For someone like me who didn’t plan a professional career, the last 10 years have been nothing but exciting. In school, I never thought I’d get into an engineering college. Given my family’s financial situation, I thought I would end up at the local Chennai college pursuing a BSc, maybe later an MSc. Perhaps, if I was lucky, a government job would beckon thereafter. That defined a good "career" in the family circle. But by the end of Class XII, the engineering bug bit my father. And after a relative told him that engineering was beyond the reach of lower middle-class Dalits, he had a point to prove, and I decided to help him.
I joined a coaching class for the Tamil Nadu Professional Courses Entrance Exam (TNPCEE). That’s when I encountered words like dote 1 (Department of Technical Education’s nomenclature for free seats), DOTE 2, DOTE 3 (payment seats), cut-offs, quotas and management seats. The results came in. I scored a disappointing 203 out of 300. My anxious father and I would go to the counselling venue at the Anna University campus everyday to see which colleges were filled up and which ones still had seats available. With my cut-off marks, the choice was limited but my caste helped me get admission in a Chennai college.
For a Kendriya Vidyalaya student who paid a fee of merely Rs 15 a quarter, even the highly subsidised Rs 18,000 annual fee in the free-seats category was steep. The fee, however, was far less than the Rs 50,000-60,000 OC candidates had to fork out. Those coming through the management quota paid more than Rs 2 lakh a year. But despite the reservation for SCs, it was evident the upper castes students had greater awareness about an engineering career. They weren’t complaining much about the fees either.
During my first few days in college, I realised that everyone gauged the other by his or her cut-off marks; I guess I had the lowest and, initially, I was intimidated to hear that a few classmates had scored up to 280 plus. However, there wasn’t any hint of discrimination on the basis of my caste.
Private engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu operate like small-scale businesses with disproportionately high turnover. Their marketability is determined by the numbers getting distinctions, the number of students going abroad for higher studies. Most of these colleges come up with bare minimum facilities, just about meeting AICTE requirements. Once revenues go up, more "facilities" are added. My college had a few good lecturers but many mediocre and not-so-good ones.
The most important lesson I learned the first year was that a majority of students in state board schools focus on scoring marks rather than actual learning. That was especially true of students from rural areas, who had good cut-off marks, but struggled with conceptual and abstract subjects like fluid mechanics. Having done well in my first year and being a Dalit student, I got a Rs 800 a month scholarship from NTPC. Most students who really wanted to do well overcame the limitations and challenges of the system and the infrastructure.
Only a small percentage (less than 10 per cent) of my batchmates landed good jobs. Most engineering colleges in TN don’t focus on developing the soft skills required to showcase a person’s ability and his technical expertise. That’s where students from city colleges and premier institutes enjoy an advantage. The job market doesn’t favour any caste. In fact, when Infosys interviewed me for a job, my caste never seemed to be a factor.
Having worked for over five years and after interacting with freshly-minted engineers from all over India, I’m certain Tamil Nadu is doing a good job in producing a large number of engineering graduates to meet market demands. The easy access to technical education in the state has made a perceptible change in the lives of many Dalits and backward-caste families, as it has in my case.
(The writer passed out in 2000 and currently works for Infosys)
Also See: The other side of reservation coin