Training as a Gatekeeper at the Indo-German Factory

By Josefine Carla Hoffmann

Vocational education and training was an important part of Indo-German technical collaboration from the mid-1950s onwards. Companies and other institutions all over India collaborated with the West German state and its companies, rhetorically stressing the priority of skilling the workforce, amongst other things. This essay highlights how technical training was located between national and company strategies by being embedded in corporate communication and national narratives. Particularly, I look at the role training played, for institutions and individuals, in providing a mode of access to certain spaces, concrete and ideological.

In recent years, Bosch India has been promoting its efforts in skill development under hashtags like #SkillIndiaMission. High-quality online content supports this publicity work. This video, tagged #WeSkill, for instance, begins by telling us that only 25% of first time employment seekers in India are “skilled enough to be employable” and attributes to Bosch India an active role in realising the country’s potential. It introduces us to Pavan, Shreyas and Ramya, participants in three types of training schemes offered. Then, the video turns into a music piece. A professionally made Hindi song with the catchy chorus “Bosch India / skills India” tells us about difficulties, the determination and the success on the trainees’ paths: “The roads may be hard but we have passion” [1:02]; “We must fly like birds” [1:11]; “We are now going to win the game of life” [3:07]. Video footage shows the three trainees in diverse situations at their training facilities at Bosch India’s headquarters in Bengaluru. They are seen handling different kinds of technology, making use of classrooms and laboratories as day turns to night, interacting with trainers, all in all making the “hands-on experience” that motivated Ramya – according to her self-introduction – to join the apprenticeship program.

This kind of corporate communication, where individual success and company prestige jointly contribute to a larger national goal, rests on an imagery with a long history. In the following paragraphs, I engage with this history by spotlighting two industrial collaborations by Indian and West German companies, set up in the 1950s: the MICO-Bosch factory in Bangalore[1] and the Rourkela Steel Plant in Orissa. This essay provides a glimpse into various complex dynamics at play here: global and national pressures of modernisation and development, certified skills and knowledge being negotiated, and technical education reflecting the ideal employee. Corporate communication on training is to be understood in connection with these dynamics. This essay similarly intends to ask: In which manner was training in these two factories potentially a gatekeeper, regulating access to factory and industry, and national and individual narratives?

“Temples of modern India”: historical context

Jawaharlal Nehru was the first prime minister of independent India and voice of an envisioned ‘new’ India ‘catching up’ with industrial nations through rapid development planning. He famously called large industrial projects of the early 1950s such as dams and steel plants the “temples of modern India”.[2] Persisting for many years, this rhetoric reflected Nehru’s vision of taking “the task of nation building […] quite literally”.[3] India’s Second Five Year Plan (1956–1961), which focused on industrial growth, explicitly envisioned a “socialist pattern of society”[4] and was inspired by Soviet planning. However, political non-alignment with neither the so-called Western nor Eastern Bloc was another strategic basis. Options were kept open for economic collaborations with representatives of both ‘Blocs’, while foreign collaborations became an important part of industrialisation agendas and the path to the country’s aspired self-sufficiency.

In the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) for example, India’s political weight and navigation drove the will to collaborate.[5] Investments in the Indian industries were supposed to have positive effects on the Indian population and help them become capitalist by promoting a liberal market economy. Traditional and modern modes of life and work were contrasted in an undifferentiated way, where ‘modern’ meant industrial and European.[6] Rapid economic growth after the Second World War had increased self-confidence in the FRG. Involvement in large industrial projects abroad, especially by promoting the position of the West through industrialisation efforts, could serve as a perfect symbol of regained economic power and respect in the world.[7] For both countries the collaborations held various complex benefits.

From the mid-1950s onwards, the number of technical and financial collaborations between Indian and West German companies and governments increased.[8] At the same time, India was following the import substitution model of industrialisation, which forced foreign companies to invest in production and to produce machines and tools internally as well.[9] Additionally, in the rapid growing phases of capital-intensive industries, changing technology called for altered requirements for the workforce.

In the Indo-German context, financial investments in so-called human capital stressed the importance of practical skills in contrast to academic knowledge: Formal technical education in India mostly happened at the university level rather than through standardised training on the shop floors. However, university graduates were said to have little hands-on experience with machines and the absence of certified skilled workers was bemoaned by the Germans.[10]

Generally, workers were part of the discourse around nation building in India and the FRG alike. Facharbeiter, former trade apprentices of Germany’s vocational training system who mostly had their skills certified by the Chambers of Industry and Commerce, were credited with playing a vital role in the so-called economic miracle in the FRG. Similarly, Indian steel plant workers were seen as “nation builders in both the narrowest sense of physically enabling the manufacture of new industrial products and infrastructure and in the broadest sense of becoming the ideal ‘producer-patriots’ of the new nation”.[11] Skilling the workforce was thus not only a company, but a national goal.

