The Inherent Initiator: Prof. B.B. Biswal
Professor B. B. Biswal, former HOD of the Department of Industrial Design and also the messiah of the Training and Placement Cell, is a face to be noted. He is well known among his students as a genial and amiable human being, while being deeply passionate about his subject. He has contributed immensely to the institute and its resources. Currently, having been appointed as the Director of NIT Meghalaya, he looks forward to building and shaping the infant institute with his experiences which have themselves been shaped by his journey at NIT-R. Team MM caught up with this gallant personality one afternoon and had a candid chat.
MM: You have stayed in Rourkela for the most part of your life; tell us about your childhood and your schooling days.
BB: My father used to work at Rourkela Steel Plant (RSP) so I grew up in the city. I began my schooling at the Ispat Lower Secondary School of Sector-2, which is presently known as the Kalinga Public School. After that, I went to the Ispat Vidyalaya at Sector-18. It was the best school at that point of time. I did my senior secondary from Government College, Rourkela, graduated in Mechanical Engineering from University College of Engineering (UCE), Burla, followed by M. Tech. and finally Ph. D. from Jadavpur University.
MM: Walk us through the professional sphere of your life.
BB: For a very short period after my graduation, I worked at the Production Division of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Sunabeda. I then came back to UCE, Burla and worked as a Lecturer at the Department of Mechanical Engineering, until the time that Regional Engineering College (REC), Rourkela became an NIT, after which I joined as a Professor in the Training and Placement Centre attached to the Dept. of Mechanical Engineering.
MM: Having been an engineering student in the earlier days and been associated with them today as well, what differences do you observe between then and now?
BB: In those times we had only two good engineering colleges in Odisha, one being REC, Rourkela (with 10 branches) and the other being UCE, Burla (with 4 branches). We used to fill up our choices based on codes. I had a rank of 147 in JEE and was interested in studying Mechanical, so I ended up at Burla, since Mechanical at REC (Code: RM) was filled up. The competition was very tough and there were no coaching classes as such. Whatever was taught during our I. Sc. (Intermediate of Science), used to be asked in the entrance exams as well, in the form of long and short answer type questions.
Nowadays, the students depend on coaching and such. From what I have observed, very few students have their fundamentals clear but, the level of intelligence among the students is very high.
Earlier, we used to do Engineering just for the sake of it, but today, the students are very conscious and have a career-oriented mind right from the beginning.
MM: How was your experience at the Jadavpur University (JU)?
BB: It was a very good stay there. I did my Ph. D. in Robotics at JU during a time when none of the IITs had a Robotics Lab. Robotics was simply not a part of the research programmes at any of the universities in India. Professor Amitabh Bhattacharya (who was the Director at IIT Kanpur) had however started a Production Engg. Department at JU in the early 70s, and right from that time JU had a Robotics Lab. During my Ph. D, I was actually amazed to see the facilities at the Lab. It was almost like a craze during that time and in a year, about 100 visitors used to come from different areas just to see the facilities that were available there. There is a very good ambience for research at JU.
Faculties, there have this Gandhi jhola with them, a cigar or two; that's the kind of life they maintain. The environment is totally different. It is not very serious and one will not feel stressed out at any point of time, but people spend some 5-10 years in research. It's kind of their forte and it's a part of their life.
MM: You were a Lecturer at your own alma mater UCE, where you must have had a strong hold. Why and how then, did NIT-R happen?
BB: I was interested in teaching, so I applied to UCE and REC, both, during 1985. My father was still at Rourkela. I first received the interview letter for REC. The letter, however, was sent to my father's address. At that point of , time I was working at HAL, Sunabeda, and my father had to direct the letter to Sunabeda. However, since Sunabeda was a very remote place, due to connectivity issues, I received the letter some 7 days after the date of the interview.
Now, when the REC plan failed, I thought of joining Burla. I had a very good base there since I was a Student Leader during my time. I went and stayed at my friends' hostels who were working as House Surgeons after 4 years of studying Medical at Burla itself. Thereafter I met the HOD of my department and luckily, he put me in touch with the Principal of Burla who, at that time was the Vice-Chancellor of Sambalpur University under which both REC and UCE came. I explained my situation to him and he agreed for an interview.
After two days of the interview, I received my appointment letter. The added advantage of UCE was that it allowed its faculties to go for an M. Tech. at IIT-Kharagpur, which REC was not allowing. This helped me finish my M. Tech. and my Ph. D. early as well.
I was really sad when I had to leave UCE for REC, though.
Since Rourkela was my hometown, I was known as so-and-so's son at REC, while at Burla, I had my own identity.
However, I had to think about my career as well. I was an Associate Professor at Burla, and I was getting the rank of a Professor here at REC, and on top of it, REC had become an NIT. So, thinking that I would have a lot of opportunities at my disposal, I joined here.
MM: The huge list of research papers that you have, clearly tells that you have a deep-rooted love for your subject. We would like to know more about your achievements in this field.
