The Affable Aficionado- Dr. Srikumar Banerjee

The weekend of 17th January saw the homecoming of the Class of 2014 for the 12th Convocation of National Institute of Technology, Rourkela.

Among the host of dignitaries who visited the campus on the occasion of this annual celebration of joy and nostalgia, the brightest and most well decorated was undoubtedly the Chief Guest, Dr. Srikumar Banerjee. His convocation message was something that every student present in the NCC ground on the morning of 17th seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed. Dr. Banerjee retired as the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India (AECI) and the Secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) on April 30, 2012. A 1967 graduate of the Department of Metallurgical Engineering, IIT-Kharagpur, he served as the Director of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) from April 30, 2004 to May 19, 2010. He has contributed extensively in the basic research on metallurgy of zirconium and titanium based alloys for processing several nuclear reactor components. When Team MM visited him on the afternoon of 17th, he was more than willing to meet us despite the hectic schedule. Here are some excerpts from the hour long interview.

MM: Tell us about your life before IIT Kharagpur. How did engineering happen to you?
SB: I grew up in an extended family in Park Circus, South Kolkata and attended the Ballygunge Government School prior to my joining IIT. I had never been particularly keen nor overtly aspiring on undertaking engineering education. However, my father suggested that the IITs, which were then still pretty new, had been growing into some really remarkable institutes. Hence, I took the entrance examination and was selected for the interview. I had however been more interested in joining Presidency College, Kolkata for pursuing a career in Physics. I didn’t make the cut though as Physics in Presidency had only 18 seats at that time. So, I headed over to the small town of Kharagpur to join IIT.

MM: What are the fondest memories of your college life?
SB: The biggest thing which I enjoyed about my stay in IIT was the massively cosmopolitan atmosphere that sets it apart from other universities. This coupled with the bland mess food prepared us to accept and adapt to various adversities of life. I used to be pretty homesick and would return home every other weekend. This meant that I never really got myself inducted into the hostel life. I was the middle of the ladder type, not extraordinarily devoted towards academics nor extremely averse to it. However, I feel today that if I had continued the school level tradition of solving all the exercise problems religiously instead of last night preparation of subjects, things might have gone differently. Nevertheless, I got through decently in all the semesters, but the education framework was such that a knack for pursuing research had never been imbibed in us. An attachment for any particular subject can hardly ever be developed in the present system.

     The examination system of was so designed that you must be extremely methodical to score well. You don’t need to read more or go into the depth of a subject. Rather, you need to read right and read smart. This takes away the chance to understand the true essence of a subject.

MM: What made you join the Graduate Training Programme at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre?
SB: It was again a coincident rather than a planned move. I had almost made up my mind to pursue Masters at IIT Kharagpur when this neighbour of mine informed me about the training programme at BARC. He enlightened me regarding the growing scope of atomic research in various aspects of development. I wasn’t particularly excited about the prospects until my journey for the interview. The train compartment in which I travelled was occupied solely by the interviewees, many of whom had made extensive preparations for the interview. This sparked the competitive spirit in me and I got through the process.

MM: How is the life of a Graduate Trainee or a Scientist at BARC?
SB: The first year at BARC is completely dedicated to coursework and laboratory training. You are then allotted a research group. Research groups are headed by senior scientists and are of varying sizes from five to fifteen. You can pursue a PhD during your work as a scientist in BARC subject to the fulfilment of certain academic criteria. The life of a scientist can be both mundane and exciting, completely dependent on how you tackle things. BARC has some of the finest research facilities in the world for nuclear sciences.

     Since it is a government organisation, you won’t have any driving force for undertaking some path-breaking research. However, it is up to you to break away from the shackles of the tried and tested to try something truly innovative.

MM: You have held positions as visiting faculties at various institutes abroad. How is the higher education system in India different from that in other countries?
SB: The degree of flexibility in those institutes is probably greater than that in India. Also, there is a more conducive ambience for research and product development. Some people also complain about the lack of good guides over here. That is only a minor factor in your PhD work. However, if you look at the living conditions, Indian institutes provide wonderful facilities for graduate students in terms of hostels and mess. The stipends might be more abroad but so are the expenses and the difficulties. Otherwise, the basic framework is almost the same everywhere and so are the various issues.
(At this point, the Director along with some faculties had come over to accompany Dr. Banerjee on a campus trip. He however was most eager to carry on with the interview and ensured that the star-struck MM reporters had all their questions answered.)

MM: Today graduates from premier technical institutes primarily aim at undertaking graduate studies abroad. How would you incentivise them to undertake higher education and research in India?
SB: Today, we have an overflow of college graduates willing to undertake research in various institutes and research laboratories. So, there is no dearth of applicants. There is no such incentive for the students who would rather go abroad. However, there are certain things in the system that need to be worked upon. We as a country have never really worked on the development of indigenous technological innovations. Import solutions have always worked out as the cheaper alternative. But this also meant that we could not emerge as the key manufacturing economy. This is because any technology that is imported is outdated. The cutting edge is always kept a secret.

“So, it is only in fields like atomic energy and space research where there is a general aversion towards the sharing of knowhow that India has been able to grow in leaps and bounds to develop indigenous solutions. It is essential that the focus gets shifted from IT, marketing and finance to Manufacturing and R&D in order to provide quality employment for a greater number of skilled graduates.”

MM: What message would you like to give to the students of NITR?
SB: There is no such message from my part. I believe I am too small for that. I would rather ask them for just a couple of things. Find a subject that you truly like. Something that you truly want to be and you are passionate about. And then go to its depth. The system is such that you can get through easily without digging into the depths of any subject.

     But I ask you to find at least one area which you actually enjoy because unless you have found your passion, there is no point to anything. While choosing your career, make sure that you have this passion as the key deciding factor. More than the benefits and various emoluments, it is this passion that will not only bring you excellence but also ensure that you never go to work with a dreary heart.