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Engineer’s Day: The Little Known Histories of Indian, British Engineers Before 1947

Engineer’s Day: The Little Known Histories of Indian, British Engineers Before 1947

Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

September 15 is Engineer’s Day in India, marked on the birth anniversary of the celebrated engineer and civil servant Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya (1861-1962). On this occasion: the following is an edited extract from The Birth of an Indian Profession (2017), by Aparajith Ramnath, which traces the history of engineers as a profession in India in the first half of the 20th century. The extract describes the culture of engineering in the Public Works Department (PWD), one of the most important employers of engineers in India at that time.

For much of this period, the engineers forming the higher echelons of the PWD were recruited primarily in Britain by the India Office (the establishment of the Secretary of State for India, the British minister in charge of Indian affairs). In the period between the World Wars, homegrown Indian engineers fought for a greater role in the engineering profession. In the PWD, however, the very British culture of engineering constituted an enormous barrier for these aspirants.

In the interests of readability, footnotes and references have been omitted here. The ‘§’ indicates an excerpt from a different portion of the book than the previous.

From c. 1870 onwards, the India Office cast its India-bound engineers in a gentlemanly mould … Applicants to the RIEC [Royal Indian Engineering College, set up in Britain to train engineers for service in the Indian Public Works Department] at Cooper’s Hill were tested in classical languages and English history in addition to mathematics and natural sciences. Once admitted, students worked hard but also had a lifestyle involving billiards, wine and formal meals in Hall.

Col. Chesney, the first President of Cooper’s Hill, was of the opinion that men selected to serve in the Indian PWD should be ‘not only good engineers but religious men, at any rate Christians in feeling and profession’, and in 1878 a military officer on the North Bengal State Railway expressed the view ‘that a better, abler and more gentlemanly set of men than the recently joined men from Coopers Hill could not have been sent out to India.’ Indeed these requirements were similar to the general characteristics prized by British officials in charge of selecting other types of colonial civil servant, such as members of the Indian Civil Service and its analogues in Malaya and Africa. As historians have shown, they valued pursuits such as riding and sport in candidates above mere intellectual prowess. Colonial service aspirants could be rejected for speaking with a Birmingham accent or selected on the strength of having been a Rugby Blue.

Graduates of Cooper’s Hill, who liked to talk of the ‘esprit de corps’ in the Imperial Service that resulted from their years together in College, had a formative influence on the culture of the PWD. Although the College was closed in 1906, its alumni dominated the upper echelons of the engineering services through to the 1930s, when the last batch of RIEC graduates came to the end of their careers.  … Consequently, the requirement for gentlemanliness outlived the College itself.


There was a second important requirement of the PWD engineer: that he be a competent generalist, able to tackle a wide range of problems. The maintenance of the physical infrastructure of government and the state, and of the canal and power systems sustaining agriculture, required a diverse set of skills. In 1870, The Spectator of London had described the qualities required of the engineer working in India thus:

The ideal Engineer for India is a man who will take £1000 a year as his average income for life, and insist that all under him shall be content with their wages; who can build anything from a Tanjore tank as big as the lake of Lucerne to a cloacae for the last new stockade; who will regard an offer of a commission from sub-contractors as a deadly insult; who can keep accounts like a bank clerk…

More than 35 years later, the India Office continued, in selecting engineers for the PWD, to prize a strong grounding in a range of areas, supplemented by practical experience. After the closure of the RIEC in 1906, engineering graduates appearing for interview at the India Office were advised to prepare the following imposing list of subjects, considered important for service in the department:

Pure mathematics, including a knowledge of the differential and integral calculus
Applied mathematics
Geometrical and engineering drawing
Surveying and geodesy
Strength of materials and theory of structures
Heat engines
Materials used in construction
Building construction – Wood and metal work, limes and cements and building with stones brick and concrete
Knowledge of the principles of road-making, waterworks, sanitary and railway engineering

The Birth of an Indian Profession Aparajith Ramnath Oxford University Press, 2017
The Birth of an Indian Profession
Aparajith Ramnath
Oxford University Press, 2017

