Curtain Call: Prof. S. K. Sarangi
As we reach the end of another academic year at NITR, we stand on the brink of a whole new era as the serving Director of 13 long years, Prof. S. K. Sarangi’s term has come to an end and he is expected to be leaving by 30th of June. In what will perhaps be his last Director’s Desk interview, he shared with Team Monday Morning his vision for NIT Rourkela, his apprehensions regarding the future and various pieces of hitherto unknown information about his life as a student and professor. The man who transformed this institute into its current form is a man of many talents and virtues. Read on to find out about the man who sacrificed his research and academic career to serve students and make this institute a better place!
MM: The Security in-charge has restricted the movements of girls on the road behind the Naga pond and Technology and Sports Avenues stating poor lighting and low traffic respectively. When will new lighting be installed in these locations?
SKS: As far as the road behind Naga pond (which is called road 6-A) is concerned, the process is on-going and is in the pipeline. Cable connections can be fitted in the form of overhead lines but even that will be expensive as the light fixtures have to be LED. As for Sports Avenue, there are poles for lighting which have already been installed so it must be a question of maintenance. Also, it is a misconception that girls are restricted from walking on these roads. However, I strongly advice and request them to keep from using these roads at a time of low traffic since various incidents in the past show this to be the best course of action.
MM: Common security guidelines were proposed and a draft was consequently made. When will this be accessible by all students?
SKS: The security draft is quite non-standard in terms of the choice of words and the terminology used does not allow for clear understanding of the majority of the populace. Hence the guidelines are being revised to make them more coherent and relevant for daily use. It will be circulated among the entire NITR populace, shortly.
MM: The Training and Placement Centre refuses to acknowledge or provide No Objection Certificates to second year students for internship purposes. Can you shed light on this matter?
SKS: I have heard about this issue and I believe a simple solution can be devised for this. The authorities hesitate to sign certificates since they must verify information provided by the students. I propose that all certificates be available online and printable by both students and authorities following a general format for which the data used will be directly verifiable from the central records. In fact, the Automation Cell has been given such a project and they are collecting templates for common certificates required by students for this purpose.
MM: The student body was supposed to be up and running by August, but it is still not in force. What is the final timeline for that?
SKS: The constitution for the student body has been revised for purposes of archival and submitted to me. Frankly, I have been overburdened with work for the past few weeks and have not been able to take a look at it. However, I will do so soon and put the document in circulation among students and faculty.
MM: What is the reason behind the recent power cuts?
SKS: We have a dedicated 33 kV line drawn out from the 132 kV parent line solely for supplying electricity to the institute. This ensures that even if the whole of Odisha faces power outages, NITR can continue to enjoy undisrupted supply of electricity. Unfortunately due to high temperature of the surroundings and the high current drawn because of the increased load, the cables are being damaged. This is the reason why we have been facing power cuts in the past few days. However, the problem has been rectified and we shouldn’t be facing it anymore.
MM: What is the status of the NIT Rourkela Outreach Centre in Bhubaneswar?
SKS: The work has almost been completed for the boundary walls. Some changes need to be made to the blueprint of the establishment after which the constriction work can be started. The project has an estimated overall cost of INR 20 crores for construction, interior and development, making it difficult to continue the work under the current budget constraints. The total budget allotted to the NITs was around INR 700-800 crores in 2004-05 which has only been increased to INR 1300 crores now. Moreover, previously several NITs failed to utilize the budget allotted to them and therefore NITR was at an advantage. Presently, most NITs utilize their allotted budget completely and there is no scope for receiving any extra grants or funds.
MM: Monday Morning has planned a Student Mentorship Program wherein around 150 pre-final year students would be allotted 6-7 freshmen each. These seniors would act as mentors to the juniors and would be there to clarify any confusion or dilemma that they face in the institute. What do you feel about this idea?
SKS: It is undoubtedly a good idea but there needs to be internal checks and balances to ensure that these mentors are responsible. In 2004 when the Anti-Ragging Committee was formed, there were a few similar features that were drafted. Unfortunately, there was misuse of power from within the committee and it was disbanded altogether. Now we have transitioned and ragging has been largely eliminated. This new system when formed, must be done keeping in mind some methodology so that it doesn’t slide backwards.
One thing that can be done is that the fresher can be informed of his senior hostel during the time of his admission, so that even though he resides in an exclusive first year hostel for the freshman year, he knows which hostel he’ll go to and reside in for the next 3 or 4 years after that. This would not only instill hall pride and sentiment, which is absent in the current scenario, but also the mentor could be chosen from this parent hall, thus enhancing the senior-junior interaction while minimizing the scope of ragging.
