Trials and Tribulations of an Engineer in Public Service.

My Dad retired as the Chief Engineer (the head of the Civil Engineering function), ISRO. The first big chunk of his career was as a Civil Engineer in the Military Engineering Services. After retirement from ISRO, some twenty years back, he has been helping a few governmental and quasi governmental organizations. Most of this work is in setting up colleges or hospitals.

He wrote a book and called it “Trials and Tribulations of an Engineer in Public Service”. He started writing it with young Civil Engineers in mind and at some stage he started feeling that all he wanted was that his grand children and other kids in the extended family read the book. A few of us feel this book is worth publishing (after a few more rounds of polishing).

The book starts with a bare bones description of what must have been a typical story of a child growing up in a poor Indian household around the time India wrested independence. It talks about how different people, at different times, intervened to ensure that my dad could continue with his studies. The book includes stories I have grown up on, including some about the Border Roads Organization (BRO)/ Indian Army building roads in the Himalayas and also about the Indian Space Research Organization’s spectacular progress.

I am sharing the first two chapters here and request your feedback.

Contents

  1. Introduction.
  2. The Background.
  3. My College Days at Government Victoria College – Palakkad.
  4. Student Life in College of Engineering – Thiruvananthapuram.
  5. Start as a Regular Engineer in Government Service. 23
  6. The Adventurous Tenure with the Border Roads Organization.
  7. Reluctant Return to Military Engineering Services.
  8. My Early Days with the ISRO/DOS.
  9. My Long and Fruitful Association with Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC)
  10. My Stint as the Chief Engineer –DOS/ ISRO.
  11. Appendix.

1.    Introduction

After 37 years of government service, I superannuated from ISRO/Department of Space on April 30, 1998. This was followed by a short stint of six months as an Advisor at ISRO and then I settled down for a quiet, retired life in Thiruvananthapuram with my family. Soon I realized that idling did not go well with me. So, working with Institution of Engineers – India (IEI), TVM and CERCON (IEI’s consultancy wing), I tried to organize a short term course on construction management for field engineers. In spite of their best efforts to attract attention of all the public works departments under Govt. of Kerala towards this initiative, the response turned out to be lukewarm. This was rather strange, considering the general perception that much remains to be done to improve the level of performance in public works. Due to the lack of interest, I had to drop the idea of sharing my long experience in project management with young field engineers.

During the next few years, I was associated with a few public institutions as Chief Consultant for setting up their infrastructural facilities. This gave me another opportunity to guide and direct a number of young engineers. We established half a dozen educational institutions for engineering and medicine, spread all across Kerala. It was a very satisfying experience, particularly so because all these facilities could be established within stipulated parameters of time, cost and quality.

Subsequent to this assignment, I was involved in a similar, but a more challenging assignment. This was to do with the setting up of a premier national educational institute that was to do fundamental research in basic sciences. A few years into this assignment, I chose to quit for want of freedom in directing the activities in the implementation phase. These post-retirement engagements, made me feel very strongly about the crying need to expose young engineers to the realities in the construction scene.

I share the general perception prevalent in the construction industry that most of the fresh engineers coming into the market are not employable. The necessary attributes for occupying the positions on offer, are often found lacking. Obviously, this points to the lacunae in the existing curriculum for engineering education. This comes out painfully during interviews we conduct to select engineers to handle construction works. Often they are under the wrong notion that some theoretical knowledge and familiarity with computer applications would suffice to carry out their project responsibilities. Little do they realize that the jobs they are to handle have much to do with their attitude to work and integrity, besides commitment towards the expectations of the society around. It is not as though there are no role models to emulate. We have around us engineers like Sri. E. Sreedharan, the ‘Metro man’, a highly visible role model for performance excellence and sensitivity towards societal needs. Unfortunately, the times are such that the youngsters neither have any motivation to look around for such genuine role models nor, do they get necessary guidance from elders in this regard.

Everyone bemoans this fall in professional standards and social commitment, but seldom attempt to stem the rot in any effective manner. This being the ambience, I tried to revive the earlier idea of sharing my experience in Project Management with young field engineers. Sadly, this attempt also did not fructify and hence I dropped the idea of pursuing it any further.

