September 15 is observed as Engineer’s Day in India to mark the birth anniversary of Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, a civil engineer and statesman. Sir MV, as he is also known, made contributions to several technical projects in his career in Hyderabad, Mysore, Maharashtra and Orissa. In 1955, he was awarded the Bharat Ratna.
Sir MV’s career spanned 34 years and after taking a voluntary retirement from state service in 1918, he continued work including on the Mysore Iron and Steel Works and established the Sir Jayachamarajendra Occupational Institute in Bangalore in 1943, which was later renamed to Sir Jayachamarajendra Polytechnic. This institute was meant to impart special training to technicians keeping in mind the impending industrial development of India.
His works, “Reconstructing India” and “Planned Economy of India” were published in 1920 and 1934, respectively.
During his three-month visit to Japan in 1898, Visvesvaraya realised that education largely determines the health of an economy. In his, “Memoirs of Working Life”, which was published in 1951, he noted that while in Japan there were some 1.5 million girls in school, there were only over 400,000 of them in Indian schools, “notwithstanding the vastly greater population in our country”. Visvesvaraya was instrumental in the setting up of the University of Mysore in July 1916, as he was the Dewan of Mysore at the time. He believed that the aim of an educational institution should be in line with the “state of the country’s civilisation and of its material prosperity”, and that the conditions inside a university should not be very different from the ones a student has to encounter in real life.
Life in Work
After completing his engineering from the Poona College of Science, Visvesvaraya accepted an offer to work as an Assistant Engineer in the Public Works Department of the Government of Bombay. He was 22 at the time and one of his first projects was to construct a pipe syphon across one of Panjra river’s channels. On November 15, 1909 he joined the Mysore service as Chief Engineer, ultimately assuming the position of the 19th Dewan of Mysore. He took voluntary retirement in 1918 because he did not agree with the proposal to set aside state jobs for “non-brahmin” community. After his retirement he presided as chairman or became a member of various committees including the Bombay Technical and Industrial Education Committee, Bombay University Committee for promoting chemical industries and the Cauvery Canal Committee.
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Some of his significant works include the introduction of the block system of irrigation in the Deccan canals in 1899, solving the problem of the “muddy and discoloured” water in the city of Sukkur located on the banks of the Indus river and inventing automatic gates meant to regulate the flow of water in reservoirs, which is patented. The Krishnaraja Sagar Dam in Karnataka was the first to install these gates in the 1920s.
Visvesvaraya’s foreign travels seem to be more than just time-off, after all, he has detailed a chapter on them in his memoirs. While outside India, he fully intended to observe how the industrialised countries of America and Europe worked. He travelled outside six times, out of which he traveled to the United States five times. In 1908, after retiring from the Bombay service, he intended to spend two years in Europe and America “usefully”. His trip was cut short due to an “engineering problem” he was called upon to deal with in the wake of the destructive floods that struck Hyderabad in September 1908.
Even so, he writes, “In the course of this tour, which was most interesting, I spent some time in examining engineering developments in water-supply, dams, drainage, irrigation…” In Italy, he studied for two months the soil erosion problem and their irrigation and drainage works. While there, he also took a trip to the sewers of Milan, accompanied by the Chief Engineer responsible for the Milan Drainage Works and asked him some particularly “large questions” which the officer was confused about, since he understood that British officers would be responsible for all such higher work. To this Visvesvaraya responded that Indians’ services were appreciated and utilised if they had the necessary qualifications and worked hard.
His book “Reconstructing India” was written over a period of ten months in London soon after his visit to the United States during which he tried to study the country’s financial position and also met the head of the Federal Reserve Board in Washington and Secretary for Commerce, Herbert Hoover, with whom he had a long conversation on the different aspects of national development.