MM: In the recent NIRF Rankings NITR has come out fourth. How can we reach the top?
SKS: We are definitely not fourth, and currently we are trying to review the rankings. As far as I understand, the rankings are based on the data that we feed into the system and I can assure you that we have been absolutely honest in doing so. While a lot of other institutes might have overstated their statistics, we have kept it transparent. We played a little too safe in projecting ourselves. Another thing is that we are an institute that consciously strengthens its basic science departments and doesn’t limit these departments to a mere supporting role to facilitate the first year academics. However, the large number of students that we have in a wide and diverse array of engineering and non-engineering fields makes it difficult for us to score very highly in terms of placement statistics. I would like to add at this point, I do not regret this since a lot of institutes follow unfair tactics like providing the statistics of only ‘eligible students’ in their placement data.
MM: The Celebrity Night has been shifted to 29th April and there has been a lot of delays. A lot of people will be leaving by 29th as exams will have gotten over. Why has there been such a delay?
SKS: The most important message I would like to send out in this regard is that we would rather have the Celebrity Night on 29th of April, than not have it at all! Unfortunately, the show was cancelled the last time, since the Rourkela airport had denied landing permission for Sunidhi Chauhan’s aircraft. After that, there was a lot of delay, as she had other commitments. We couldn't fix a date before the exams, and we couldn't have it in the middle of exams so our best bet was to wait till the examinations were over. We could have opted for another artist of a similar stature, but we did not since she has very generously agreed not to charge us for her lost time and if we cancel her contract we would lost the advance amount that we had paid to her for the show. Therefore, this is an unfortunate twist of events that could not be avoided despite the best of our efforts.
MM: There was a lot of hue and cry over the SAC elections this time, with discrepancy in the counting of votes, and the candidates and voters not being informed beforehand about the system of counting the votes. Can you shed some light on this matter?
SKS: The SAC is conspicuous in its absence on the website, which would in fact be an appropriate medium through which the students would remain informed about all the on-goings in SAC. Also, a correct format should exist to present information, so that it is comprehensible by all.
The primary and secondary votes exist so that even those students with a primary majority less than a threshold value do not get elected. It is rather preferable to have somebody who is the secondary choice of a greater number of students.
MM: Why are we having such acute shortage of water?
SKS: The Koel River's water level has gone down and the underground water streams have dried up, due to which supply of water everywhere has diminished. It is expected that there shall be even more shortage in the upcoming days. Hence, people should keep an emergency supply of water in their rooms. However, people tend to throw this water out after a day, when it gets stale, and this in turn leads to huge wastage. So, people shouldn't do that and use the water regularly instead of throwing it away. Also attention must be drawn to broken taps etc. to prevent water loss. We need to collectively fight this calamity.
MM: We wanted a document that would allow us to view the SAC expenditures, and present it to the NITR Junta in order to improve transparency. However, SAC claims that no such records exist. Please elucidate.
SKS: In SAC, there was so far a lack of organisation in terms of documentation and record maintenance. The need of the hour, is a SAC website, where everything can be displayed transparently. I welcome competent students to create such a website so that SAC issues can be rectified.
MM: A system of permission slips was supposed to be implemented, so that students are not bothered with the hassle of obtaining permission from various authorities to stay out and work, especially during fests. When can it be implemented?
SKS: The main problem that students face is staying in SAC to work. For that, a slip can be obtained where the students can enter their name. A problem that was faced was that students were found sleeping in SAC without permission after breaking in through the window, and that is not acceptable. Ever since then, the rules regarding entry to SAC have been made more stringent.
MM: Is it confirmed that you will be stepping down as director and leaving the institute at the end of this academic year?
SKS: I have been here for three independent terms (without any extensions) for which I was nominated separately every time. However, one can hold office till 70 years of age, and I will have only the next 2.5 years upto which I can continue to work. Hence, I do not think there is the slightest chance of me being nominated once again to serve as Director of this NIT and I am not interested in serving at any other institute.
MM: How has NITR transformed in your thirteen years as the director of this institute?
SKS: NITR has not undergone a transformation – it was born and then it has grown up, under my aegis. When I first became the director of this institute, we used to be much smaller in strength since there were only 1200 students and now we have 6000, there were 110 faculty members and now there are more than 320, then there was only 1 assistant registrar and now there are 10; there were no PhD students whereas now we have about a 1000 postgraduate students.
