Reverie with the Respected: Damodar Acharya
Team MM got an opportunity to catch up with Damodar Acharya, a NITR alumnus of the batch of 1970. The former director of IIT Kharagpur and RBI shared his story of tests and triumphs. Here is an excerpt from the interview:
Monday Morning: A man of your stature and repute is known by all. But keeping every opinion and description aside, how would you describe yourself?
Damodar Acharya: Forget about my reputation, position, and everything; I would just describe myself as a teacher, nothing more.
MM: Going back to your roots, tell us something about your life before you joined REC (NIT, Rourkela).
DA: I come from a very remote village in Mayurbhanj district. I studied in a pathashala; the verandah was our classroom, and the teacher taught very basic things, and I continued in my village school. I did my matriculation from NPC high school which was located at a very remote place and one had to cross two rivers to go there. I used to stay in a hostel. The ride back home was a fifteen-mile journey on a bullock cart. Our school days were quite simple; we had our prayers and lessons and an hour of compulsory gardening daily. We were provided with a daily serving of rice, dal and powdered milk. I was very recalcitrant for which my parents preferred that I stay in the hostel instead of at home. After that, I did my pre-university from NPC College, Baripada.
I spent about 43 years in IIT, Kharagpur.
MM: How did NITR happen to you; was it fate or your interest that brought you here?
DA: I had applied to a lot of places; I had no interest in dissections, so I chose to become an engineer. I was accepted in a number of places; the first being REC, Rourkela; so I came here. My visit to REC was my maiden voyage on a train. Back in my village, I was unable to explain what mechanical engineering means and their first assumption was that I would become a bus driver in the future! (smiles)
MM: How would you describe your experience at NIT, Rourkela? Tell us about the memories that you cherish about this place?
DA: They were very good days. The only way in which one could learn something in those days was by listening to one’s teachers, and that can happen only when one attends all the classes. Not many books were available; there were fewer copies to be found. I had no money to purchase any books, so the only way I used to study was by borrowing my friends’ books when they approached me with the intention of gaining clarity in a topic. I was not involved in any other activities. I had the life of a normal student, here. I was the topper in my branch. After my graduation, I met Prof. J Bannerjee, who asked me what I wanted to do. I replied that I was interested in being a teacher. He gave me a letter and advised me to go to IIT, Kharagpur.
MM: How would you describe your time at IIT, Kharagpur, after graduating from REC, Rourkela?
DA: For my admission into IIT Kharagpur, I appeared for a test and an interview and was subsequently admitted to the masters’ program there. It was a very sought-after course, and I completed my M.Tech and Ph.D., soon after. In my specific field of research, there were seven students; all of them university toppers from various institutes from across the country. My field of specialization was Industrial Engineering and Research. I had a lot of interest in engineering applications in real life problems. My work in IIT, Kharagpur was related to road transportation. Till this day, I have very good contacts with the industry. In Kharagpur, I was exposed to a library and many other things. We also faced a few problems there, initially. My interest lied in being a teacher, so I pursued my Ph.D. and soon after, joined as a lecturer.
MM: You have nearly 32 years of experience in teaching, research and academic administration. What made you choose this line of service?
DA: I had a lot of interest in working with the industrial sector, but I was not interested in working in the industry itself. I have been in the academic sector for more than 32 years. I started as a lecturer and made my way up as the head of the department. I was also the chairman for Joint Entrance Examination for three years. I was the chairman at a school of management, I was also the Executive Director, after which I came to BPUT. After that, I also became the chairman of All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). I came back to IIT, Kharagpur immersing myself in academic administration.
MM: You served as the director of IIT, Kharagpur; one of the most prestigious institutes in the country. Please tell us about your time there.
