A Xiaomi Redmi Note 7 Pro smartphone. Chinese phones are widely used in India. Photo: Imaginechina / AFP

I was a member of the Quizzing Society of one of India’s premier private technology institutions. Our fund-deprived club cherished a hand-me-down buzzer-set as our sole valuable possession until one day it became dysfunctional.

Appalled by the repair-price demands, I pitched the idea of repairing it ourselves. However, every single electronics engineer in the club promptly turned down my suggestion.

It was not until years later that I realized that contrary to what I thought then, they were quite reasonable in doing so. Their cold reception didn’t deter my overenthusiastic self from referring to a number of websites, manuals, and video tutorials on similar circuits, to little avail, except perhaps for noting the fact that the instructors were seldom Indian. With a bruised ego, I soon gave up the pursuit. 

Evaluating the consequences of the anti-China social-media outrage in the wake of a series of border confrontations, alleged encroachments, and diplomatic standoffs, weighing in on the viability of the non-existent alternatives, I wonder if this futile pursuit will leave us Indians exhausted and with bruised egos.

I watch Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the leader of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) whose subordinates routinely call for a boycott of Chinese goods, address his citizens, asking them to become “self-reliant.” He is the same man whose advent to power witnessed a steep ascent in the skewed bilateral trade with China.

China is not polarizing among his supporters nor is his own stand on the issue inconsistent, it’s just that with China, Modi prefers to put forward two opposite faces, one for diplomatic, strategic and defense affairs, the other for economic and trade affairs, each blissfully ignorant of the existence of the other.

It’s convenient for BJP leaders to glorify the boycott of China in favor of indigenous alternatives, but it is the common man who would have a tough time seeking, securing, and affording non-Chinese substitutes for their everyday utilities.

From decorative lights, showpieces, toys, and festive idols to mobile phones, Chinese-made goods are inexpensive and convenient. They have brought widespread accessibility to a wide range of products and amenities to the lower strata, to a great extent democratizing consumer utilities.

The diversity and prerogative of choice that once remained the sole entitlement of the reasonably well-off is now available to the social bedrock as well. A boycott of Chinese goods would directly mean depriving the economically underprivileged classes of their newfound mobility.

It takes nothing for a politician to type a “boycott China” tweet from his iPhone, but it is a tall order for a domestic helper to seek an affordable non-Chinese smartphone. It is nonetheless undeniable that whether reasonable or fickle, viable or foolhardy, consequential or futile, there’s a sizable mobilization of public sentiment against China.

The boycott enthusiasm of the middle- and upper-class nationalist crusaders is, however, not shared by their leader, under whom trade with China has flourished. The most remarkable boom was experienced in the consumer electronics category. Modi’s arrival into office ushered in a flow of smartphone brands into India. Electronics account for more than a quarter of Chinese imports to India.

It is well known that India lags behind China in the electronics sector. A major part of the problem lies in India’s flawed electronics engineering education system.

What sets engineers apart from scientists is their being problem solvers. But the problem lies in, well, the “problems.”

Before I clarify what I mean, here’s a classic academic joke: A mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer are given the task of finding how high a particular red rubber ball will bounce when dropped from a given height on to a given surface.

The mathematician derives the elasticity of the ball from its chemical makeup, derives the equations to determine how high it will bounce and calculates it.

The physicist takes the ball into the lab, measures its elasticity, and plugs the variables into a formula.

The engineer looks it up in his red-rubber-ball book.

It might sound like something that pokes fun at engineers, but it is in fact a holistic interpretation of the definitive distinction between scientists and engineers, and the very scope of the latter.

Engineers need to solve problems that theoreticians and scientists are impractically nitpicking about. Problems that do not need to be approached ab initio, that is, by first principles. The exact scope and salience of an engineer lies in his realism, adaptability, and dynamism.

Derivative and rigorous mathematics, redundant or multifarious theoretical gymnastics, too extensive theoretical insight, and a nagging itch for completeness that are not relevant to quickly performing optimally accurate calculations are thus downright wasteful to say the least. Unfortunately, those factors still comprise a large chunk of contemporary engineering education in India.

The Intel 8080. Consider having to memorize the dissection of this intricate machine only never to use the knowledge in your career. Photo: Konstantin Lanzet / Creative Commons

The problem with the way electronics engineering is taught in India is that the right problems are never posed. Consider the Intel 8080 or the MOS Technology 6502, which for all intents and purposes are 40-legged chips, and to a layman seem nothing more than scary spider-like thingies.

In a typical electronics-engineering examination, you’d likely be quizzed about the exact function of each of its 40 pins. Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? The portion of one’s memory and attention that is diverted to learning something that can simply be found in reference manuals or a textbook appendix could have been better occupied and devoted.

Even if the student were to become a repair technician he wouldn’t be required to store the function of each of the parts of the dozens of varieties of chips in his mind. Instead, asking the student how he would use the integrated circuit to create a device would have been a hundredfold more stimulating, constructive, and productive.

In essence, electronic engineers are expected to be a lot of things – electricians, technicians, assembly-line workers, solid-state physicists, programmers, and even calculators – and end up being none of those proficiently. Add to that the fact that electronics engineering as a standalone branch seldom exists, being invariably coupled with electrical, communications, or instrumentation, as if electronics weren’t an extensive enough field in itself.

Even when practical problems are posed they inadvertently end up being bland, theoretical, studies. Under the pretext of testing the “hands-on” ability of students, professors end up testing their ability to read a standard table or chart.

