The Torchbearer Of The Legacy Of NITR: A tete-a-tete With Akshaya Das

The Torchbearer Of The Legacy Of NITR: A tete-a-tete With Akshaya Das

Soumitra Mandal | Aug 13, 2018

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Akshaya Das, a 1965 graduate from the Department of Electrical Engineering is currently serving in the Indian Railway Service of Engineers (IRSE). This dynamic personality is a celebrated alumnus and a stellar source of inspiration for us. Team MM got the opportunity of interviewing him, and here is an excerpt from the interview.

MM: A person of your stature can be easily searched online and researched upon. Keeping your every available online description aside, how would you describe yourself?

AD: The most difficult thing is to write about own self.

I was lucky to be the first from REC to get into Indian Railway Service of Engineers (IRSE). Since I had a great weakness for travelling and seeing new places, meet new people- experience different cultures, this job came very handily. This job plus my zeal have taken me to 64 countries so far!!  I had the good luck of working in several countries also e.g. Malaysia, Taiwan, Iraq, Bangladesh etc. The best part was the local staff at different countries, who were to ask me as to which are the interesting places they should visit (Normally, I was to travel extensively in every country I worked). And I could guide them. (Any of our students can take guidance from me as to how, when and where to visit anytime they plan to visit some country including in India)!

MM: Tell us something about your days before joining the erstwhile REC, Rourkela. How did you learn about REC?

AD: I did my graduation in 1961 from Ravenshaw College, Cuttack, with honours in Physics.  I was selected for Benaras Hindu University for the Mining and Metallurgy course. But was not keen as I preferred Electrical Engineering (it was so mysterious those days!!).

Just before leaving for Benaras, I left an application for Regional Engineering College, Rourkela when I saw an advertisement. While I was at BHU, I got a message from Regional Engineering College to attend the interview (thankfully there was no written test at that time!). I came to Rourkela and found that most applicants were Science graduates (mostly my old classmates) which REC preferred over boys after Intermediate because of the late commencement of classes. This led to me getting my choice branch Electrical also. It was just the nascent stages of the college and nobody knew where this college was located in RKL. I had to search for 6 hrs to locate it at Panposh, far outside the city of Rourkela.

MM: Share with us your experiences in the erstwhile REC Rourkela. How important do you think were the four years at REC in your life, both professionally and otherwise?

AD: A book can be written on it! Those four years were the golden years of our life which unfortunately never came back again. Seeing the world, earning money, giving lectures on Railways all over the world— none of these matches the excitements of those four years. The memories are so fresh.

I will share just two episodes. (Bit unethical! Sure, you will not mind):

Once we wanted to take a Taxi ride from Razak Talkies to our Hostel. The driver asked for a hefty amount in spite of our requests that we were students and could not afford so much but he was adamant. We signalled each other and agreed on the fare. After we reached the hostel, one hockey stick was brought out which was enough for reducing the price ever since. I am sure the effect is still there and the present students must be benefiting.

The second episode was in 1963. Film ‘Sangam’ was in the great news but it was running only at the theatres at Jamshedpur, the steel city, 300 km away!! Some of us decided to go and we took the train (Of course without a ticket!). During the train journey, we were challenged by the Railway Staff at Chakradharpur station for tickets which we did not have. The inevitable happened. Scuffles ensued. (Of course, we finally saw the movie and returned by midnight to our hostels).The news reached Principal Behera along with the name of the leader (you can guess who he was).

I was called by Prof Behera next morning. He said he expected better behaviour from me. That was very painful as he was a father figure to us.  Probably a bit of scolding would have been more comfortable. I apologised with a promise not to do it again. (I would have probably behaved better if I ever knew that I myself one day will be joining the Railways and look after its interests). I still remember the incident whenever I pass that station while going by train.

There were many more. Many cannot be written or published. It will spoil the present students but I assure you, life was full and we were all flying high in the sky with great dreams in our eyes. Heaven was just inches away!!

MM: You went from a core engineering discipline in Electrical to being a Professor in the same Department. How much did the role of a teacher differ from that of a student in the same Institute all along?

AD: Yes, the role was difficult. From the tormentor of Teachers to be the tormented one was a big jump. Luckily, a truce was called early and I had a smooth sailing. The problem was the teaching. The depth of knowledge was not enough by that time to honestly answer all questions of the students. I used to promise to them to explain it in next class. That often led to burning mid-night oils so that I can keep my promise next day.

Wonderful teachers like Prof T.N.Subramaniam, Dr.Khanijo, Prof Kshirod Tripathy, Prof Jayant Mahapatra, Prof P.C. Panda, Prof Aswini Mohanty, Prof P.K. Dash and Prof Julu were some of the jewels we had the good fortune to be associated with. It is a pity that we have lost many of them now.