This experience prompted me to think of recording my long experience as an engineer in public service. Indeed there has been compelling suggestions in this regard from some of my friends, colleagues and even a few from my family circle. This attempt may appear preposterous for I have no claim to have accomplished anything great or unique. Yet I do feel it worthwhile considering my background and the vast experience I have had.

In spite of being from a very humble beginning and schooling in a village setting, I happened to become a graduate in Civil engineering. I seldom pursued studies seriously. However, in hindsight, I see that I did imbibe certain values and social awareness. I have come to believe this was thanks to my upbringing and the social milieu I grew up in. Probably this aspect kept me in good stead while pursuing my career as an engineer. Being in public service I sincerely tried to meet the broad objectives of whatever position I held. This ensured that I acquired a good amount of engineering knowledge and management skills while on the job. Sometimes, the learnings were from my failures as also those of others around me. Being honest and steadfast in my approach, I eventually got considerable recognition, though there were many pitfalls and challenges that I had to encounter. In other words, mine was a fruitful and highly satisfying career, despite my humble background and ordinary education. I therefore hope that my experience may have some useful lessons to the budding engineers entering the profession and hence the attempt to record the salient aspects of my experience as an engineer in Govt. service.

In writing this, I am relying on my memory for a great part. My attempt is to show that dealing with the inevitable trials and tribulations is what being a professional is about. In the final reckoning, it is dealing with these challenges while keeping the society’s best interest in mind that makes one’s professional life meaningful.

2.    The Background

During the monsoon of 1961, I was home at my native village Edathiruthy. I had appeared for the final examination in B.Sc. Engineering (Civil) at College of Engineering Thiruvananthapuram, and hoped to be a graduate engineer soon. The wet weather and the inevitable lull in action after exams ensured that boredom soon set in. Even as I was whiling away time, doing nothing worthwhile all day, occasional childhood memories kept popping up. Some of them were steeped in nostalgia.

I remembered that my childhood had been rather hard. I was a kid in a marginal farmer’s family of ten members. Keeping poverty at bay in those days was impossible. But then, same was the case with almost all the families in the neighborhood. Lack of alternate means forced people in the village to eke out a living through agriculture and related activities. Some people owned land while others took land on lease from a couple of big land lords in the village. The Second World War and its aftermath had added to the miseries of the entire population. Some governmental help did come in the form of supply of rice through ration shops. The quality of rice supplied through these shops was often very bad. Despite the hardships all the kids in the neighborhood used to attend the nearby Sreenarayana Lower Primary school, Edathiruthy. It often felt that this was not for any serious studies, but to pass time.

In some ways, our household situation was particularly bad, thanks to the hasty partition of our ancestral property. My father was the eldest among five brothers. He chose to give the ancestral home to his brothers and move out of the on his own. He managed to set up a thatched shed in his share of land, and we shifted to our new home. In fact, my father had been compelled to return from Ceylon, where he was working, to deal with the situation arising out of the partitioning of the ancestral properties. It had become impossible for his family, comprising my mother and five children, to stay on at our ancestral home, along with families of my other uncles.

At Ceylon, my father was employed as a postman. His income was not adequate to cater to our day to day needs. As a result, we had to go through a long period of poverty and deprivation. Once he returned from Ceylon, even this source of income dried up. With hardly any support coming in our way from any external source the entire family had to work hard daily on our piece of land. The emphasis was on enhancing yield from the available coconut trees, the only cash crop under cultivation then. In addition to this, my mother and eldest sister used to toil during their spare time, often including nights, in making mats out of leaves of Pandanus plants. These were grown as thorny hedges at the boundaries of our land holding. The thin and fine strands prepared out of these leaves were dried and knitted into mats. These were in great demand in those days. My elder brother had to sell these at the village market. The weekly sales fetched quite a handsome income, and this came handy for my mother to meet sundry house hold requirements. Thus, in a way our overall condition became tolerable, and my father decided to return to Ceylon. He desperately wanted to give us a better life than the one we were leading.