Jigyasa Singh, an engineer who recently joined an eminent software giant, reminisced that the curriculum and, more important, the teaching and training paradigm failed to evoke in her a passion for the discipline. “Training” in any sense of the word was practically absent, nominal at best, and the professors always seem emotionally uninvested, distant, inaccessible, and aloof.

There was nothing about the education imparted that fostered an interest or attachment with the discipline, nor was the milieu of either placements or higher education systematic, relevant, lucrative, or reliable enough for one to stick dedicatedly to their core discipline, the least they can expect after covering one of the most difficult and extensive curricula of all.

Moreover, students were, unlike with coding tests in computer science, judged invariably and indiscriminately on their grade points rather than their proficiencies and skills.

One doesn’t need to know electronics to see her point. It’s validated by Facebook pages that share engineering memes. If you have even fleetingly observed the nature of posts shared on such pages you can easily recall that very few of them are about electronics engineering and the ones that exist invariably vent frustration.

With computer, mechanical or civil engineering, it is not uncommon to come across wholesome memes making witty puns and references, and poking jests pertaining to specific topics, chapters, items, and props from the textbooks, besides quirks about the discipline. With electronics you would seldom if ever encounter anything such, especially in-subject references.

In general, students of electronics engineering are so indifferent to and uninvolved in their discipline that they don’t even seek respite and solace in humor. It most certainly is high time for introspection on part of curriculum designers and selectors if their students don’t even feel like talking about their academic pursuit. 

Under the condition of preserving anonymity, I interviewed another electronics and communications engineering (ECE) graduate from a leading technology college of Eastern India. He happens to be a top-ranked grad and a perfect candidate for employers.

After he told me that the single biggest problem facing ECE students was the generation lag between what they study at college and what they encounter in the industry, I asked him if he had received any hands-on experience, a teaser of industry-level work in their stipulated laboratory and practical classes.

When he asked, “How hands-on?” my clarification was, “Soldering your connections on circuit boards.”

“I swear I have never held a soldering iron in my life,” he said.

It’s the electronic-engineering equivalent of a chemical engineer professing to have never used glassware, or a mechanical engineer admitting to have never wielded a wrench in the workshop.

He also pointed out the poor teaching quality and a vicious cycle of frustration that develops in electronics engineering academia owing to the extensiveness of studies that they have to perform, often irrelevant to their realm of specialization.

Postgraduate students who are frustrated with the indiscriminateness of curricular requirements transition into lax and deficient teachers, passing down the frustration and general sense of unease to their students when they become professors.

Publication requirements for appointment in academia force young researchers to resort to poor, unoriginal, lackluster combinatorial novelties such as fusing two circuits together or performing the same analysis for a number of specific circuits to yield a number of publications all along the same lines.

Electronics engineering in India wants you to possess four proficiencies – encyclopedic knowledge, theoretical rigor and intricacy, calculative acumen and ardor, as well as pragmatic flexibility. None of the other engineering branches demand even three of these.

“Those who design the syllabi of electronics engineering courses should take a lesson from the discipline itself. Electronics has a wide diversity of component types, subtypes and specifications. There’s nothing that suits all. Even a transistor can do only three things,” the ECE graduate said.

(The transistor is a versatile component that can act as a switch, an amplifier, and an oscillator under different configurations.)

He recalled the syllabus of his course as being anachronistic and irrelevant, overburdened with classical theory, and failing to impart any in-hand practical industry-oriented skill that would be useful to the graduate in pursuing a core career, leading to an overwhelming majority abandoning core electronics and going for IT companies.

Even those who opt for core jobs enter software simulation and testing, and entering the hardware field is a rarity. Lack of curriculum updates and a lax, laggard habituation to read age-old recycled, lackluster presentations lifted off the Internet or borrowed from colleagues fail to arouse any interest and evoke any passion toward the discipline. This is largely responsible for failing to retain graduates within the field, with most digressing to learning computer languages and coding to get placed in software firms.

Even the purpose of using PowerPoint presentations – summarization and saving time – is defeated, because teachers merely read off the presentation, and the slideshow is accessible later, so it kills the motivation of the students.

What is meant to be an evocative, objective modular summary is expanded and stretched to fill the entire class duration.

We also discussed how in his four years of studying communications engineering, he never gained any insight into the most fundamental of concepts such as why radio waves are employed in communication and how penetration power and range of electromagnetic signals in various media vary with the frequency of the radiation.

“The worst part is, we never spared a thought to these questions. The teaching methodology killed our curiosity to the point that natural questions no longer arose. It never occurred to me until you asked.”

Nonetheless, he had to internalize a huge corpus of jargon, terminology, instruments and parameters.

“Our education is in limbo just like the industry – we do not know why we are doing something, nor do we know where or how will we use it, we just know the ‘whats,’ it’s too stagnant for such a dynamic field,” he summarized.

Moreover, not a single company from the communications field had arrived on the campus for recruitment in recent memory, making something that purportedly comprised half of the discipline standing for no utility at the end of the term.

The viability of the Indian electronics industry is far from being a question of supply and demand – India isn’t even sure if it’s producing what it wishes to supply.

This is the first article of a two-part series. To read Part 2, click here.

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Pitamber Kaushik

Pitamber Kaushik is a columnist, an independent journalist, a writer, and an amateur researcher. His writing has appeared in more than 60 outlets in 30 countries.