And Somewhere There Are Engineers…

sewer cleaning

A conversation with youngsters – who are by nature bubbling with energy , fired with idealism and suffused with innumerable questions – is a thing which everyone with grey hair looks forward to.

For someone like me it is an added gift this morning that after exactly a gap of forty years this writer is with students of engineering helping him rekindle memories of his own days of engineering in the city of Varanasi. A really exciting period when few of us had come together to do something for society as well. A period worth remembering when we were engaged in running evening classes for deprived sections in neighbouring villages, learning from their life experiences and in spare time reading good literature, tracking trajectories of different revolutions, debating, discussing, brainstorming what else can be done to awaken the society around.

One still remembers how a girl student from Mumbai – who had never been to a village before and saw the depressing situation around there – had even written a brief writeup in the little magazine we use to bring out titled ‘Narottampur – My Bodhi Tree’. ( Narottampur was the name one of the village, where the classes use to run). It was no empty boast, the experience really proved a turning point for her and later she even decided to dedicate her life working for the dispriviledged and the marginalised and the exploited.


What excites me more is the theme you have chosen for this panel discussion for this Literay fest : “Whether Youth Should Enter Political Fray’ ?

The theme looks bit hatke for two reasons :

One is the prevalent notion that politics itself is a ‘dirty thing’. In middle class families where there are more chances of dialogue between the parents and their wards, one is even told that ‘politics is the refuge of the scoundrels’ which then becomes part of our common sense.

It would be foolish on my part not to admit this existing notion has a material basis also. The manner in which politics is increasingly debased, the manner in which hold of money and mafia is increasing on politics, one can appreciate why there is a general revulsion about politics.

Two, the theme also looks bit ‘hatke‘ in the prevalent ambiance for another reason as well, when youth are being increasingly asked meaningless questions like ‘How is the Josh’ ? One finds today that dialogue of a bollywood movie has caught the imagination of a section of youth, when a better question could have been ‘How is the jobs’ because recent NSSO report tells us that unemployment is at 45 year high 1 or newspapers were agog with news telling trained engineers and management graduated applying for jobs definitely not commensurate with the training they had. 2

Pardon me if you are a fan of Ranveer Singh but I came across a video recently wherein this actor was asking the youth gathered in a concert the same question and which was followed by an atrocious suggestion that to demonstrate their ‘josh’ they should shout so loudly that ‘Bagal Ke Asptal ke Murde Jag Jayein‘ ( ‘even the dead in the hospital close by would wake up’) and the hundreds or thousands of youth also gladly joined him in this shouting competition disregarding the fact that a hospital does not have only dead bodies but the living outnumber the dead, living who are filled with pain and suffering from one illness or the other and need care, lot of care and peace as well.

One can forgive the actor because he is paid for such gimmicks but what about the youth who joined him wholeheartedly in the big ground just besides J J Hospital in Mumbai, one of the biggest government hospital in the country caring for thousands of people daily.

Why they did not realise for a moment their ‘Josh’ must have turned into a nightmare for hundreds of patients sleeping there.


No doubt, in this atmosphere, it is very refreshing to see budding engineers in a reputed college, who yearn to make it big in their respective fields are ready to openly debate among themselves why should or why they should not or to what extent they should enter political fray.

Like all decisions in one’s own life are individual decisions – taking inputs from elders, friends etc – this decision has to be an individual decision. Difficulty to decide on this matter arises because the whole question is defined in a rather limited manner or should I say it is reduced to the possibility of joining a particular political party or canvassing for it or contesting on its behalf and looking at the existing asymmetries, hierarchies in the political parties one tends to remain rather aloof from the whole process.

Can we reduce politics merely to elections and money and mafia etc ? We can do it our own peril.

Politics is a much much more and wider thing.

Like somebody sees it as ‘the process of making decisions that apply to members of a group’ or ‘related to making as distinguished from administration of government policy’ , it is also understood basically as a power discourse which exists in every society through which we have to negotiate our path.

Unless and until we are ready to understand politics in much more broader, inclusive terms and do not get ready to go to the root of the problem, we will find ourselves clueless in the ‘jungle of challenges’ where we find ourselves in.


Recently I was part of a discussion where the presenter listed out challenges before humanity and posed few interesting questions.

The presenter – a very young man – pointed out that, for people of his generation, perhaps the biggest challenge they are facing is the challenge of loneliness.

He narrated that we may have few thousand ‘friends’ on social media but there are a very few or not even a single one to talk to with whom one can share deep anxieties, secrets of one’s life.