DA: A lot of changes did happen during my tenure. IIT Kharagpur became the first IIT to start a B.Tech program in Industrial Engineering. A lot of innovation was implemented in the joint examination system. The method of obtaining and depositing forms with banks was changed. As a Dean of sponsored research, I developed a whole system to facilitate the process. When I took over, the inflow was only two crores; when I left three years later, it had jumped to eighteen crores. I reduced the total number of scholars in sponsored research from thirty to twelve. Delays were not tolerated. I developed an Intellectual Property Rights policy; we had a system of patenting. I also helped develop the School of Management. We worked on enhancing the boarding capacity of IIT Kharagpur. IIT Kharagpur can currently house 11,000 students, a huge growth as compared to the 5000 students that could be accommodated during the beginning of my session. The hostels were entirely revamped, and new hostels were added. A large classroom complex was constructed; all the laboratories were housed under a laboratory complex. The internet facility available in IIT, Kharagpur is one of the best. All these along with the introduction of many new programs were undertaken under my guidance and tenure.
One most important thing I got approval for is to start a medical institution inside IIT. IIT Kharagpur will be the first and only technical institute with a hospital and MBBS course offered in it. We started this because we want to promote the interface between medicine and engineering. We observed that top colleges like Harvard, MIT, John Hopkins, etc. all top colleges provide medical programmes in the technical environment too.
Apart from that, today you find that most of the engineering colleges, teachers are working up to 70 years. The raise in the retirement age bar was done by my team during my tenure as director of IIT Kharagpur. Since then, most engineering colleges in India raised their retirement age bar to 65.
Finally, the10 percent free tuition concept (Where teachers teach 10 percent of total students in their class for free) which is now made mandatory by the government was an initiative that started when I was the director.
MM: You were nominated as one of the directors of the Central Board of RBI. Please share with us your experience.
DA: So before I answer this, it is important to understand what is the ‘Central Board.' Reserve Bank is the Central Bank of India which controls the majority of the other banks and finances in India. The RBI has got a Board which consists of official directors like the Governor, 4 Deputy Governors and two secretaries from Finance department. Apart from these ‘Official’ directors, there are nine non-official directors who may or may not be related to the finance department.For example, TCS Chairman Natarajan Chandrasekaran, Kumar Mangalam Birla, and APJ Abdul Kalam were all a part of this board at some point in their lives. Therefore, it is a prestigious role.
It is a rule that all central bank members across the world meet once every week- Every Wednesday, where we get to discuss all the financial issues that our respective organizations are facing. So, work was quite hectic for the four years that I was part of the board. But it was a huge honour to be part of it.
MM: Till recently you served as director of Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilizers Limited. How do you describe your time there?
DA: RCF is a fertilizer and chemical company which is government owned. Usually, the case is that many fertilizer companies close down because they lack funds. But surprisingly, RCF is one of the very few fertilizer companies that constantly makes profits. There, I was an independent director. Usually, the Board of Directors in RCF consists of 5 members. But, during my tenure, I was the sole director. So, the work there was hectic but enjoyable.
MM: You went through hard times in your life. Please share with us how you handled such situations.
DA: There are difficult times at some point in everyone’s life. But, you must never compromise on certain principles and values no matter the difficulty. I believe that ultimately, after all the opposition, if you continue sticking to your values and principles, you will be satisfied with your result. So, I think to the best of my ability I tried to stick to my morals, and that’s what helped me get over my difficulties with ease and contentment.
MM: How important is alumni relationship with an institute like ours. Please comment on what you think about the current scenario of this situation in NITR too.
DA: I have always believed that those institutes that have good alumni relations do much better in comparison to other institutes. Students get maximum benefits from alumni networks. Irrespective of which batch or which department an alumnus has graduated from, he is always willing to help the current students. In a sense, interaction with seniors is also required. From what I have gathered a few NITs do house freshmen and seniors in the same hostel. I am glad that is the case because I feel it is completely necessary. In the future, these seniors will become alumni and will prove to be very useful. About the current NITR scenario, I think the institute is doing well to maintain relations with its alumni, but I think there is a definite improvement possible.
MM: What does it take to be Damodar Acharya. Please enlighten our readers with a few words of inspiration.
DA: This institution is a great institution. It has provided a lot of facilities. Students must work hard to make sure that the institute develops with time and its banner is held high. Also, it is very important for students to keep connections among themselves and with the institute once they pass out because it is alumni who are the brand ambassadors of the institute. So, the institute is dependant on its students for its reputation. I think it is very important to understand this.
As an ending note, I’d like to say that
If you work sincerely with a purpose, there is nothing that you cannot achieve.