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Engineering for Rural Development in India

April 19, 2017

Meeting with village women in Waigaon, India

About Me

Tavish is a fourth-year Mechanical Engineering major and Theatre minor from Seattle, Washington. He is currently on co-op at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay doing research in the Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas. His co-op projects include designing a solar concentrator for spice roasting, performing an energy audit of a spice roasting factory, and designing a turmeric plant for installation in an Indian village. Tavish has completed previous co-ops at Apple and Gloucester Engineering, both in manufacturing. When on campus at Northeastern, Tavish is a trombone player in the Wind Ensemble, volunteers at Boston Building Resources in Roxbury, and loves to cook. He is inspired to pursue engineering for rural development in his career.

Engineering for Rural Development in India

Almost 70% of India’s rapidly-growing population lives in rural areas, the majority of whom rely on agriculture for their subsistence and livelihood. These populations often have limited resources—electricity, water, income for capital investment—and thus require appropriately designed solutions to technological problems. The Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas (CTARA) at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT Bombay), where I am working for my spring 2017 co-op, aims to do just this. CTARA works to design appropriate technological solutions for Indians living in rural areas by interacting with village populations throughout the engineering design process. At CTARA, I am working on three main projects: design of a parabolic trough solar concentrator for spice roasting, an energy audit of a spice roasting factory, and the design and installation of a turmeric processing plant in an Indian village.

During my time in India, I have learned that in addition to technical knowledge there are three keys to successful engineering for rural applications: the ability to build relationships with people of all backgrounds, an understanding of business practices in India, and project management skills and adaptability to aid in dealing with inexact timing. In this blog post, I will explore my development of these skills in the Indian context.

To develop a successful product or system for a rural population, building relationships with villagers is important because interacting with end users throughout the engineering process ensures solutions are technologically, culturally, and economically appropriate. To gain the depth of knowledge required to develop a useful product, it is necessary to forge strong relationships with villagers. Products designed without an understanding of the end user population may be technologically sufficient but culturally lacking. For example, women in different areas of India wear their saris, or traditional dresses, in different manners; due to the wrapping of their saris, some women have physical limitations like being unable to use steps. If a turmeric processing plant is designed for operation by these women, it must not have any steps, lest it be rendered useless. In addition to maintaining solid relationships with villagers, to have success in engineering for rural development it is also important to build strong relationships with manufacturers and to have an understanding of how business is conducted in India.

Two key differences—in the realms of networking and professional communication—exist between how business has been conducted at my previous co-ops in the US and how business is conducted in India. Networking is crucial in India because business is generally conducted among friends. For example, each of the manufacturers I worked with during my co-op was a friend or a friend-of-a-friend of my advisor at IIT Bombay, Professor Vishal Sardeshpande. He taught me the importance of investing in relationships with people so that people will be willing to work together again in the future, regardless of the success of the current project. The friends I have made during my co-op at CTARA will be contacts for me the next time I return to India. As my network here continues to grow, my progress on future projects can be faster due to the strong relationships I have built. In addition to learning the importance of networking in the Indian context, I developed my professional communication skills at CTARA. Due to the often sparse internet connectivity in India, business is mainly conducted through phone calls rather than emails, as is common in the US. During previous co-ops, I learned to communicate succinctly and professionally via email; at CTARA, I have learned to apply these communication skills to phone calls. Additionally, I have developed my ability to communicate through the language barrier over the phone. Though phone network reliability is relatively strong in India, timing is unreliable because other facets of Indian life and unexpected events can cause delays without warning.

Project management is an important skill in India to ensure productivity despite the unpredictability of Indian timing. Unpredictable events that affect timing—which can be beneficial or detrimental—happen every day and can be due to a multitude of reasons including traffic, unexpected connections, train delays, and material unavailability. To continue making progress despite uncertain timing, I worked on multiple projects at one time at CTARA. Recently, when the manufacturing of my solar roaster prototype was delayed two days due to a late part delivery to the manufacturer, I focused my energy on writing a grant proposal for the solar roaster project, writing a summary of my recent visit to a turmeric processing plant, and analyzing data for a spice factory energy audit. By managing multiple projects at once, I avoided the frustration that often accompanies unanticipated delays. This multitasking has helped me develop project management skills, including time management and work prioritization. It has also led to simultaneously managing relationships with many manufacturers, villagers, professors, and students. Using project management skills to internalize and accept India’s unpredictable timing is crucial to success when working here.

My co-op at CTARA has been full of learning in both the technical realm and in the development of soft skills. During my co-op, I have learned about how turmeric is harvested and how to develop relationships with Indian villagers; how to design a solar concentrator and how to communicate over the phone in spite of the language barrier with Indian manufacturers; how to write a grant proposal and how to minimize the impact of uncertain timing by managing multiple projects simultaneously. I will soon begin my final year of Mechanical Engineering at Northeastern, which will include my Capstone design project. I am looking forward to applying the skills I have developed at CTARA to my remaining time at Northeastern and my career after college. Though the timing of future visits to India may be uncertain, the subject is certain—engineering for rural development.

CTARA workshop at IIT Bombay. Mumbai, India

 

Turmeric harvesting. Waigaon, India

 

Manufacturing of a parabolic trough
solar concentrator for spice roasting. Dhule, India

 

Riding in the back of a rickshaw-truck
to transport material to the
IIT Bombay campus. Mumbai, India