A section of experts are attributing it to the loss of community life and a necessary byproduct of modern life and the attendant stresses and strains we are subjected to at various personal and social lives and that may be partially true but many other reasons could be found out, looked into. Enlightening the audience that like medicalisation of everything – like social pains like depression and anxiety – there are now even suggestions that medical solutions to loneliness be researched and prescribed?

Mere browsing the net tells us that apart from this attempted medicalisation, it has also opened up new vistas of opportunities to enterprising people. In fact, it even sprawled an industry which offers ‘human antidotes to loneliness — a dinner companion, someone to walk with, talk to, even cuddle’ 3.Emily White writes in The Guardian that loneliness will be “the next great moneyspinner,”4

Or look at the challenge of say nuclear weapons which stares the humanity.

A layperson also knows that countries of the world have assembled so much of these weapons of mass destruction today that Hiroshima, Nagasaki bombings can look like a child’s play. Suppose tomorrow world war breaks out -which none of us would ever desire – then we are in a position to destroy humanity many many times. And the few who would be fortunate to remain alive will have to face the consequences of radioactivity for generations to come.

Take the challenge of Climate Change, a concern which is raised more often these days – when we are becoming more aware of the havoc which awaits us – and the way governments engaging in intense negotiations at world fora or how countries like USA, which have played very negative role in the degradation of environment, refusing even to acknowledge under the new dispensation that the challenge even exists.

Another challenge listed out by the presenter would appear rather incomprehensible to many present here.

It is the challenge of chronic starvation for a major section of humanity among a sea of plenty. Why on the one hand you have huge stocks of food grains and other items for life’s basic necessities stored in big big godowns, a section of which even gets rotten when not properly covered, and you have people dying of hunger. 5

Death of a eleven year old Santosh Kumari, from village Karimati, district Simdega, in the lap of her mother Koyle Devi, asking for ‘Bhat De’ ( Give some rice) a year before last had definitely definitely stirred conscience of the people but we know it was a very temporary concern, 6 but such deaths still continue unabated. 7

One knows there is a thing called poverty line. Governments keep changing the definition of poverty line – which they have reduced to the intake of calories – and they declare from rooftops that a section of the population has been uplifted/ removed from that situation. Right now there is no need to debate the methodology but even if one goes by what our governments tell us then we know that around 30 per cent of the population is below poverty line.

Why in 21 st century when the advancement of technology and science has created the possibility of increasing productivity why people have to still die of hunger ?

Whether there is not enough land available for them to produce food ?

Are they are not getting enough wages to sustain themselves.
Should not we ask ourselves this question that why India which yearns to become an economic superpower in 21 st century has dismal rankings on human development indices – which seem to compete with many of the sub Saharan countries.


‘Public Good or Private Wealth?’

If we wish you can as well add other challenges which are faced by humanity, like increasing migrations from one country to the other, rise of strongmen in politics, ascent of exclusivist forces in different parts of the world – which seem to negate many of the cherished values of any great civilisation, etc.

Look at all the challenges once again.

Whether challenge of loneliness can be left to psychologists, psychiatrists or corporate profit driven industry?

Whether proliferation of nuclear weapons is a technological problem

Whether challenge of climate change can be dealt by environmental scientists/ engineers

Whether challenge of mass hunger can be tackled by health experts and nutritionists

You will certainly laugh over these answers. You can say how can a engineer in a factory decide about viability, proliferation etc of nuclear weapons . How can someone employed in a polluting industry ask the employers to reduce pollution.


The moment you start looking into the roots of any such social problem – without delegating mere experts to solve them – you are adopting a very ‘political’ role, you are trying to comprehend the politics underneath it and seek solutions for them.

If the challenges faced by humanity are neither technological not can they be left to experts, etc then where and whom to approach for resolution of these challenges.

Let us discuss challenge of chronic hunger among plenty. Why it is so ? It is related to faulty government policies and the way in which it has facilitated gathering of tremendous wealth by few corporates.

You must have seen the Oxfam report which says

India’s Richest 1% Got Richer by 39% in 2018

The report says that the wealth of the 9 richest Indians is equivalent to bottom 50 per cent of the country.

Indian billionaires saw their fortunes grow by Rs 22 billion a day in the year 2018, with the top one per cent of the country’s richest getting richer by 39 per cent, while the bottom half of the population saw just per per cent increase in wealth, according to an Oxfam report. 8

Forget about the scams, scandals, cases of corruption and accounts in Swiss Bank, this ‘black money’ – whose availability is humongous – is out of discussion here. The money with the richest Indians is what is called as ‘white money’- money which they have earned through proper channels.

We had organised a seminar sometime back and invited some leading economists to understand the existing situation. They said that they themselves were baffled to find how the super-rich are gathering wealth in such a short span of time

How are the rich able to amass so much of wealth.