So if you ask me, I believe we have transformed from an undergraduate college into a composite university – with undergraduate and postgraduate courses, state-of-the-art research facilities and strong industrial relations. The confidence of people within this institute has drastically gone up, as in the past they used to compare our standards to those of the state colleges in Odisha, whereas now the only relevant yardstick of comparison is with the institutes of national importance like the IITs.
However, we are still victims of government apathy and consequently social apathy. Even though according to the latest national rankings there are several new IITs (like IIT Bhubaneswar and IIT Patna) that are trailing the better NITs (like NIT Tiruchirappalli) in terms of the quality of education offered in these institutions, people are of the general mindset that IITs are generally better than NITs. Slowly we are conquering these inequalities – recently in a pay commission, our faculties’ pay scales were normalized with those of the IITs. This disparity will be further reduced if the government has one single, common formula for providing technical education to students.
One of the major problems that we are facing currently is the quality of postgraduate students as compared to those from premier institutions, even though there has been substantial improvement in the last five years. We are constantly striving to move upwards. I believe we have made a place for ourselves in the bracket where students and faculty members of this institute can speak to anybody from any part of the world without any hesitation.
MM: What are some of the things that you will always look back to in your 13-year tenure?
SKS: (laughs) Monday Morning interviews, which I always thoroughly enjoyed, because people listen to me. Since I’m an ego driven person I love the attention when such bright, young students want to speak to me and listen to my views on certain issues!
MM: What will you miss the most, after you leave?
SKS: Giving interviews and following Monday Morning! Going out for long walks among the unfinished buildings to find out how far work has progressed and what all changes are required, and going for the occasional swim.
MM: Can you throw some light on Professor Sarangi as the teacher and researcher?
SKS: I think for several years I will be teaching somebody or another. I still teach and thoroughly enjoy it, even though this office prevents me from doing so much. On the teaching front, it has always been my pleasure and I take classes in a freestyle manner which allows students to participate actively and feel included, even though I find evaluation and correction of answer scripts particularly tedious. On the research front, I believe that it should not be done simply for the sake of characterization and publication but should solve everyday problems for people – health or financial or otherwise. There should be a downstream user for every research work, so that research can be developed into a usable product. There is another thing that I particularly dislike – people calling themselves specialists and saying that they have no knowledge in other pertinent areas. I believe I can teach any subject without any prior knowledge in it if I am given a little time to prepare.
MM: Can you tell us a bit about your research career in cryogenics?
SKS: My research career got cut short when I became the director of NITR, and I have absolutely no regrets about it. I am perfectly comfortable in a wide variety of subjects and that is why my research in cryogenics in IIT Kharagpur was also very interdepartmental in nature – I had students from physics and chemical engineering, apart from mechanical engineering. My aerospace work was also related to cryogenics.
MM: Tell us about your time abroad, when you were pursuing a postgraduate career.
SKS: I was pursuing my postgraduate studies in Stony Brook University and I mostly enjoyed whatever they taught. In one class the professor was teaching us about statistical and quantum mechanics about which we had no experience from our undergraduate studies. After teaching us, he took a test which I aced with a 100 and the second highest in the class was only 50. My professor approached me to assist him in his work and I agreed. However, since it was related to spectroscopy there were hardly any mechanical engineers.
However, my perseverance there led me to being offered a position in the Jet Propulsion Lab of NASA. This was followed by the position of an astronomer in the Physical Research Academy, Ahmedabad whose director was fond of me and sent me to Rajasthan to set up a telescope. Even though I had no past knowledge in this field I tried my best to figure things out.
However, probably because it was India, they started ostracizing me as I was not formally trained. After that I chose to come back to Kharagpur because I was aware of the kind of interdepartmental research facilities that existed there and was fascinated by it. It helped me understand and appreciate a wide variety of other subjects.
MM: What is your vision for NITR in the coming years?
SKS: What I feel is that the distinction between NITs and IITs will slowly start to fade along with the obstacles that we face because of it. Our students’ confidence levels, public perception and the quality of graduates we produce will all definitely improve. Hopefully we will also be able to strengthen our alumni relations. Infrastructure growth is slow and we will have to wait for another burst of investment, but I can tell you this that NIT Rourkela will be forthright in grabbing opportunities if and when they come up. We have a clear vision of expanding our numbers to about 8,000-9,000 students overall and believe that in future not too far, we shall have cemented our position among the Top 10-12 technical institutes of this country.