International conference: Engineers and society in India (1850 to present times)

EHESS, Paris – 27th and 28th March 2017

More than any other, the profession of engineer appears to encapsulate many of the transformations affecting contemporary India today. Engineers symbolise the rise of the so- called middle classes, and the manner in which India has positioned itself as an emerging power in the international labour market, as it has become one of the favourite destinations for major technology firms.

Despite the place this professional group has been occupying until this day in the country’s economy and social structure, it has been somewhat neglected by scholars. However, the position engineers occupy within society and in the system of production makes them a particularly rich object of scrutiny for an analysis of the general dynamics of social stratification (Boltanski, 1982). Its study could also shed new light on the national specificities of capitalist development, as has been shown in other regions of the world (Meiksins and Smith, 1996).

This conference aims to fill this empirical void by gathering, along three main axes of consideration, contributions from different disciplines (sociology, history, anthropology, geography, etc.).

Axis 1: Engineers and social stratification

In India, the profession of engineer developed rapidly and was structured relatively early. In contrast to the situation in Great Britain, institutions that delivered engineering degrees were created by the end of the 1840s and the first professional associations were established at the end of the 19th century. Nonetheless, the social transformations provoked by the emergence of this new profession in the context of colonial domination, and particularly their impact on the pre-existing internal hierarchies (castes, etc.), have been under studied. Shortly after Independence, the emphasis on state planning encouraged the development of the profession, in particular through the establishment of elite institutions in the form of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). From 1973 onwards, these were compelled to apply the quota policy that reserves a certain number of seats for students from underprivileged communities. In the 2000s the profession expanded substantially, with the number of training institutions rising from around 700 in the year 2000 to over 3500 in 2013 (Lardinois 2011). This growth was stimulated both by the rise of the Information Technology sector and by the frenetic liberalisation of the education market.

This first axis will question the nature and consequences of the connections between the numerical increase of engineers since the second half of the 19th century, and the wider transformations of Indian society. Was the vast development of engineering schools after Independence, in a context where the so-called reservation policy was established, accompanied by the rise of “new” or previously marginalised social groups (low caste, religious minorities, women, etc.) or did it lead to a reinforcement of the position of power occupied by members of the former elite or the educated castes? From this perspective on the rise of a new profession, how are caste and class combined?

One topic that deserves particular attention is the commonly held view that, since Independence, technical education is perceived as a force capable of transforming Indian society. This idea is anchored in the founding of the IITs. When they were created, these institutions were exempted from the reservation policy and tended to be seen as places that trained a meritocratic elite, freed from the contingencies related to caste and their political instrumentalisation. Whether the IITs actually fulfil their claims of acting as a vector of social mobility based solely on competence will be questioned.

Lastly, this axis affords us a fresh look at the idea of “middle classes”, often used to designate the engineers, although the relevance of this category in the Indian context remains widely debated (Deshpande, 2003, 2006). What can the study of a prime example of an intermediary profession teach us about the class structure in India? The question of this group’s (self) representation has to be taken into account and particular attention paid to recent transformations that seem to be replacing a model of public salaried employment with a new prototype of the private sector engineer, more involved in management activities.

Axis 2: Engineers and the state

Once again, in a manner that differs from the established norm in United Kingdom, the rise of the profession of engineer in India is closely linked to state power. The institutions established by the British, from the 1840s onwards, served mainly to provide the Public Works Department with technically qualified employees and to allow the colony to be better exploited. Just after Independence, engineers were invited under Nehru to play a major role in economic planning, as technology occupied pride of place in development theory. Although

the liberal shift that occurred in the 1990s contributed to reducing the responsibilities conferred upon engineers employed by the state, they managed better than in many other countries to maintain some control over major infrastructural projects (Cabalion, 2013; Girard, 2016). The reforms undertaken in the 1990s also had consequences for the educational sector dedicated to training this workforce. While the state retained a certain monopoly over the elite training courses, private institutions multiplied rapidly and a vast coaching market developed.

The first objective in this axis will be to more precisely evaluate the place engineers occupy in the state apparatus. While an analysis of the employees of the Public Works Department seems to be one of the most obvious paths, it is important to look at the role played by the engineers with political appointments and employed in other major state bodies (Indian Administrative Service, etc.). The impact, from the 1990s onwards, of the liberalisation policies and state withdrawal on engineers who were employed by the administrative services deserves to be closely examined, and particular attention paid to the process of fragmentation of the group into the elite on one side, who were able to benefit from this new situation, and employees of the local administrations, on the other side, who were increasingly criticised. Finally, it is important to consider the influence this group, or at least some of its factions, exercised over the major development projects, whereas in other countries engineers came into strong competition with other experts (Espeland, 1998). For instance, what has been the impact of the rationale of state engineers’ conversion to consultancy or NGOs, on this process of increasing competition between the state and economic elites, or those connected to the private sector? And what contribution do these ‘converted’ civil engineers make in renewing categories of knowledge and redefining areas of intervention?