When my father returned to Ceylon, I was in the third standard at the nearby school.  Compared to the difficult conditions at home, the trip to school was full of thrill and fun. There were no roads connecting the school with our neighborhood. The journey to the school was through the intervening households. En route, my friends and I used to engage in plucking cashew, mango fruits or some other fruits, depending upon the season. The lush Kerala village side almost invited children to do this. Like children everywhere, we also we indulged in many harmless pranks as well. And, as happens universally, some of these activities attracted admonition from elders around. Occasionally we were chased by some household dogs. None of these however deterred us from our routine; but on the contrary added to the thrill.

Over time, our household conditions were getting more difficult. The children were growing up and the size of the family had also increased. Despite all the hard work by all in the family, my mother was finding it extremely tough to make both ends meet. My father was unable to give the financial support expected. We had reached a stage where we could not even afford adequate food.

One of the most poignant memories I carry is from those difficult days. One day, I felt miserable at the very sight of the usual rice porridge being served to me for breakfast. In disgust, I threw it out in the open and started damaging the vegetable plants growing in our kitchen garden. A nasty scuffle followed between my eldest sister and me. The attendant commotion attracted neighbors to the scene but my apparent foul mood prevented them from interfering. Not satisfied with flattening all plants in the kitchen garden, I got hold of a stick and went on beating my mother with it in frenzy. At this point my eldest sister overpowered me and with the help of some neighbors dispossessed the stick. I felt wretched and utterly drained out, forcing me to resign to a dark corner in our hut and refusing to take the lunch offered or talk with anyone. By the evening mother was by my side crying uncontrollably, but cajoling me all the while to take food. I was so remorseful that I could do nothing but cry. The memory of this wretched incident was to haunt me for a very long time. Not for anything else but for the thought of the suffering my mother had to go through in those difficult days. And, this was just for our survival.

A few months later my father left Ceylon for good and returned home. He was forced to take this decision primarily because my grandfather, living at our ancestral home, was ailing and was not getting enough care. My father’s brothers were all in Ceylon. My father was the eldest and he felt it was his duty to take care of his ailing father. On his return, we shifted back to our ancestral home and once again became a part of the joint family. Over a period of time, things stabilized and overall life started looking up. As for my studies, neither my parents nor I, were very serious about it. Eking out a living took all our time and energy. Fortunately there was not much that was taught or to be learnt except Malayalam language, Social Studies and basic Arithmetic. For some of, us memorizing what was taught daily did not pose any serious problem. By the time I was into fourth standard I was rated as one among the best students in my class. An incident that happened during this period also contributed towards creating such an impression. It was one of those small acts whereby some teachers exert a deep influence with their students.

After my fourth standard final exams, our class teacher was announcing our results. Before starting, she cast a pitiable look at me and said that I had scored a zero in mathematics. I felt terrible. For the rest of the class, it was quite a surprise. The teacher then went on announcing marks of my classmates. After everyone’s marks were announced, followed by a deliberate pause, the teacher came to me. Giving my answer paper she went on to announce that I was the only one who secured hundred out of hundred. It was huge a relief for me, and I could see all my class mates looking towards me. My teacher advised them to emulate me.

In my fifth standard, the head master of the school happened to be our class teacher. He was also the school manager. Because of his other responsibilities, he was always short of time for teaching. He would rush through his classes. Often, he would leave the class, ordering the students to read up a particular lesson and be ready to answer questions on his return. This ended up in frequent punishment of the students who could not give correct answers to questions he asked. He was a terror. The punishments he meted out were often severe and included beating with a cane stick. The students had to suffer this all through the year. I used to escape the punishments often, mainly because I was able to give correct answers most of the time. As a consequence, there was an impression among the students and all the teachers that I was a bright student.

When I finished fifth standard my father thought that I was sufficiently grown up and wanted me to assist him in the family’s farming activities. My elder brother had been sent to Ceylon a couple of years earlier. Partly due to the insistence of some of our relatives and partly due to our poverty, he was sent there in search of a job. He was all of thirteen years when this happened. The parents’ hope that some financial support would be derived from the move did not happen even after two years. It was thus natural for my father to expect me to assist him in the household work. The thoughts of studying further paled into insignificance against the sheer survival needs of the family. I was not at all happy with the situation, but had to accept the reality. I slowly adapted to the roll of being my father’s assistant, in the farming operations of our family.

