A recent article by economist Rathin Roy points out that action on global climate change has become about green technologies, rather than reducing consumption. He says keeping the focus on reducing inequalities between people will naturally translate into more environmental policies. A similar situation prevails in the field of education in India.
The instruction in schools today is beyond the reach of most students and detached from their lives. Students in Class 10 should summarize resistors in series and parallel and conceptually understand how a DC motor works. The reality is that less than 50 percent of grade 8 students in rural public schools can divide (ASER 2016-18).
This is also true for engineering education and affects the decision-making capacity in the country. This happens in two ways. Directly, a difficult engineering education detached from the reality experienced by people leads to poor intellectual development. It also ends up leaving many voids left behind that could lead to development and job creation. Let’s look at some examples in the field of electricity supply for irrigation.
The woes of irrigation energy are well documented. A simple web search will show subsidized electricity, inefficiency, depleted groundwater, and poor quality electricity as terms commonly used. Recently, discussions have also taken place on the transfer of direct benefits instead of subsidized electricity, and the use of photovoltaic solar pumps as a solution.
One accepted narrative is that subsidies deter distribution companies from investing in improving the quality of supply. However, by investigating, we find that there are, in fact, many solutions that can reduce the cost of supply, improve the quality and also generate employment. This was shown by a survey conducted by CTARA at IIT Bombay, as part of the Government of Maharashtra’s Climate Resilient Agriculture Project.
An exercise was carried out to document the distribution network in Umbarda Bazaar, a typical village in the Washim district. The village has 190 pump connections. A simple set of rules was applied to find a restructured design of the network, which had grown somewhat haphazardly over the years, to provide connections to 59 unconnected wells, and also improve performance. The implementation could save Rs 12-15 lakh in new connection costs and Rs 2.5 lakh per year in repair costs for pumps and transformers. This would reduce distribution losses and reduce stress and farm losses that farmers suffer from outages. The case is representative of the villages of Maharashtra.
Such an overhaul can be done by an electrical engineer with basic skills. The lines were to be moved as part of a restructuring process, which could provide jobs for workers. This shifts the focus from new materials and infrastructure to human capabilities.
A more detailed GIS system integrating culture and power systems could be used to further optimize this decision making. While this requires more sophisticated systems, it does not need advanced research capabilities in a particular discipline. Instead, it justifies a new approach that integrates physical systems across disciplinary boundaries.
Another solution involves groups of 25 to 30 farmers on a schedule, so that pumping times are staggered even while meeting irrigation needs. Such a practice improves the quality of the supply. The program could be done as a Sudoku-like problem of filling in a table based on rules of thumb, or through an optimization problem associated with an analysis of power systems. Once again, maximize the use of infrastructure through human capacity.
This example illustrates a shift from designing for perfect results for users to a less than perfect design where people have to adapt to the system. Or, at least, the design of the system could take into account the expected use locally. However, such adjustments should be formalized – this is not a jugaad where the farmers themselves decide that half of the group will operate on alternate days. This is a suboptimal use of the system where people are left doing their best when instead our engineers could help them create a better solution.
It can be noted that these examples are very specific to India, and require different skill levels, ranging from degree holders to doctors. Therefore, solutions that create jobs, save resources and improve the lives of our people require that we look at the problems on the ground and take into account local conditions. General goals like 18 lakh solar pumps (PM-KUSUM) only lead to the most organizationally practical implementation, not the best results for some capital.
So how does this untapped potential relate to better education? It is generally accepted that familiar contexts lead to better learning. Nilesh Nimkar, an educator working in tribal areas, notes that if he is forced to choose, a local context may be more important than the tribal language as a medium.
An MIT report, “The State of the Global Art of Engineering Education,” looked at some institutes that are adopting new pedagogy for emerging issues. The recurring themes are: contextualized learning, application to real engineering problems, practical learning, regional problems and interdisciplinarity.
All of this points to a shift from in-depth theoretical education to large-scale practical education. Currently, students can do a final year project on controlling motor speed, but graduate without understanding the benefits of power factor control in motors. Projects such as the design of bus lines for optimal service or the comparison of photovoltaic solar pumps to the grid for a growing system, do not result in a new technology but contribute to its deployment. And result in the kind of engineering education that is badly needed.
There is a tendency to solve everything from climate change to healthcare with artificial intelligence and blockchain. As a result, we neglect the education of an overwhelming majority and fail to solve a vast problem.
This column first appeared in the print edition on December 14, 2021 under the title “A program for the makers”. The writer is Assistant Professor, Center for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas, IIT Bombay