Examining the privileged relationship the profession seems to have maintained with the public administration involves investigating what this group’s ethos is. What relationship did it have with the nationalist movement during the colonial period? Then, following Independence, with Nehru’s development creed? To what extent was it involved with state planning? Connected to the question of ethos, is that of the type of knowledge that makes up the core skills Indian engineers are taught and those they practice. The evolution of this knowledge over time, deserves particular attention. How do the hierarchies between the disciplines that constitute the “Indian engineering science” evolve? To what extent are economic science and engineering science in opposition? Do they converge? Is it possible to identify a technocratic moment in India or a moment of glorification of the profession, where engineers’ science won over political values?

These perspectives lead to a more general question, that of the evolution of the nature of the state and the relationships public authority maintains with the private sector and the economic field. During the colonial period, for example, all the major projects were sub-contracted to private contractors and the Public Works Department employees only supervised these projects (Kerr, 1995). How did this role evolve into the current Public Private Partnerships? Lastly, it is necessary to return to the rise, over the last twenty years, of the extra-academic system or the vast and almost industrially structured training market for engineers which the state has had quite some difficulty regulating. What is the social background of the entrepreneurs involved in this sector? What social classes and groups use this coaching market?

Axis 3: Engineers and Capitalist Development

The explanatory models that try to account for the industrialisation process were developed using the yardstick of Western cases scenarios. In this perspective, industrial development in India has often been seen as incomplete and limited. As a result, most studies have focused on factors that explain this incompleteness such as the colonial state’s fiscal policy, insufficient capital, low internal demand, etc. (Chandavarkar, 1985). However a history of the positive features of this specific industrialisation, particularly a history of its social factors, is yet to be written. Due to the intermediary position engineers occupy in the production process, they are very useful for this type of analysis and shed new light on the trajectory of capitalist development in India.

Raising the question of the position engineers occupy within the economic field is a useful first step to define the specificities of Indian capitalism and its evolution. The scholarship on the major Indian industrial groups, particularly the historical studies, have tended to show that the capitalists emerged mainly from the merchant castes. What is the caste profile in new sectors like Information and Communication Technology? While Indian capitalism remains largely structured by families, with members of the extended family controlling the key management positions, today we see a professional elite of managers, who have no kin connections to the owners, rising to the top of major Indian firms. What position do engineers occupy within this manager group? What are the historical conditions and the specific assets which has allowed engineers to access the summits of Indian capitalist firms and, more specifically, which category of engineers?

This focus on the engineers also allows us to question the recent changes in the international division of work, particularly in the service sector. In the case of India, the situation has shifted from a workforce, which was exported towards countries that were at the centre of the world system (Wallerstein, 2004), to an implantation of major multinational companies in India itself. Here, it would be important to show how the opportunities offered by the companies established in large Indian cities (such as salaries and level of responsibility), as well as the rapidly developing urban infrastructure in these places, explains that a growing proportion of graduates from the most prestigious engineering schools, like the IITs, now find the material conditions for a ‘modern’ lifestyle in India rather than abroad.

Lastly, we will also examine the consequences of migration on the structures of the labour market. Which positions occupied by engineers open the doors towards an international career? What is the impact of the implantation in India of major multinationals that often bring a foreign staff along with them? Has this led to a reconfiguration of the profession? Has it resulted in some sort of competition?


Boltanski, Luc (1982) Les cadres. La formation d’un groupe social, Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit.

Cabalion, Joël (2013) Des existences paysannes au fil de l’eau. Le Grand barrage Gosikhurd et les déplacements de population au Vidarbha, Inde centrale, unpublished PhD thesis, EHESS.

Chandavarkar, Rajnarayan (1985) “Industrialization in India before 1947: Conventional Approaches and Alternative Perspectives”, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Special Issue), pp. 623-668.

Deshpande, Satish (2003) Contemporary India. A sociological view, New Delhi: Viking.

Deshpande, Satish (2006) “Mapping the Middle. Issues in the analysis of the Non-Poor Classes in India”, in John, Mary; Jha, Praveen (eds.) Contested transformations, changing economies and identities in contemporary India, New Delhi: Tulika Books, pp. 215-236.

Espeland Wendy, (1998) The struggle for water. Politics, Rationality, and identity in the American southwest. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Girard, Bérénice (2016) “An engineering failure? The engineers’ struggles for hegemony in Ganga Management”, ENGIND workshop, New Delhi, unpublished paper.

Kerr, Ian (1995) Building the Railways of the Raj: 1850-1900, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Lardinois, Roland (2011) “L’espace social des écoles d’ingénieurs en Inde: Entre l’État et le marché”, unpublished paper, Colloque international Un Ingénieur, des ingénieurs. Expansion ou fragmentation? Paris, 6-7 Octobre 2011, École des hautes études en sciences sociales.

Meiksins, Peter; Smith, Chris (eds.) (1996) Engineering Labour: Technical Workers in Comparative Perspective, London: Verso.

Wallerstein, Immanuel (2004) World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction, Durham: Duke University Press.