How CEG alumni is working to restore this more than two centuries old institute to its former glory.
Engineering education is probably at its nadir currently – colleges are shutting down, massively slicing streams offered and battling lower enrolment as graduates are not finding jobs. Bright students are wondering if they must aspire to be an engineer.
Standing at such a crossroad, as an engineer, who worked in the Silicon Valley and returned to India, I think about the zenith that the profession and my alma mater – College of Engineering Guindy (CEG) – had seen. This oldest technical education institution in India has in its every redstone many tales, as it enters its 225th year of creating engineers.
Black And White
The story starts, long, long ago, as fairy tales do. Even way back in 1794, there was a need for engineering education and a School of Survey was established in the then Madras. It was renamed College of Engineering in 1859, and as the industrial revolution unfolded, mechanical engineering stream was introduced in 1861, as per the college history online. The college was also the first to introduce other streams such as electrical, highway, telecommunication and printing. In fact, telecommunication was introduced as early as in 1945.
The college has, over these 225 years, produced many outstanding engineers. These graduates have taken the lead in nation building. For example, CEG’s civil engineer Dr K L Rao, who served as the Union minister of irrigation and power, and was awarded the Padma Bhushan, designed and developed many dams including the Nagarjuna Sagar, Bhakra and Farakka, and is considered the father of India’s water management. In the early years of the All India Radio, CEG’s women graduates – Rajyalakshmi, who was the first woman telecommunications engineer (1947) and Kamala Devi (1953) – worked at key positions in setting up the telecom infrastructure as the new country was blossoming.
At research organisations such as Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, at public sector units that created excellent engineering solutions for the country and at defence organisations such as Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), CEG’s engineers have played key roles in research and development, operations and administration. Dr R Narasimhan, a CEG alumni of 1947, was the father of computers in India, having developed TIFRAC, the first indigenous Indian computer. Not just that, Professor R K Baliga, the father of the Electronics City in Bengaluru and Dr Verghese Kurien, who founded Amul and is known as the father of the white revolution in India, were CEG’s alumni.
As the private sector also started adding to the country’s growth engine, many of the CEG-grown engineers made a mark. Anumolu Ramakrishna, a Padma Bhushan recipient, was the former deputy managing director of Larsen and Toubro in the infrastructure segment; Venu Srinivasan, chairman of Sundaram-Clayton and TVS Motor in the automobile segment; Krishnakumar Natarajan, co-founder and chairman of Mindtree in the IT segment were among CEG’s alumni.
Outside of India too, founders such as Dhiraj Rajaram of Mu Sigma and eminent researchers in robotics such as Dr Raj Reddy (who won the Turing Award) are its alumni. The list goes on, but one can see that engineers have made impactful difference – in India and globally.
Being a woman engineer, it is indeed heartening to see that the college has been a leader in gender diversity. Yes, the names of eminent alumni listed are nearly all male, but the college’s women graduates have a great legacy, right from the first batch of three women engineers, who enrolled in 1939. One of the alumni, Dr Shantha Mohan, who is tracing the story of early women engineers, chronicles the confidence and talent of the pioneers in various articles.
Today, the share of women engineers is only about 20 per cent in the US and 28 per cent in India and the male female ratio is 14:1 in the IITs. Cut to CEG, which has 48 per cent women enrollment and graduation, as per the alumni association data of 2018. Something that other colleges should look up to.
Pride And Passion
Enough of the past, as nostalgia is ever sweet and facts have a golden hue. Lately, though the common perception for many alumni is that the college has been losing its glory. As this recent Swarajya article also laments, the process of degeneration has been happening over the last two decades or so. It could be the changing times or policies or just not knowing what is happening. Sure, Anna University (of which the College of Engineering is now a part of) was ranked eighth in India, among engineering colleges, only below some IITs. It is the top-ranking among state universities.
My limited interactions with the students worried me as many engineers are not employable. And while innovation and entrepreneurship are the buzzwords, there is not much ground level work in the college that is exciting engineers to think beyond the proverbial box. There is not much practical training that the students were exposed to.
For A Change
Still, as I ponder about the future – of engineering and the college – I am unable to see any possibility where engineering is not the focus. If the 20th century saw the ascent of engineering, in a technical world, it is only natural that engineers become key decision-makers in formulating various policies. In developed countries, already bureaucrats depend on technologists to guide public policy choices and we will soon see it in India too.
If we take cues from premier technical institutions globally, there are a few things that can bring about big transformations in CEG. One, more autonomy for eminent colleges such as CEG so that they can do their best, and not be bogged down by multiple policy stakeholders. Two, better funding for innovation and incubation so that experimentation and taking ideas to the market can be done. Three, tighter alumni involvement in the college as mentors, donors, opportunity providers, so that the bar can be raised.
Some changes are already happening. Alumni have created and are running an incubation centre, are running various programmes for students and do various networking events. The alumni are also planning activities for the 225th year celebration and raising funds to better support activities such as the incubation centre, support for students who cannot afford hostel fees and career guidance activities. I hope that as the illustrious alumni put their heads together, we can come up with practical policy suggestions and solutions to build the engineers who will make their mark in the next 225 years.