By hard manual labour or mental labour ?

Last year a newspaper reported that ‘wealth of India’s richest person Mukesh Ambani rose by Rs 300 crore per day over the past one year, according to a report by Barclays Hurun India Rich List 2018’

With a wealth of Rs 3,71,000 crore, Reliance Industries’ Chairman, Ambani holds the top position for the seventh year running on the back of over 45 per cent rise in the share price of the company.

His wealth is more than the combined wealth of the next three: SP Hinduja & Family (Rs 1,59,000 crore), LN Mittal & Family (Rs 1,14,500 crore), and Azim Premji (Rs 96,100 crore). 9

Or, it has to do with mainly government policies, making land available to them at cheaper rates, telling them that there will be tax holidays for them, doing away with wealth tax etc and most important of all what is understood as ‘extraction of surplus value’ in political economy. 10

Whether you know it or not but many leading companies here are zero tax companies and how can they manage that. How does it happen that you are the leading corporate but you do not pay any taxes – legally.

As already explained this amassing of wealth by the few and immiserisation and proletariasation of the many is not an India specific phenomenon. The same report

..[m]entions that in the 10 years following the financial crisis that shook the world and caused enormous suffering, the number of billionaires have risen dramatically. The number has increased from 1,125 in 2008 to 2,208 in 2018.

At the same time, the wealth of the poorest half, consisting of 3.8 billion people, saw a fall in their wealth by 11 per cent. It also stated that between 2017 and 2018, a new billionaire was created every two days, while the poor people kept getting poorer. 11

“Today’s levels of inequality and poverty are a choice. We can continue to choose to reward those who are already rich, or we can choose to fight inequality and end poverty.”
( Oxfam Report)

What is worth emphasising is that the report poses a question before governments of the world that they have to make a hard choice between public good and private wealth and has also made some three broad recommendations to ameliorate the situation :

One, deliver universal free health care, education and other public services that also work for women and girls.

Two, Free up women’s time by easing the millions of unpaid hours they spend every day caring for their families and homes.

Three. End the under-taxation of rich individuals and corporations. Tax wealth and capital at fairer levels.

As students of engineering somebody amongst you can say that all these challenges are incomprehensible to you. It’s fine.

Let us discuss an example from pure engineering only.

Let us discuss genesis and development of ‘electric cars’ which have received tremendous attention today since 2008, when the possibility of environmental destruction at our own hands has become a possibility. If you browse history of electric cars – they started functioning in 1884, caught the imagination of the masses and and declined in early 1920s when more efficient cars based on internal combustion engines became popular.

Early sixties or seventies, you would be surprised to that innovative, enthusiastic engineers reworked on the model, developed better alternatives. It was also the time when humanity was becoming more aware of the environmental challenges and so it was prudent to think that electric cars would be increasingly used to mitigate the crisis but it did not happen.

Do you know who stopped their proliferation then ?

The big automobile companies who were happily flooding the world markets with newer and newer models of car felt threatened by it and they saw to it that there were enough obstacles on the way.

Only since the year 2008, when issue of climate change became more acute, we saw revival of these cars. Still the ratio is heavily loaded against them 1:250

Or take the question of sexual harassment of women which has reached menacing proportions -despite Nirbhaya and other movements.

Why it is so ?

The answer does not lie in sermonising people, introducing moral education but it involves showing a political will. Unless and until you ensure that there are complaint committees at various levels of institutions and organisations where a girl/women can fearlessly walk in and share the discomfort she faces/faced while interacting with a professor or some senior, she is able to divulge the unwanted gestures or touch tried by some teacher/senior, and the ‘harasser” is made to pay the price for his act, how can you stop such humiliating experiences on a every day basis.

Unless and until the state ensures that there will be prompt action from the police followed by quick justice delivery mechanisms put in place and the victim herself is not subjected to unnecessary intimidation and questions are not raised about her ‘character’ – which is often the case – how can you stop future perpetrators from enlivening their fantasies.

Unless and until you re look at the patriarchal and misogynist nature of families, where a boy is ‘trained’ to be a ‘macho man’ and girls are asked to become submissive, where there is so much of violence – implicit, explicit – at various levels, how can you ensure that the there would not be perpetrators anymore.

“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back” – John Maynard Keynes

For a moment you may feel puzzled why this big discussion about the challenges faced by humanity.

I would just like to remind you that we started with a critique that the definition of politics has been reduced merely to some electoral activities and its real meaning is being hollowed out and there is need to question that, need to understand politics as something on the lines of a ‘power discourse’ between the ‘weak and the strong’, the rich and the poor,, the ‘able’ and the ‘disabled’ etc.

