Relationship between engineering and democracy

  • Bijoy H Boruah and Raghubir Sharan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: May 29, 2015 18:42 IST

Does the concept of democracy have anything to do with that of engineering education? How would it strike someone in academia if a course of study is proposed under the title engineering and democracy?

It was precisely under this title that a fractal course was recently taught in the Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad by two visiting professors, one of engineering and the other of humanities. The course was begun by explaining how engineering as taught currently, has become a “captive discourse”. Engineering education has been dominated by, and hence captive to, the discourse of engineering science on the one hand, and that of commerce and corporate interest on the other.
These two powerful influences have defined and delimited what engineering is and what it can be.

Coming to know of this “captivity” of engineering education was a surprising eye-opener to the students. They were under the impression that the way commerce and engineering science determine the discourse of engineering is inevitable and just a matter of fact.

Engineering education prepares one to be a professional practitioner in the social world. The professional engineer is not only meant to be a designer and producer of engineering goods for social use, he or she must also participate in the process of distribution of the products with a judicious sense of the need for technological transformation of the social world.

Democracy is not just a system of governance that facilitates the process of attaining social welfare and fulfilling the norms of social justice. Democracy also embodies the norms of an ideal social life. Thus, two inter-related notions of democracy were brought to the limelight, namely, procedural democracy (or a system of rules and institutions) and normative democracy (or democracy as a deliberative practice guided by moral considerations of justice and welfare).

The complex nexus between procedural and normative democracy was explained in terms of the distinction between Niti and Nyaya that Professor Amartya Sen’s explains in his Hiren Mukherjee Memorial Lecture, presented in the Parliament of India (2008). While Niti stands for ‘organisational propriety’ understood in terms of institutional arrangements and rules for governance, Nyaya signifies ‘a more comprehensive concept of realised justice’— the achievement of justice through institutional arrangements and organisational changes.

This distinction between Niti and Nyaya was then mapped onto the distinction between procedural and normative democracy. Niti-centric democracy focuses on rules and institutions that provide the right kind of mechanism for governance aimed at social justice. Nyaya-focused democracy is geared to the realisation of social justice — elimination of removable injustice — through deliberative engagement in public reason. While Niti is a necessary condition for social justice, the sufficient condition is the commitment to Nyaya. The two complement each other.

An engineering student, who understands the deeper nuances of “feedback” in improving the performance of a system, is already well-equipped to make sense of the value of democracy and social justice and appreciate the relevance of democracy to engineering education. The practice of engineering plays the foremost instrumental role in the transformation of actual living conditions needed for a just social order. The engineer is therefore no less a participant of deliberative democracy, no less a voice of public reason, than other citizens who contribute to the process of realising social justice. But this participative role of the engineer is rendered invisible, because the engineering outlook has been undeservedly captive to the overwhelming influence of the corporate culture. The potential engineer nourished in the prime academic-institutional environment of India may not see much beyond the glittering world of MNC. But the larger social world beyond that glitter is starkly spotted with freckles of removable injustices. It needs a democratic vision to be able to view these freckles of injustice and to be adequately motivated to erase those spots of inhumanity.

(Boruah is professor of philosophy in the dept of humanities and social sciences, IIT Delhi and Sharan is visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar )

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