Dr Baldev Raj: India's 'Materials Man'

Portrait of Baldev Raj against and blue background.

24 June 2014


Dr Baldev Raj is President of the Indian National Academy of Engineering and a member of the esteemed Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Search Group. We interviewed him at the Royal Academy of Engineering Conference: Distributed manufacturing – opportunities for growth (perspectives from the UK and India).

What is the ‘next big thing’ in engineering?

The 'next big thing' in engineering should be something that significantly improves people’s lives. This is really important now because, in the past, people could live the same deprived lives and nobody knew any better. In our globally connected world we can see clearly the suffering of others and must act to stop it.

Engineers give people the capacity to dream. They provide the means for education, health-care, agriculture, giving people opportunities that they did not have before. But, our challenge is that this humanitarian engineering is not glamorous. Moving a satellite or sending someone into space is amazing but we have to think about whether it mitigates suffering around the world. I want to make sure that when I die I have given more to society than I have taken away and that is what engineers should be motivated to do.

Who inspired you to become an engineer and help people?

My mother! She didn’t even finish school but when I was small boy I would always read late at night and she would bring me a cup of milk and say, “Baldev, you must to change the world”. I asked her what I should study and she said “Something that improves people’s quality of life.” This is very fashionable now, every company says, “Engineering a better quality of life”, everybody uses the same language, but my mother told me this when I was seven years old.

That shows just how important parents are in influencing a child’s ambitions. Who would you say is your engineering hero?

That’s a difficult question because many people have inspired me over the years. But, I remember when I was finishing my degree, an engineer called Homi Bhabha was starting the nuclear energy programme in India. You have to understand that in the ‘40s and ‘50s India had no technology – we didn’t even make screwdrivers! So, I thought this guy is either completely mad or brilliant and either way I had to work for him. He is now seen as the Father of Indian Nuclear Technology. Thanks to my experience in the Centres envisioned by Homi Bhabha and with people nurtured by him, I worked in so many fields and learned to work in a team and really contribute.

To finish our interview, what is the most important advice you would give young people today?

Be bold in your dreams – don’t let people pull you down. This world is full of mediocrity – it is not a vice to be foolish or brilliant but mediocrity is a vice. If you have an idea you must be bold and ready to face eminent failure. I call failures eminent failures and mediocre failures, I don’t mind failing, but I always want to think big and fail big!

Young people should persevere and be determined to succeed. Often, the difference between those who win the big prizes – the Nobels and the Queen Elizabeth Prize – and those who don't, is perseverance.

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