One of the worse experiences was my tenure as a Hostel Superintendent for 1st-year boys (1967 batch). I was instructed to ensure there was no ragging. What a wrong choice I was for the job! Remember ours was the first batch and were never ragged. Then how all it started? The mischief was started by our batch but in a very mild way. The intention was very different. Idea was to take out the shyness of the boys who were going to be engineers and face a difficult world. There was never an ill intention. However, our batch was to regret same as the ragging took ugly turn later on and was rightly condemned by everyone. A few bad apples damaged the whole apple basket.

MM: Please describe your experience as the Signalling and Train Control Systems Key Expert for the Mumbai Metro project. What are your responsibilities here?

AD: This project is one of the largest (Rs.25, 000 Cr) in India and highly technically advanced. It can be compared to the best Metro systems in the world. It is technically so complex that the four countries had to join their hands to share the technology and execute the project. The project is 33 km long going through the busiest areas of Mumbai. Since the roads are already full leading to heavy traffic jams, we had to go underground, almost 50 ft below the surface. The special feature is that the system is going to be Driverless. As the Driver is a human being and has inherently limited efficiency, it was decided to hand over his role to the computers. To conceive and execute same was my role (particularly issues involving Signalling and associated Safety) with the help of international giants like Siemens and Ahlstrom and others. This is India’s only such project with such volume of traffic and size.

MM: What were the major engineering challenges you faced working for such a massive infrastructure project as the Mumbai Monorail? How did the project come about?

AD: This was India’s first Monorail project. It complements the roles of Metro systems as feeder units. It is much cheaper than the Metro systems. It is ideal for areas where we do not have much space and the route has heavy gradients.

Unfortunately, this project has not been very successful so due to various technical and management constraints. It will take a year more for the system to be fully functional.

MM: You have been associated with the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers and Institution of Permanent Way (Track) Engineers for quite a long time. You have also been the Project Director in the Mumbai Monorail Project. How would you describe your almost lifelong association and work with Railways, coming up with an Engineering profile to being the Director?

AD: Yes, it has been a long way (53 years!) and involved working in so many different countries. Railways have gone into our blood. When few railways families meet socially, in no time they come back to Railway related topics only. Our world is limited to Railways.

In my early days with the Railways, somehow, I was branded as a problem solver in the Railways. Hence, all the unwanted places with law and order problems e.g. Aliputduar, Dhanbad, Sealdah Divisions etc. were reserved for me. For this, the family and kids had to suffer a lot. Somehow it was managed successfully although with a persistent threat to life.

But there were bright sides also. We did not know that the Railway bond was so strong. It extended beyond the boundary of our country. One episode I would like to share...Once, I and my wife over-travelled as we forget to get down at the correct station in a country in Europe. When we finally got down, we were asked to pay a hefty fine by the Ticket checker but by when we told him that we belonged to Indian Railways, everything was forgotten and we became his guests for the night (there was no return train in the night).

MM: Being a part of the IRSSE under Indian Railways, what notable projects were you a part of? How much change did you observe on the Signalling and track modernization front of the Indian Railways during your tenure?

AD: One notable project was improving punctuality in Iraq Railways. It was just before the war with the USA (1990). The very day I arrived at Baghdad airport to take up my new assignment as an Area Manager, I was advised to go straight to a station called Al-Qaim where a serious train accident has taken place and the entire Railway system had come to a standstill.

A goods train had collided with another stationary goods train carrying liquid sulphur (Iraq was to make lethal Mustard gas. This gas was very lethal and was made from that liquid sulphur!!). The liquid sulphur had exploded and burnt the whole station and damaged all the equipment including vital cables. My team was already on site and on the job. I joined them and took over the responsibility. Subsequently, I had to stay at that station non-stop for 15 days where the station master’s table was the bed and some Khabuj (local roti) was the only food available at that isolated station. The system was restored in record time. This earned appreciation from the tough Iraqi bosses and my team was awarded.

There is one more experience I would like to share. Sealdah, in Kolkata, is a big terminal station for Indian Railways handling more than a million passengers per day. To be posted there, one has to be mentally as well as physically strong (chance of man-handling was always there). It was a hot-bed of Naxalites, goons and unions. It was a condemned Railway Division before I joined there (1972). The whole division was on fire due to staff unrest for which I was sent overnight to normalise the situation. I quickly realised the reason for the unrest and it was some wrong managerial decisions taken by predecessors (basically lack of human touch). I initiated steps by extensively touring the Division and meeting individuals personally and informally. The problems were very minor. All they wanted was someone to listen to them. Once that was done, the failed equipment was quickly restored, Safety and Punctuality improved manifold. The result was the Division was declared as the best Division (for 3 consecutive years) by the Railway. Signalling and Track modernisation have gone a sea change over the last 50 years. In fact, sometimes I feel a bit outdated. With Maglev (Magnetic Levitation i.e. the train does not touch the track), conventional tracks have lost its normal meaning. With Hyper-loops, Satellite Signalling and Driverless trains, Signalling has also lost its normal Red, Green concepts (I share the details with the students sometimes if an occasion comes).