“Source of development”: Rourkela Steel Plant

With steel and engineering factories prominent in the development discourse, factories and their training facilities were central spaces for these ideologies to play out. The Rourkela Steel Plant (RSP) was one of the first and most famous Indo-German industrial collaborations. Not only was it an enormous undertaking regarding its size – it included the construction of an entire city – but it also held massive symbolic value for India and the FRG. The private companies Krupp and Demag of West Germany and the Indian state-owned Hindustan Steel Ltd. were the main parties in the initial contract of 1953. Soon, the FRG included the plant in its official development aid programs. Numerous companies were part of the project throughout the 1950s and 1960s, amongst them Gutehoffnungshütte Oberhausen (GHH), which presented itself the very revealing way seen in Figure 1.

Fig. 1: GHH in India advertisement, published in Hunck, India Tomorrow, 1963, © Verlag Handelsblatt.

This advertisement (Fig. 1) presumably shows a German GHH-engineer with an Indian engineer who is looking at a technical drawing, and the scene can be assumed as Rourkela. The illustration is one example of many similar images. It depicts the German instructing the Indian in a friendly and personal manner – a commonly used motif concerning the steel plant from West German media.[12] The concept of ‘German expertise’ we see in the advertisement was often expressed in relation to practical knowledge, skill, and working with the hands. One demand by Germans was for Indian degree engineers to gain more practical experience with machines,[13] and numerous Indians applied to GHH as trainees, most of them university graduates.[14] At GHH, they were named Praktikanten, reiterating their purpose of gathering practical experience.

Along with industrial education, the arrival of modernity and progress was anticipated for the region around Rourkela. RSP was called an Entwicklungsherd[15], a source from which development would spread to the entire area around it. However, this rhetoric was misleading, as it did not include the transformation of the original inhabitants of the area. They were deemed to be just as backward as the landscape and were made to leave with the jungle.[16] In sources on RSP, the concept of ‘skill’ is often defined in contrast to the ‘unskilled’ category. For example, temporary labourers who worked on the construction site, mostly people indigenous to the area, were repeatedly referred to as unskilled. Managerial personnel was mostly recruited from other parts of the country.[17]

Next to the technical content of training, sources show that Germans also saw a particular mindset as a prerequisite for successful modernisation.[18]

Fig. 2: Poem about the ideal apprentice, archived by GHH (RWWA 130-13-11, Nachwuchsausbildung bei der GHH [- Geschichtliche Entwicklung der Einrichtungen und Maßnahmen zur Ausbild g. Manuskript], no date), © Rheinisch-Westfälisches Wirtschaftsarchiv zu Köln.

Reliable, modest, friendly – these personal attributes of the ideal apprentice could be linked to a protestant work ethic, which was part of the abundant implicit and explicit references to the desirable work ethic of employees in the primary sources on RSP.[19] Together with hard skills, this kind of technical education promoted in the context of the steel plant was a gatekeeper to the dream of industrial development. The importance of a duality of practical skills in addition to theoretical knowledge (at the core of vocational training in the FRG) as well as the ‘right’ attitude affected the imagery around the workers’ role in industrial progress.

“You will make your future here”: MICO Vocational Centre

The partnership between Robert Bosch GmbH and Motor Industries Company Ltd. (MICO) in 1951 was sealed in a similar context as RSP. It also accommodated the momentum of national development objectives. As a partly foreign-owned private business, MICO was not getting as much attention from prime minister Nehru as the steel plant. Nevertheless, MICO declared its contribution to modernising the nation with reference to both its place in the global engineering business and as an Indian company.[20] MICO secured Bosch’s entrance to the restrictive Indian market, hence the focus on it being a self-sufficient, Indian and modern company was important to corporate strategy. The MICO logo, a wheel with six spokes symbolizing progress, was inspired by the Bosch logo of an ignition device and designed to resemble the Indian national emblem as well.[21] This, too, was a proclamation of modern technology being the epitome of progress, of the bilateral nature of the collaboration, and of playing a role in the nation’s agenda for industrial development.