BB: So far I have published more than 150 research papers and more than 80 journals. My first Ph. D was published in 2002. Since then, I have produced 13 Ph. Ds. and some 8 are in the pipeline.
Apart from that, if you visit Burla, you can see the Mechanics Lab and the Flexible Mechanical Systems (FMS) Lab that I have created there. In the Department of Industrial Design here, I have created all the labs and handed them over to other professors, but I'm still in charge of the Product Development Design Lab and the Creative Automation Lab. I created facilities in the gauge of automation and rapid product development, apart from which I have made three different types of 3-D printers. I have completed around 9 sponsored projects and have also successfully developed an Industrial Robot having six degrees of freedom and several joints like a shoulder-like joint, a wrist-like joint and such.
MM: Share with us your experience as the Visiting Professor at Moscow State Technological University “Stankin” and as a Visiting Scientist at Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology (GIST), South Korea.
BB: I got to know that in Moscow, after the division of USSR, there was a demand for teaching in English. So, I tapped that opportunity, contacted a professor there and offered to teach a few classes in English. I was given the charge of conducting the Robotics and Mechatronics Labs. I stayed there as a visiting professor. At GIST, which is primarily a research institute, I stayed for three months as a visiting scientist. From there, I got an opportunity to spend some time in NASA (in 2013) as a part of American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).
MM: What difference do you observe between their education system and ours?
BB: I think there is more professionalisation in their education systems, right from the beginning. Here, we have a Board base, whereas there, they are more focused and right after they go to their secondary schools they choose their career paths. As far as teaching is concerned here, we have difficulty in understanding the subjects because we have never seen the systems. But out there, the students perform projects from school level and get oriented in one particular subject. Even the teaching process is very different. For example, teachers just do not deliver lectures and come back. Lectures continue for about three hours there and they integrate theory, simulation, demonstration and practical parts altogether. In this way, you get very clear about the subject.
"In India, assignments are given just for the sake of assignments, but in the countries outside, you need to learn a subject completely to be able to do the assignments. "
This helps in enhancing the creativity and passion of the students.
MM: Lightening the atmosphere up a notch, how do you unwind after a long period of work? Also, tell us about the extra-curricular activities you were involved in as a student.
BB: During the '84 incident of Burla, where there was a clash between the students of UCE Burla and the Burla public, (11 students of the college were killed), I was a part of the core team, since I had been elected as the Election Champion for the student post-holders of the college and was the Student Leader. Besides that, I love watching cinema and theatre. Also, right from my school days, I was involved in Dramatics. Apart from that, I used to play a lot of football. Only after I fell down and broke my collar bones, I left playing football (laughs).
MM: You joined NIT-R as a Professor in the Training and Placement Centre and went on to head the TnP. What instrumental changes do you think has happened ever since?
BB: At the point when I joined (April of 2004), there were 200-odd students in the final year batch, and 50% had already been placed by that time. I did not have much idea about placements as I had never handled that kind of a job. It was a completely new experience for me. During the summer vacation, I had a plan of action, which I discussed with Prof. S. K. Sarangi. I prepared brochures, collected addresses of various institutes and contacted some 500 companies, while getting response from 30-40 companies only.
My idea was to build up relationships with the companies by spending time with them. In 2-3 years, I was able to fulfil that goal of mine. I attended various conferences across India, and I used to spread the word among the HRs about there being an institute called NIT Rourkela.
You see, the reason that the Steel Plant was located at Rourkela initially was not only because of the availability of raw materials, but also because of its connectivity. At that point of time, the airport was not functional as such, which is why the connectivity of Rourkela to major cities was one of the best when compared to other places in Odisha because of the presence of the Bengal-Nagpur-Railway Line (BNR Line), which used to pass through Rourkela. Once flight connectivity became prominent int the country, HRs were hesitant of coming to Rourkela, but I made them look at it from a different point of view.
I used to tell them that they could finish their day's work and travel by the night to Kolkata and from there, they would find a lot of trains. They could just get on a train and sleep and before they would even wake up, they'd have reached Rourkela.
This made the path look very convenient to them and we started getting good companies. Over the time, I managed to build very good relationships with the established companies and any well-known company in India was aware of there being a 'B. B. Biswal.'
In 2006, after I became stronger I thought of categorising companies into Normal, Dream and Super-Dream companies and developed the concept of multiple jobs. I handpicked 5-6 hardworking students to assist me in the job and from there, began the concept of the Placement Committee.
MM: You also headed the Centre for Technology Innovation and Industry Relations (TIIR), NITR. Tell us about the plans and changes that you initiated as the head of the centre and where do you see this ten years from today?
BB: TIIR is the dream concept of our former director, Prof. S.K. Sarangi. It came into existence in 2010 and I helped him in every possible way. In one of our convocations, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was invited as the Chief Guest and he promised to support the idea of TIIR. The complete idea of TIIR has not been implemented yet. We have a different vision for TIIR altogether.
