A recent article by economist Rathin Roy points out that action on climate change globally has become about green technologies, rather than lower consumption. It says that keeping the focus on reducing inequalities among people will naturally result in more environmental policies. An analogous situation prevails in the area of education in India.
The instruction imparted in schools today is beyond the grasp of most students, and is detached from their lives. Students in Class 10 are expected to sum up series and parallel resistances, and conceptually grasp the workings of a DC motor. The reality is that less than 50 per cent of Class 8 students of rural government schools can do division (ASER 2016-18).
This is true of engineering education too and affects decision-making capacity in the country. It happens in two ways. Directly, a difficult engineering education that is detached from people’s lived reality, leads to poor intellectual development. It also ends up leaving unattended numerous gaps that could lead to development and the creation of jobs. Let us look at some examples in the area of electricity supply for irrigation.
The woes of irrigation energy are well documented. A simple web search will show subsidised electricity, inefficiency, groundwater depletion and poor power quality as commonly used terms. Recently, there has also been discussion about direct benefits transfer instead of subsidised electricity, and the use of solar PV pumps as a solution.
An accepted narrative is that subsidies disincentivise distribution companies from investments to improve the quality of supply. However, on investigating, we find that there are, in fact, many solutions that can reduce the cost of supply, improve quality, and also generate employment. This was shown through an investigation conducted by CTARA at IIT Bombay, under the Project on Climate Resilient Agriculture, Government of Maharashtra.
An exercise was done to document the distribution network in Umbarda Bazaar, a typical village in 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 of pumps and transformers. It would cut down distribution losses, and reduce the stress and agricultural loss that farmers suffer due to breakdowns. The case is representative of villages in Maharashtra.
Such redesigning can be done by an electrical engineer with basic capabilities. The lines were to be moved as a part of a restructuring process, one that could provide employment to labourers. This shifts the focus from new materials and infrastructure to human capabilities.
A more detailed GIS-based system incorporating cropping, and electrical systems could be used to optimise such decision-making further. While this needs more sophisticated systems, it does not need cutting-edge research capability in any one discipline. Instead, it warrants a new approach that integrates physical systems across disciplinary boundaries.
Another solution involves groups of 25-30 farmers following a schedule, such that pumping times are staggered even while satisfying irrigation requirements. Such a practice improves the quality of supply. The schedule could be made as a Sudoku-like problem of filling a table based on some thumb rules, or through an optimisation problem clubbed with power systems analysis. Once more, maximising infrastructure use through human capability.
This example illustrates a move away from designing for perfect outcomes for users, to a less than perfect one where people have to adjust to the system. Or, at least the system design could account for locally expected usage. However, such adjustments ought to be formalised — this is not jugaad where farmers themselves decide that half the group will operate on alternate days. That is a suboptimal use of the system where people are abandoned to do the best they can when instead our engineers could help them create a better solution.
It may be noted that these examples are very specific to India, and require different skill levels, all the way from diploma holders to PhDs. Hence, solutions that provide jobs, save resources, and improve the lives of our people, need us to investigate issues at the ground level and account for local conditions. Broad-brush targets such as 18 lakh solar pumps (PM-KUSUM) only lead to the organisationally most convenient implementation, not the best outcomes for a certain capital.
So, how is this untapped potential connected to better education? It is generally accepted that familiar contexts lead to better learning. Nilesh Nimkar, an educationist working in tribal areas, notes that if forced to choose, a local context may be more important than tribal language as a medium.
An MIT report, “The global state of the art in engineering education”, has studied some institutes that are adopting a new pedagogy for emerging problems. The recurring themes are: Contextualised learning, application to real engineering problems, hands-on learning, regional problems, and inter-disciplinarity.
All of this indicates a move away from deep theoretical education to a practical broad-based one. Currently, students may do a final-year project on speed control of a motor, but graduate without understanding the benefits of power factor control in motors. Projects like designing bus routes for optimal service or comparing solar PV pumps to the grid for a crop system, do not result in new technology but contribute to its deployment. And result in the type of engineering training that is sorely needed.
There is a trend to address every problem from climate change to healthcare with the likes of artificial intelligence and blockchain. As a result, we are neglecting the education of an overwhelming majority, and missing out on addressing a large problem space.
This column first appeared in the print edition on December 14, 2021 under the title ‘A syllabus for doers’. The writer is assistant professor, Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas, IIT Bombay