Whether you realise it or not politics can be compared to the oxygen we breathe, it is omnipresent, it pervades every nook and corner of society. The way you live, think, entertain yourself etc everything is not decided by you as an individual, there is some politics involved in it which apparently looks to be controlled, directed by mammoth invisible forces. The moment we widen our horizons you will see that there is no other way to ‘escape’ politics, it exists everywhere and at all levels.

Once we are able to recover its real meaning we will realise that your vision of politics offers you a ‘solution’ or at least an entry point to unpack secrets, challenge received wisdoms etc.Ranging from proliferation of nuclear weapons to the harassment of a girl next door, if you deep digger you can discern various threads which have gone into its making.

How things are politicised can be gauged from this news item which says that Coca Cola is influencing Public Health Policies. We know that cold drinks promote obesity and should be avoided. There are innumerable reports which corroborate this. For example,

Sugar-sweetened beverages account for every one in 200 deaths caused by India’s rising tide of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity, according to a 2015 study. “Over 80% of those deaths happen because sugary drinks are associated with weight gain and diabetes,” ..Another 15% of those deaths occur because sugar-sweetened beverages are an established cause of heart disease, 12

Reports have appeared telling that two members of FSSAI – Institution for standardising food security, are active with ‘ The International Life Sciences Institute’ – a Coca Cola financed initiative known for influencing consumers in a wrong way in China.
Who must have facilitated entry of Coca-Cola representatives into India’s premier institution whose job is to monitor and standardise food security.

Definitely none of us have facilitated their entry, and still they are there, why ? On further queries you will discover that some leading bureaucrat or a minister must have ensured their entry supposedly as an indicator that what deep entries corporate czars have made into government institutions.

Whether you wish it or not you will have to enquire into things which may not be of your liking but have a bearing on the welfare of the society and as concerned individuals it is rather incumbent upon all of us that we at least understand why such things keep happening around you.


There is still a possibilty that some of you might say that they would not like to get into politics and would like to keep themselves aloof from any such discussion.

I would respect their decision to do so but before I conclude I like to share what the legendary martyr Bhagat Singh said about it in his historic essay ‘Vidyarthi aur Rajneeti – which was carried by Kirti in the year 1928. 13

The crux of his argument is that students should involve themselves in politics succinctly and vigorously.He poses an interesting argument before them that ( underlining the colonial regime then) if students get involved in welcoming a viceroy or some senior government official or volunteering to join the army – as one had notices in World War I – whether such acts are political acts or not. For him political involvement of students is also a way to understand the challenges facing the country and figuring out ways to improve things. 14

Anyway one cannot expect that we can reach a consensus in a single meeting. A Sanskrit Subhashitam is very apt to describe the situation ‘Wade Wade Jayate Tatwabodha ( Through debates we will reach conclusion) and we can at least decide to continue the conversation with others and even within oneself.

Whether you intend to become political or not but at least resolve to become ‘socially responsible engineers.’

What do we mean by this term ?

As a writer puts it engineering has an “immense capacity to help provide benefits to the society but simultaneously it has a large capacity to be used to cause harm. It can provide basic needs such as water,food, shelter and energy. but it has also contributed to the huge increase in the destructiveness of weaponry and warfare seen over the centuries, to increases in inequality and to the global damage inflicted on the world’s ecosystems.” 15.

Perhaps the need of the hour is to understand “this dual nature of the profession and to be vigilant regarding your own role and that of your employers so that you maximize the chances of a positive contribution to society.” ( – do -).

Around fifteen years back some of us took an initiative and organised a campaign to sensitise people about deaths in sewers in Delhi. Newspaper reports tell us that hundreds of workers die every year cleaning human filth. Why should it be so ? You must be knowing that in western countries you rarely witness any such deaths. Why this difference exists. Why cannot budding engineers or who are already in profession think of developing such sewers or mechanising the cleaning of sewers so that human labour is not involved at all. If India can develop metro rail which can compete with the west then why can’t it have a new look at sewers.

There could be many many such questions which need contemplation and further engagement.

When we were students of engineering, we had felt really fascinated with a two liner which we had widely used on posters and pamphlets and I would like to end this presentation with that only : ( You can easily notice the stamp of times on it as it had been written at least five decades back)

..And somewhere there are engineers figuring stresses to fly faster than sound
But where are the engineers figuring stresses for those who must live on the ground..

Image result for social responsibility of engineers

( Illustration Courtesy : Fred Bernard Wood III Memorial Archive)


Writer, activist and translator Subhash Gatade has done his M.Tech in Mech Engg ( 1981) from IIT ,BHU ( which was then called IT BHUVaranasi.)




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