Bijapur in arid, poor north Karnataka is known chiefly for a remarkable piece of engineering, the Gol Gumbaz, one of the pre-modern world’s most imposing domes. The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and the Basilica of St Peter in Rome are larger, but the 17th century Gumbaz is unique for its ingenious construction: whisper into the wall of a special gallery, and a friend on the side can hear what you say merely by pressing her ear to the wall. Bijapur has seen no engineering innovation since.
When I was a boy growing up in the Deccan in the 1960s, Bijapur was known for its black magic (a dark art called bhanamati), black soil and an economic and social backwardness hard to rival elsewhere in India.
So, earlier this month, I was pleasantly surprised to meet Sufiya Gudgunti and Sweta Kulkarni of the Vachana Pitamaha Dr PG Halakatti College of Engineering and Technology, Bijapur. These slight, shy girls had entered JED-i (Joy of engineering, design and innovation), a competition for student engineers at India’s premier research institute, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc).
It was heartwarming to meet Sufiya and Sweta, young women from conservative, middle-class families. Sufiya, daughter of a government field publicity officer, sported a hijab, and Sweta, daughter of a phone-company engineer, was accompanied by her family who sat near their stall. Both are good examples of new aspirations and fading barriers in the new, rising India.
As in cricket and the civil services, so too with engineering. Small-town talent fills the classrooms of about 3,500 engineering colleges and makes up increasing numbers of the million students who get a Bachelor of Engineering (BE) degree every year. Many of the bright-eyed students at JED-i were from obscure engineering colleges I had never heard off, from towns I knew from milestone and atlas.
But the blank spaces in this colourful picture should allay US President Barack Obama’s frequent warnings about a great Indian technological takeover and explain why India has never produced a Facebook (or a clone, as China did with renren, which raised $740 million this month on the New York Stock Exchange).
Sufiya and Sweta’s project focused on steganography, the science of hiding information or messages within things, in their case, pictures sent over email — the modern version of a party trick that dates back to the ancient Greeks. Like many other projects on display, it seemed, well, inadequate. Some displayed a silo mentality, such as building an ingenious prepaid-electricity system with obsolete capacitors and no computers (Explanation: “We are instrumentation engineers, you see”). Some student innovators were so focused on the algorithm that real-life applications escaped them, as with a door-sensing robot. Above all — with some honourable exceptions — I was struck by the low levels of innovation, similarly evident in April at IIT Delhi’s annual display of student innovations. A bamboo cycle, a bamboo electric guitar and a clothes-drying machine are fun, but surely IIT students can do better.
Across Bangalore, home to the information technology industry that made India globally famous, I hear managers moan about the declining quality of apprentice engineers. Half of 80% of the million engineers graduating this year cannot start work without in-company remedial training. Some warn that this surrogate education system — still primarily focused on narrow, tedious assembly line-like work — is ill prepared to handle fast-changing technologies, at a time when a world facing another slowdown wants everything done quicker, faster and cheaper by leaner, meaner teams.
“The foundations are weak,” acknowledges one of JED-i’s organisers, former IISc professor and entrepreneur, Swami Manohar, who aims for higher standards next year. Becoming an IT engineer, he says, is the “obsession of a nation”, with preparations beginning from the 8th standard. After eight years, the bulk of those successful aspire — pushed by family and friends — to a job that starts at about R6 lakh a year, more than their professors earn, at Infosys or Wipro, getting retrained and settling quickly into a life of domesticity and EMIs (equated monthly instalments) on a car, fridge and flat. Those who don’t make the cut end up, Manohar points out, as inadequate teachers to a new generation of techies.
IT desk jobs attract the best talent, even naval and mechanical engineers who prefer its top-of-the-line pay and airconditioned environs to building ships, airports and highways. “I am stuck with the good life,” said a bored 28-year-old engineer I spoke to at an IT company. “My family is happy, my company finds me reliable.”
Being reliable has paid dividends to Indian IT, now a $70 billion industry. But providing masses of code jockeys — who, from all accounts, don’t know their coding as they once did — for grunt work cannot be the future. It’s not as if the IT brains trust is unaware of this; it’s just that they find it difficult to move up the value chain; the effort and money they spend on retraining does not help. They, mostly, do not attempt the grand challenges, local and global, and will struggle with computing shifts. The move to cloud computing, for instance, will mean running smart, varying applications on remote data centres shared by many companies, instead of techies with cheat sheets slaving at in-house computers.
The few Indian companies recognised as innovative build real things, products that address emerging needs. They are run by young people who find joy in engineering — a quality JED-i hopes to encourage — think outside silos, recognise and nurture creativity and know that innovation is a constant process by groups of highly organised people, not individuals. Above all, they have learned to think beyond the good life.