One of the big factors for the growth of a technical institute is the industry-institute linkage, which is lacking at NITR, despite being located in the industrial and mineral heartland of the country. We have varieties of material, fertiliser and chemical based industries in a 50-km radius around us. But we have never really tapped the opportunity for our welfare. For an industry’s growth, research is inevitable; but small scale industries, which are present around us can’t afford to have their own R&D cell. So, we proposed them to have their R&D cell at TIIR, NITR; where students and faculties of our institute will work for them. They just need to let us know of their demands and concerns and we will work upon them. If this gets implemented, both parties will be benefitted and students will be more satisfied working for a live project.
If we have a look at IITs, we observe that people usually go for research, higher studies and a few of them also go for entrepreneurship. But this is not the scenario in other colleges. We aimed to achieve this in our institute through TIIR, to provide a platform for research and entrepreneurship.
MM: During your tenure at NITR, you also worked as the Dean (Faculty Welfare). Shed some light on the work that you did as the Dean of this institute.
BB: I was appointed as the Dean (Faculty Welfare) in 2015 and my job was to look after the concerns of faculties. In simpler terms, Dean (FW) acts as the HR for both teaching and non-teaching staff. The recruitment, promotion process is also looked upon by the Dean (FW). I tried my best to be in touch with all the faculties and to ensure that they have a smoother run during this period but I think I haven’t contributed much in this position.
MM: At present, you are the HOD of the Department of Industrial Design. What is your vision for this new department? Also, tell us about the problems that you faced while heading the Dept. of ID.
BB: I love working for new things and I accept challenges with enthusiasm. When I was in VSSUT, Burla, I started a new branch which is named as Production Engineering now. I was the Head of this department till I left the university. Coming to the ID dept., I never faced any difficulties because my colleagues are very dynamic, enthusiastic and carrier-conscious. They are doing an excellent job and they love interacting with students. Most of my faculties are young and they can actually connect with the students.
I was a part of the team ‘Vision 2020’ for NITR which was formed under the ex-director where we planned many things to be achieved by 2020. As far as ID is concerned, we wanted to have a design centre in our institute.
This branch is at the epicentre of PM Narendra Modi’s Make in India campaign and I wish we take advantage of this and achieve our ambitions in a shorter span of time.
MM: You were appointed as an independent Director of Bharat Coking Coal Limited, one of the largest subsidiaries of Coal India Limited. What was your role as the Director of the organisation?
BB: I worked as an independent Director of Bharat Coking Coal Limited from 2011-2015. I was a part of the decision-making body and I learnt many things there. We took many decisions regarding the future of the company. I learnt a lot about solving problems and proposing new plans. I was a part of the Board of Directors of the organisation, where we used to take administrative decisions.
MM: Currently, you have been appointed as the Director of NIT, Meghalaya. What was your first reaction when you came to know that you have been appointed as the Director of an NIT?
BB: At first, I thanked my teachers and students, because both of them have played an inevitable role in my success. I am indebted to the sincere pool of students who have worked for me; it’s only because of their co-operation that I could publish 80 odd journals. My teachers have played a vital role in providing a strong foundation, which helped me in shaping my career.
MM: NIT, Meghalaya is one of the newer NITs; which started in 2010 and it lacks a permanent campus. For an institute as such where a lot of things are proposed to be done, what is your vision for the institute?
BB: I haven’t been to NIT Meghalaya yet. But, I have been very close to many organisations. I was a part of the administration of UCE, Burla; I was also a member of the Board of Governors of NITR for two years. I was involved in many activities during my tenure at NITR and handled some crucial sections of the institute. So, I have worked closely with a few administrators and learnt many things from them.
I will make use of these experiences and would use them in building the shape of NIT, Meghalaya.
I would like to work on their academic curriculum and to provide better facilities for students and faculties. There’s a lot of infrastructural work to be done. At the end of five years, I want to do something which will be remembered for a long time by the student and faculty fraternity of NIT Meghalaya.
MM: As the director of NIT, Meghalaya, you will have a very hectic schedule; how do you plan to devote your time to research?
BB: There are people who are successful in handling multiple things at a time and there are people who fail to handle a single thing at a time. I believe it depends on how organised a person is. In the current scenario, when things are changing so fast, a break of five years from research will make one outdated. So I won’t like to do that. Despite being busy with the Director’s assignment, I would try to take out some time for teaching and interacting with students and take care of my research.
MM: After a stay of 13 years, how do you feel when you are at the brisk of leaving NITR? Before signing off, any message that you would like to leave for our readers:
BB: Yes, it’s very difficult to leave a settled place and to go to a place of uncertainties. But a bigger dream is waiting for me. I would like to bring glory for NITR by doing something good for NIT Meghalaya.
The students of NITR are doing really well. They should remember that this is an institute that has transformed thousands of students. It’s like our own motherland, so we should always think of ways to contribute for the institute.