The ‘gentleman generalist’ paradigm of public works engineering is clearly illustrated in the typescript memoirs of a PWD engineer, G.F. Hall. After graduating from the Central Technical College in London c. 1909, Hall applied for a position in the Indian PWD and was interviewed at the India Office. Prior to the interview, he had ‘spent weeks mugging up engineering formulae, details of cement and brick manufacture and the weights and composition of materials’. On the actual day, he was asked what his best sport had been at school in Marlborough (he played cricket, football and hockey, but was not exceptionally good at any of them); how he spent his leisure hours when at the Central Technical College (he said he worked all the time, but was pressed into admitting that he spent his leisure time on football, rowing and dancing); how he found Chatham, where he was undergoing a short training course as a member of the Special Reserve of the Royal Engineers (he liked it very much). ‘[A]nd so much for all my weeks of cramming!’

Hall’s social and sporting accomplishments and his institutional pedigree clearly carried as much weight with the committee as his technical qualifications.

Hall was placed on a waiting list following his interview, but received an appointment the following year as Assistant Engineer (Imperial Service of Engineers) in the PWD, where he soon had to prove himself as a generalist. Shortly after his arrival in India in 1911, he was placed in charge of a sub-division on the Tribini canal in northern Bihar. He continued in irrigation work, interrupted by war service in Greece and France from 1916 to 1918. Some years after he returned to India, he was transferred to the Roads and Buildings branch of the Bihar and Orissa PWD. Although he had little experience of building work and had failed an exam on building subjects early in his career, Hall was now given several assignments including the construction of schools, hostels and barracks and, in 1928, a host of arches and pylons as road decorations during the visit of the Viceroy and the Simon Commission to Patna.

At every rank, an engineer’s duties were many and varied. As an Assistant Engineer, he had to negotiate contracts, establish rates, assess finished work and draw up bills. An official report claimed that in some sub-divisions, where the work was mainly related to maintenance, ‘the duties of an Assistant Engineer make little demand on engineering skill’.

A similar view was apparently held by Frank Harris, a Cooper’s Hill alumnus and Executive Engineer in the Punjab, who ‘held the distinction of submitting a memorial annually to the Secretary of State for India … He prayed that he should be permitted to retire as he found he was utilised not as an Engineer but as a mere cooly-driver.’

At other times, the Executive Engineer might also find himself ‘undertaker to the Christian community.’ A Superintending Engineer was as much an administrator as a technical officer. His duties included supervising budgetary and accounts issues of his department, seeking and dispensing advice on technical matters, managing subordinate personnel, and corresponding with the provincial government.

As Chief Engineer, the PWD officer was responsible for preparing annual reports on the activities of his department. Engineers could also be deputed for a period of time on ‘foreign service’ to another province or department; for instance, some ISE officers of the United Provinces PWD were deputed to the Department of Education and thence as professors to Roorkee in 1934-35. They were also frequently seconded to the service of princely states for brief periods. …


For young British engineers freshly arrived in India, their new environs could provide a heady mix of adventure and a sense of power. When Geoffrey Hall took up his first sub-division in January 1912, he found that his nearest colleagues were stationed tens of kilometres down the canal system. On his own not inconsiderable patch, Hall felt invincible:

… with a wife, a gun, two ponies, a trap, a car, a salary of Rs 380 a month and a Sub-Division of my own I regarded myself as the equal of Kings and the ruler of the most beautiful kingdom [on] earth … notwithstanding [the] difficulties [language], I entered into contracts, got along with my job and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of our jungle dominion.

Some 15 years later, another young British engineer, Herbert Fagent Merrington (b. 1904) was appointed to the ISE and posted in the Punjab irrigation service. Schooled in Surrey and trained in Guildford Technical School and Northampton Polytechnic, Merrington was in his early twenties when he was assigned to the Sutlej Valley Project, as part of which weirs were built at Suleimanki, Islam, Panjnad and Ferozepur.

Arriving at the Islam Weir in the princely state of Bahawalpur (located in the Punjab province), Merrington found it ‘a devil of a place … Thirteen miles to the nearest railway station, a hundred miles from the nearest town, and two other white men besides myself. Thousands of natives and coolies.’ He may have been out in the country but, as he assured his family in Surrey, ‘I haven’t grown a beard: we shave every day, and always put on a decent suit and collar and tie for dinner every evening.’