In about a month’s time the schools reopened. I saw the kids in our neighborhood, including some of my classmates, going to their respective schools. I felt very bad that I was not one among them. Seeing my awful mood and sheer desperation, my father allowed me to join the nearest higher secondary school at Perumpadappu. Later on, I came to know that a couple of my teachers along with a few other well-wishers had pleaded my case with my father. Fortunately for me, these were people who could convince my father that I was a bright student and should be allowed to pursue further studies.

The next three years was not particularly eventful. Besides going to school I was able to attend to the household chores daily. My duties started at dawn. Every morning, I would take a pair of bullocks to our paddy field about a kilometer away from home. I would then help my father with various farming activities till it was time for me to leave for school. This used to be my routine during the paddy cultivation season. During the dry season, I had to join elders in the family to water our coconut trees. The water had to be fetched from nearby ponds. I would fill two earthen pots with water in the pond, climb up the steps from the pond and then water each tree. The whole process was quite tiring. Every day, it took two hours in the morning and two to three hours in the evening to complete the watering. In the evening, after watering the plants, I had to rush to our family temple. The temple was located on a plot of size one acre. It was my responsibility to clean the temple premises, light the lamps and perform “Pooja”. The temple was a legacy handed down from the good old days of the family, when the family fortunes had been brighter.

Despite the hard daily routine, I was able to do well in the year ending examinations. I was being seen as a good student and began earning some recognition for this. At the end of third year, I appeared for the ESLC public examination. We were part of the then Madras state. When the exam results came out, we found that our school had drawn a blank. This was not unusual since the ESLC examination used to be notoriously tough. Hardly one or two could pass from our school in the previous years. After a lapse of about a week, to the surprise of all, a redirected communication from a similar school in north Malabar was received at our school. It conveyed a different result. The result showed that out of over forty students who had appeared for the exam, I had secured ‘full-pass’, thus making me eligible for admission to eighth standard in High schools. Unfortunately, by this time the admissions to the nearby Govt. high school at Valappad had closed. For the second time in my life, some of my teachers and other well-wishers decided to intervene directly. I do not know how they did this, but I managed to get admission for me at R M high school, Peringanam.

RM High School was situated a good five miles away from our home. The route was mainly a sandy track and the daily walk to school and back, was quiet exhausting. Yet, as the days passed the journey became enjoyable, thanks to the company I had. Soon, we were a group of four boys who would walk to school and back, together. En-route, we used to indulge in various harmless heroics, besides having lively discussions on various topics. It felt as if every topic under the Sun came up in our discussions. On special occasions, we even took breaks on our return journey and played cards sitting under some shady tree. Towards the final year, I also started playing ball badminton at school. The craze I developed for this game occasionally ended up in my reaching home very late at night. On a few such occasions, my mother came in searching for me along my regular route. For visibility, she would bring a crude fire lit torch, prepared out of coconut leaves. On such occasions I cursed myself, but the pattern inevitably repeated because I was hooked to the game.

I completed my SSLC exam in April 1955 and with this, my days as a high school student came to an end. The result was out in a month. I could secure a pass with fairly good marks. Somewhere deep within me, I felt I could have done even better if I were not to deal with so many other diversions. Moreover, I also knew that my family did not have the wherewithal to send me to any college for further studies. The huge expenditure towards boarding and lodging was clearly beyond us.

Around this time, a family friend suggested that I should attempt for selection as a cadet in the Indian Navy. Though I was not interested, my father took me to Ernakulam, where the recruitment was taking place. Luckily I was rejected in the initial screening stage itself as my physical attributes were far below the standards prescribed.

The failure of my attempt to join the Indian Navy eventually led me to College of Engineering – Trivandrum.

When I look back, I see that a series of seemingly improbable events led me to an extremely satisfying career as an employee of the Indian government. It was my good fortune that at critical junctures, there were people who intervened to ensure that I could put the next step forward.


Here are a few pages you may like:

ISRO

Border roads

The great derangement