Seven years after setting up the first factory in Bangalore, the company started an apprentices training scheme by establishing MICO Vocational Centre (MVC[22]) in 1960 – manifesting the institutionalisation of training in a building on the factory site. Prior to MVC, training existed on the shop floor, carried out by foremen or other senior workers informally. With the implementation of the training scheme, most trade apprentices underwent three-year courses of theory and practice, in line with the duality of Bosch’s apprenticeship system in the FRG. Again, competency was not solely restricted to technical skills: the centre also offered short-term intensive courses aimed at personality development.[23]

MICO employed the vast majority of its former apprentices internally, but not in the production line. Highly skilled as they were considered by the end of their training, they worked in tool rooms, machine building and maintenance departments. This spatial separation from production was accompanied by access to a sense of prestige that is still strong with older generations of the centre’s alumni today. Representation of the apprentices was full of achievements; they were constantly winning skill competitions organised by the state and national government. The obtained medals still dot the walls of the centre today (and are shown in the above-mentioned video [3:05]). Medallists are remembered with utmost respect by their batch mates. During the 1960s and 1970s, most MVC-certificate holders were employed with MICO, but their trajectories were not restricted to factory boundaries. Many migrated to Australia, opened their own business, or changed companies.[24]

The company heavily emphasised its pioneering role and unrivalled quality in relation to the workers’ skills.[25] We see a reflection of the ideal body and mind, physical effort and work ethic in a story recalled by a former apprentice: When he entered the company in 1955, he was told, “Are you willing to work with your hands? – You may have to dirty your good clothes”, and, “Well, if you can put in hard work, you’ll make your future here.”[26]

This continuous focus on the manual or practical side of training had strong implications in the Indian context, manual labour being associated with lower caste status. Linking engineering professions to academic knowledge, rather than to artisan work and handcraft, had been a long complex process in late colonial India,[27] so it is no coincidence that German firms did not find graduate engineers’ practical experience satisfying. MVC promoted their mix of theory and practice – as a German model – possibly to build prestige for manual labour through their own reputation. Especially for older generations of MVC, apprenticeship was often a steppingstone for their careers. Many went on to occupy ‘white collar’ positions in MICO, in numerous other companies across India and abroad, or as entrepreneurs. One former MVC apprentice from a late 1960s batch told me he did not want to be “stuck” in the workers’ category after his training: “I thought Bosch may not make me an engineer. […] And I said I want to become an engineer to attract a good girl”.[28] For him, a certificate from MICO eventually opened doors for upward social mobility as he continued to the engineer grade.

Bosch India’s claim of contributing to the potential of the country by enabling individual success, which we saw in the YouTube video, remains similar to these older accreditations. Training regulated access to certain parts of the MICO-factory, to a corresponding prestige, and to national as well as individual aspirations.

The perspectives from MVC illuminate individual paths in and beyond a private enterprise that was negotiating the beginnings of globalisation and institutionalised training in India. Engaging with RSP adds to our understanding of political momentum surrounding factories in the midst of decolonisation processes and global systemic conflict. While the rhetorical focus at MICO-Bosch was on the very existence of skills inside the factory, at RSP it was on the transformative effect for the geographical area. Local, national and global processes impacted cultural and productive dynamics of factory work in both cases, which were simultaneously metaphorical and concrete projects of nationbuilding. Although not all to the same degree, depending on skill levels, workers were part of this imagery. Accordingly, training reflected ideal proficiencies and personal resources. For those who had the opportunity to become a trainee, formal certification of their skills opened gates in manifold ways: access to certain parts of the industrial labour market, to participation in national development, and to individual aspirations in a country deemed to be socialist.


[1] Today Bengaluru.

[2] Nehru coined this term in several speeches in the early 1950s, for example during his inauguration speech at the Bhakra-Nangal Dam in 1954: Bhakra Beas Management Board, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Ji’s Inauguration Speech, 2017, [accessed 06.04.2021].

[3] Satish Deshpande, “Imagined economies: Styles of nation-building in twentieth century India”, Journal of Arts and Ideas 25/26, 1993, 5–35, here 13.

[4] Government of India, Planning Commission, 2nd Five Year Plan, 1956, [accessed 20.11.2020].

[5] Collaboration in technical education was actively used in the FRG’s Cold War diplomatic strategy. See Roland Wittje, “Engineering Education in Cold War Diplomacy: India, Germany, and the Establishment of IIT Madras”, Ber. Wissenschaftsgesch. 43, 2020, 560–580.