In fact the weir, which was nearly finished, had been inaugurated by the Viceroy days after Merrington’s arrival. ‘I have an invitation [to the opening] of course,’ Merrington wrote home; he had also been invited to the lavish breakfast that the Nawab of Bahawalpur was hosting for the Viceroy. ‘Some binge! I think it’s a good show having breakfast with the Viceroy about a fortnight after landing!’

Shortly thereafter, Merrington was working on the construction of the Panjnad Weir when he produced a vivid (if idealised) description of an engineer’s daily work on the project. ‘Dawn is breaking in purple-grey across the Bahawalpur desert’, it begins, and goes on to detail the various tasks awaiting the engineer. He is woken by bearers before going out to the weir, about two miles from the engineers’ bungalow, ‘on his trolley pushed by four coolies.’ At the site of the work there are eight hundred labourers; the engineer questions ‘his subordinate, always cheerful and anxious to please,’ and carries out inspections before dealing with his mail in the office and returning to his bungalow for lunch.

In the afternoon he returns to the works, ‘this time wearing goggles and … topee’, braving the heat and dust. In the evening the engineer might preside as the workers are paid their monthly wages, then take up ‘one or two other matters of importance … with contractors, and another visit to the scene of work follows. The progress is not satisfactory – more stone must be brought during the night, and more men must be put on this section. Assurances are given by the subordinate that these orders will be carried out.’ At long last the engineer is home for dinner, followed by ‘a short spell of letter-writing, reading, or gramophone entertainment, and so to bed.’ Engineers new to India, in their early to mid-twenties, rapidly acquired the functions and bearing of the powerful administrator, whose accomplishments must range from dining with Viceroys to commanding legions of workers.

The status of the Indian engineer

The experiences of these expatriate engineers contrasted considerably with that of their Indian colleagues in the PWD. Most Indian officers were recruited from the Indian engineering colleges. Notable among them were the alumni of the oldest of these institutions, the Thomason College at Roorkee. Located in the United Provinces (UP), home to much of the nineteenth-century Ganges Canal project, and not far from the Punjab, fertile land of five rivers, Roorkee was particularly well placed to supply engineers for the growing irrigation works in India.

In the long 19th century, it was theoretically possible for graduates of the Indian colleges to build relatively successful careers in the PWD, rising through the ranks despite starting out in the ‘inferior’ Provincial Service. A number of Roorkee alumni did make a name for themselves. These were often Domiciled Europeans or Anglo-Indians. The campus itself was segregated: the Engineering and Upper Subordinate courses at Roorkee were divided into English and Indian Classes. ‘It is doubtful’, writes Roorkee’s historian, ‘if they mixed anywhere.’

The occasional … Indian achieved prominence in the PWD but rarely attained the highest ranks in the service. Ganga Ram (b. 1851) joined the PWD as a Roorkee graduate in 1873, was associated with the construction of several landmark buildings in Lahore and received honours from the colonial government, including a Rai Bahadur and (in his later years) a knighthood. Yet it is telling that when he retired in 1903, the highest rank he had attained was that of Executive Engineer (barring a brief spell as Superintendent of the Coronation Durbar Works in Delhi in 1903). He subsequently served in the higher rank of Superintending Engineer in the princely state of Patiala.

His real success, though, came when upon retirement he leased 20,000 hectares of barren land in the Montgomery District of the Punjab, which he made productive by irrigating it using hydroelectric power. The venture, which Indian Engineering called ‘a great Indian enterprise’, brought Ganga Ram a fortune that helped him become a philanthropist.

Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Even Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya (a graduate of the engineering college in Poona), who rose rapidly in the Bombay irrigation service, felt he had hit a glass ceiling in his late 40s when he was Superintending Engineer. ‘Remembering that there was political feeling in the country at the time,’ Visvesvaraya recounted later, ‘I thought there was little chance of Government appointing me Chief Engineer except when my regular turn came according to my regular rank.’ He quit the PWD, and soon after was appointed Chief Engineer in Mysore State. Upon his departure, the Governor of Bombay wrote him a warm valedictory note, remarking that ‘I hope that you will feel on reflection that your experience in Government service up to the present time has been exceptionally fortunate.’

