By Adhitya Iyer:
“ In India, you become an engineer first and then figure what to do with your life”
Summer is generally at its peak with temperatures soaring at a sultry 40 degrees in many parts of the country, but for millions of teenagers in India, the heat from the mighty old Sun is only least bothering. In April 2012, a little over half a million candidates appeared for an exam, contesting for a measly 10000 seats thus making it the most competitive educational examination on the planet. In 2012, Harvard accepted 5.9% of applicants. The world’s top engineering schools, MIT and Stanford had acceptance rates of 8.9% and 6.63% respectively. These kids in India were fighting an acceptance rate of a meager and an astounding 2%. Now, if you are an Indian reader, you stand a good chance of not only guessing the examination under consideration but also having appeared for it. The IIT-JEE or the Joint Entrance Examination is a window for students into what has for long been a jewel in the crown of the Indian education system – The Indian Institute of Technology (IITs).
After the Govt of India decided to consolidate various Central and State-level engineering entrances into a single exam for the first time in the year 2013, a staggering 1.4 million candidates appeared for the JEE that year, making it the most popular examination in the country and one of the most widely taken exams in the world.
Much like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have achieved an epic status in her literature, Medicine and Engineering have for long enjoyed epic status in the Indian Education system. A litmus test of this could be a simple interview with a random parent on the average Indian street. There is a good chance that the parent would want their child to become a doctor or an engineer.
Charismatic World leader and India’s 1st Prime Minister inaugurated modern India’s 1st Engineering institute in 1951 with a vision to produce ‘World class Scientists and Engineers’. Furthermore, in his now-famous speech of 1960, the leader said:
” It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of sanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people… The future belongs to science and to those who make friends with science.”
Now, 66 years after India’s Independence and in perhaps the future that Nehru spoke about, where are we placed as a nation adopting science? Engineers outnumber other students of science in the country by an outstanding margin, and it is fair to assume that engineers lead the scientific growth of the country. Much like India herself, her engineers speak a story of great contradiction.
India produces more Engineers annually than twice the population of Iceland making it the largest producer of Engineers anywhere in the world. Yet, since her independence, this huge pool of talent has failed to produce a single Nobel Laureate in Science. Israel, a nation as old as India and less populated than even the Indian island city of Mumbai, has produced 6 thus far. Indian Engineers have famously lead some of the biggest business houses globally; more recently, the closely followed appointment of Indian born Satya Nadella as the CEO of Microsoft. Yet, as an industry report suggests, 8/10 Engineers back home are simply unemployable.
Most of these numbers I mentioned may perhaps ring a bell of interest now. The average Indian is familiar with these, for the results of the JEE and the JEE itself garner front page news in almost all major national and regional dailies.
Considering the enormity of this trend, it must be extremely ignorant of the author to claim that there has been no documented record of this story yet. There have been of course, countless fictional narratives of the engineering story, some of which have been adapted into blockbuster Bollywood movies and a handful non-fictional academia oriented books. These (romantic) narrations, however, fail to indulge in an insightful analysis and thus in answering elemental questions like Why are Indians obsessed with engineering and where can this obsession be traced to? How has this enormous pool contributed to the growth of India as a nation? They also fail in tracing a more realistic and nuanced trail of the Indian engineer’s story from his schooling to his life beyond graduation.
My personal interest in this story began at the age of 19, when my friends and I, still half way through engineering school, co-founded a startup that exclusively sold engineering theme based T-shirts. Our efforts not only earned us the title of one of India’s Top 30 student entrepreneurs but also countless e-mails from engineering students across the country, speaking of their own engineering tale. It was not until 2013, at the age of 24, that I finally quit my job selling chai for a Bangalore based start-up and set out on a backpacking trip across the country attempting to explore this great story. It is via this journey I bring to you a first non-fiction narration of what is possibly the most interesting educational story in the world.