[6] E.g. in Klaus Röh, Zum Arbeitsverhalten der indischen Belegschaft in Rourkela, Hamburg: Institut für Asienkunde, 1968.

[7] Corinna Unger, “Rourkela, ein ‘Stahlwerk im Dschungel’ – Industrialisierung, Modernisierung und Entwicklungshilfe im Kontext von Dekolonisation und Kaltem Krieg (1950–1970)”, Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 48, 2008, 367–388, here 387.

[8] Indo-German Chamber of Commerce/Deutsch-Indische Handelskammer, Indo-German Collaboration – Directory of all collaboration agreements/Deutsch-Indische Gemeinschaftsunternehmen – Verzeichnis der Kooperationsverträge, Bombay, 1987, V.

[9] Robert Bosch GmbH (RB), 1 034 023, MICO History, 1986.

[10] Hermann Stümpel, Das Hüttenwerk Rourkela: ein westdeutscher Beitrag zur wirtschaftlichen Entwicklung Indiens, Marburg: E. Mauersberger, 1966, 144.

[11] Srirupa Roy, Beyond Belief – India and the Politics of Postcolonial Nationalism, Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2007, 134.

[12] Martina Franke, Hoffnungsträger und Sorgenkind Südasien. Westdeutsche Betrachtungen und Begegungen zwischen 1947 und 1973, Heidelberg: CrossAsia E-Publishing, 2017, [accessed 30.11.2020].

[13] Hunck, India Tomorrow, 72.

[14] Rheinisch-Westfälisches Wirtschaftsarchiv zu Köln (RWWA), 130-120-1, Indische Praktikanten, Ablehnungen [Bewerbungen für Tätigkeit bei Utmal], ca. 1955–1965.

[15] Klaus Röh, Rourkela als Testfall für die Errichtung von Industrieprojekten in Entwicklungsländern, Hamburg: Weltarchiv, 1967, 175.

[16] Roy, Beyond Belief, 140.

[17] Christian Strümpell, “The politics of dispossession in an Odishan steel town”, Contributions to Indian Sociology 48/1, 2014, 45–72, here 51.

[18] Corinna Unger, Entwicklungspfade in Indien: eine internationale Geschichte 1947–1980, Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2015, 161–162.

[19] Josefine Hoffmann, “Rourkela in der Literatur damals und heute: Perspektiven auf Entwicklung, Modernisierung und Industrialisierung, Südasien-Chronik/South Asia Chronicle 8, 2018, 293–319, here 304.

[20] RB, 3 0005 1560, The Birth of MICO, 1976.

[21] Bosch Limited, Corporate Communications, Bosch India – A Short Memoir of Bosch in India, 2014, [accessed 20.11.2020], 20.

[22] Since MICO was renamed as Bosch Limited, the centre’s name today is Bosch Vocational Centre.

[23] RB, 3 0005 1560, MICO Vocational Centre, 1986.

[24] I collected the information in this paragraph through interviews and informal interaction with former MVC apprentices, batch years 1967–1996, in Bangalore and online in 2019 and 2020.

[25] RB, 1 017 528, This is MICO, no date.

[26] RB, 3 0005 1560, MICO Vocational Centre, 1986.

[27] Ajantha Subramanian, The Caste of Merit. Engineering Education in India, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England: Harvard University Press, 2019.

[28] Interview with the author, 8 August 2020.

Josefine Carla Hoffmann studied Area Studies of South and South East Asia at University of Bonn and at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. She is currently working on her PhD at Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS), University of Göttingen, where her thesis is part of the long-term project “Modern India in German Archives, 1706-1989 (MIDA)”. Her dissertation follows vocational training collaborations between India and Germany, c. 1950–1989, from planning and implementation to the Indian industrial labour market.

Further articles in the Factory Reloaded series on TRAFO:

Görkem Akgöz, Malak Labib, and Nurçin İleri, Factory Reloaded: Transregional Perspectives on the Industrial Workplace, 18 February 2021.

Görkem Akgöz, Spaces of National-Industrial Modernity: Factories and Factory Women in Early Republican Turkey, 5 March 2021.

André Weißenfels, Middle Class Factory: The (partial) Privilege of industrial Labor in Tunisia, 19 March 2021.

Rick Halpern, “The Pictures Are the Thing”: Farm Security Administration Photographers Document the American Factory in the Depression Era, 30 March 2021.

Citation: Josefine Carla Hoffmann, Training as a Gatekeeper at the Indo-German Factory, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.04.2021,

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