. As he eloquently ends,

The growing importance of engineering after Independence would not have been possible without the base that existed in 1947… That base was a largely united albeit diverse profession, the bedrock of which was a mix of public works, railway and industrial engineers, both Indian and European. Crucially…it was a profession that had begun to become Indian. (p 237)

Aparajith Ramnath has given us an indispensable book. For all the little moments of unevenness to which attention has been drawn, it is a work of considerable research, depth, insight, and ambition, written at once persuasively and engagingly. It will, in my estimation, be a source of invaluable information for years to come and the author is to be applauded for making available to avid readers of works of Indian history, let alone science and technology, another memorable addition.



Updated On : 22nd Jun, 2018


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