In later decades, some Indians did reach the higher echelons of the bureaucracy, as in the case of A.V. Ramalinga Iyer and R. Swaminatha Iyer, who attained the rank of Chief Engineer in Madras in the 1920s; Jwala Prasad, Chief Engineer Irrigation, United Province in 1932; and Madan Gopal Sardana, Superintending Engineer in the same department, and Principal of Roorkee, 1940-45.

Most Indians, however, started modestly in the provincial services and dreamt of entering the ISE. They had constantly to be on their guard lest their competence or reliability should be questioned. As the son of one such engineer recalled:

Father, who never relaxed from work, explained it to us by saying that Englishmen could afford to relax because if things went wrong they managed to explain it to each other, and took the attitude that things sometimes go wrong. But when an Indian made a mistake the reaction, if an understanding one, was that the job was perhaps too difficult for him; ‘after all they did not have the skill or the experience; one must be careful with giving responsibility too soon …’

British attitudes to these Indian engineers became particularly important in the interwar context of political reforms and Indianisation. When senior European engineers and British policymakers pictured the ideal public works engineer, they thought not only of a generalist, a man of character and resource, but of a quintessentially British engineer. Indian engineers had to be made in their image but could never quite hope to achieve the ideal of the gentleman generalist.


British engineers’ views of Indians ranged from paternalism to outright scepticism. Geoffrey Hall was never entirely at ease with his Indian colleagues and superiors, as revealed by his remarks about some of them in his memoirs. One Superintending Engineer, he claimed, would listen to the grievances only of his fellow caste men when on inspection tours. When Hall was an Executive Engineer in the 1920s, he had an Indian Superintending Engineer, Rai Bahadur S.C. Chakarbatty, whom he thought ‘a nice elderly Bengali but unwilling to accept responsibility or issue definite orders. He was consequently little more than a post office between myself and the Chief Engineer.’

Further on the theme of accountability, Hall recounted the case of an Indian engineer in 1934 who was transferred out of his Circle following the devastating Bihar earthquake of that year and replaced by a Briton. The engineer was not offended, but ‘thanked [his superior officer] profusely for his kindness in relieving him of such responsibility!’ Hall’s lukewarm attitude to his Indian colleagues was not due to any technical incompetence on their part. Instead, he thought they came up short on non-technical parameters of competence: integrity, courage and responsibility.

Plain prejudice played its part too. An interwar enquiry into the declining popularity of service in India among British engineering graduates found that, among other things, they were anxious about Indianisation: ‘Graduates and students are unwilling to offer themselves for appointments in a Service which entails working under an Indian superior.’


Change did occur, albeit slowly: by the end of the 1930s, both branches of the PWD had been placed under elected provincial ministers, the ISE was more than fifty per cent Indian, and recruitment in Europe had all but ceased (although the Secretary of State retained special powers to appoint irrigation officers). Crucially, though, this change was carefully managed by the government, not only by maintaining a European core in the ISE but by ensuring that the Secretary of State had control over it, and more generally over the PWD.

… the reasons for this are best understood by studying the normative culture of public works engineering, as embodied in the training, recruitment and career paths of its practitioners. The ideal of the public works engineer was cast in a British mould. He was to be a gentleman and a generalist, possessed of integrity, courage and resourcefulness. British engineers and policymakers were unconvinced of the extent to which these qualities might be found in the Indian engineer. They held that while Indian PWD engineers might be technically competent, their personal qualities were likely to fall short of the ideal of the gentleman generalist, leaving them open to corruption, partiality and incompetence as administrative officers.

These ideas on race and technical expertise did not merely influence the experiences and relationships of PWD engineers, and the ways in which the PWD was reorganised and Indianised; they also reflected, in microcosm, larger anxieties about the future of British rule in India and about Indians’ ability to govern themselves.

Aparajith Ramnath is a historian of modern science, technology and business.

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