MM: What, in your opinion, seem to be the prospects of an Engineering graduate seeking a career in IES with the Railways as of recent years?

AD: No doubt, it is still the most coveted Class 1 service out of all Class 1 Engineering services. There is still a heavy demand for them by the prospective in-laws! There are innumerable perks attached to the job (I can detail these if anyone contacts me). The best part is the camaraderie. Further, a very big advantage is the automatic promotion with time. An abundance of Training, Free travel, travelling in Saloons on duty, good clubs, excellent school and hospital facilities make the job much more attractive than other Class 1 services of Govt of India.

Most of these benefits continue even when you retire and the family continues to avail some. Even after the death of the employee, the family continues to receive many of those benefits. I have left railways for more than 20 years. Yet, whenever, I visit the Railways, they treat me as one of their long-lost colleagues. Given a 2nd chance, I will always like to join back the Railways again!!

MM: How recently did you visit NIT Rourkela and what did you feel about your visit? What changes did you observe between then and now? Are you in touch with any of your classmates or colleagues now?

AD:  The changes have been very eye-catching and every visit made me prouder. I have been a very consistent visitor to REC/NIT over last 53 years. There will not be many who would have attended the Crystal Jubilee (1975), Silver Jubilee (1990) and Golden Jubilee (2015). I have been Chief Guest also on some functions including many Alumni Association meetings. Our batch (known as Pioneers) was the smallest in the history of REC/NIT. The whole college had only 118 students!! Unfortunately, this is an extinct species now. A good number have left and many are on the way. Most of us are on the waiting list!!

MM: What is your take on the role of alumni for an institute of national importance like ours? How do you think the present scenario of alumni interaction can be improved?

 AD:  I am one of the initial General Secretaries of the Old Boys Association (now known as NITR Alumni Association). Our batch started it and now when we look back it gives great pride. One thing is sure. It has not done much for the Alma Mater. So, it becomes very difficult to put a finger on the cause.

I just happen to be the Patron of Mumbai unit of NITRAA and had been its President for few years. Even we are not doing much. We are no match to the same by IITs. Probably, times have changed. The attachment we had (and still have) for the college is missing now.

One sad memory...I remember, a few years ago, I, as a chief guest, was addressing the Final year students for their Homecoming ceremony. After 10 minutes, I noted the students leaving one by one and the whole hall was empty within 20 minutes (I was sure my lecture was not all that boring). And I have travelled 2000 km to be at RKL for the occasion!

So, it is a two-way process. Old Alumni are ready to extend all help. But the students and the fresh graduates should know how to benefit from it. The first two batches (1965, 1966) meet every year with families at Bhubaneswar on 15th Aug (the day REC started) to meet each other and share the joys and sorrows they have gone through the year.

MM: You have occupied numerous positions of responsibility throughout your career. How did you handle the pressure and the disappointments? What are some of the things that you had to learn along the way?

AD: Absolutely. There is no one who had not gone through it. While in Iraq, an Iraqi friend said a nice thing. He said whenever any pressure or bad luck comes, always think “it could have been worse”. This thought and logic had sustained me through all the stress and strain and hard times.

MM: How do you keep your spirits high amidst professional pressure and hectic schedule? Do you have any long drawn out hobbies that you still indulge yourself in?

AD: Just being a good human being is much better than just being a good Engineer. This has given a lot of inner satisfaction and relaxation. This reminds me of an incident.

While I was a student of REC, I needed a certificate to be attested by a gazetted officer. I went to the office of local SDO for same. I was asked to wait. I had to sit next to the peon for 2 hrs before the SDO called me and attested with a lot of grumbling. I decided then and there that if I ever become a gazetted officer, I will never behave like him. As luck was, I did become a Gazetted Officer of Ministry of Railways. The very first instruction to my PA was to bring all attestation cases immediately to me, irrespective of how busy I was. This attitude continued throughout the service life and earned a great many friends. It gave great feelings when I could help those who were not as fortunate. A big stress reliever it was.

All above and lot of mischief, adventures (and mishaps), lots of struggle, hard work, good and bad luck…. all these have made Akshaya Das whatever is he today.

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