A Titan of Chemical Realm: Prof Binay Kumar Dutta
Prof B.K. Dutta is a giant in the field of chemical engineering. From being the president of IIChE to authoring books in his field, he has left no stones unturned to contribute towards the engineering scenario of this nation. Professor Dutta has over forty years of research and teaching experience in Chemical Engineering. He has published extensively in international journals in several areas including transport processes, membrane separation, reaction engineering, environmental engineering and mathematical modelling. MM had the opportunity to meet up with this prolific personality on his visit to the institute as the guest speaker for the institute seminar. Excerpts from the interview:
MM: Going back to the old days, can you share some memories of your childhood, your school life, college life and your family?
BKD: In my childhood, I used to live in a quaint village, 45 km away from Kolkata. Life used to be simpler then. Just a cycle of going to school, returning home and going to the playground. At that time, it was difficult to get a mere football and it was not a smooth journey as things were not abundant as they are now. I had many pleasant memories in my school. We used to call our Sanskrit teacher “Pandit Masai”. We had two pundit teachers. Those classes and the punishments meted out by them were equally interesting. I used to read in the village school near my home.
I got my undergraduate degree from a local college which is 3-4 km away from my home. I happened to study under a few excellent teachers, particularly the physical chemistry teacher Uma Charan Bhattacharya. He is no more in this world but I still remember his teachings. I did my PhD at IIT Kharagpur and used to attend many classes in the Mathematics Department with the MSc. students. At that time, there used to be another course DIIT (Diploma of Indian Institute of Technology). It is a one year post graduate course (post MSc. course). I used to attend the classes with MSc. and DIIT students. I did my research work under Prof A.S Gupta. They had a lot of influence on me as a teacher.
I have a wife and a daughter. My wife was the principal of a college which is two centuries old and holds the title of being the oldest college in India. She retired last year. My daughter did her undergraduate in Electronics and Communication from IIT Kharagpur. After doing her B. Tech, she was in University of South California, Los Angeles. She did her masters and PhD. there. Then she went to associate herself with Harvard Medical School in Boston. Now she is a part of the faculty at University of Massachusetts at Boston in the Department of Biomedical Imaging and Radiology.
MM: How did chemical engineering happen to you? What motivated you to choose this field?
BKD: There was no special reason. After doing my BSc. in Chemistry, I realised that I should follow a professional course. I applied for admission into the applied chemistry department at University of Calcutta. I had not planned for changing my stream from pure chemistry to applied chemistry. I didn’t apply for other institutes as I had decided to carry my post-graduation in University of Calcutta. Following that, I completed my PhD at IIT Kharagpur. Since then, I have taught in various institutes like NIT Durgapur, University of Calcutta and abroad in countries like USA, Canada, and Malaysia.
MM: How was your research and teaching experience in the field of chemical engineering?
BKD: I got dedicated and devoted students in the classrooms and in laboratories. I have supervised quite a few PhD students at University of Calcutta. As far as regular classroom teaching is concerned, I was the happiest during my tenure at University of Calcutta. I taught in various institutes but I didn’t get the pleasure as I got while teaching the students there because of the excellent rapport. I used to do some research independently, particularly theoretical work and published quite a few papers with Prof A.S Gupta. I got quite a few good students. The best PhD student I got was in Malaysia where I taught for three years. She was a faculty there. She was very bright, sincere and knowledgeable. She was the best PhD student I could have ever got.
MM: You have been to many foreign universities. What difference do you find in their research culture and the research culture of India?
BKD: The usage of labs is streamlined in foreign universities, which is not the case in Indian universities. The problem lies in the fact that the labs do not have enough technicians to maintain the equipment. In a state-of-the-art institute, the use of any equipment is managed through various time slots, and there is a technician to maintain that machine.
In our country, we buy instruments but they are poorly maintained. It results in gross wastage of money. There should be proper maintenance of the instruments. Our country is a still a developing country and the amount invested in these instruments, if not properly maintained, would be completely in vain.
MM: What do you think can be done to inculcate the spirit of research among the young generation?
BKD: It’s not easy to get research students in our country, because many students don’t opt for Ph.D. programs of their own volition. As a result, the quality of research students isn’t satisfactory. These students don’t get good jobs after completion of their postdoc, and are generally employed by private colleges. The foreign countries, on the other hand, offer more opportunities due to which the academic output and the quality of research students is better. If someone pursues research, or becomes a teacher, simply by compulsion and not by choice, they may turn out to be good, but the chances are very low. I believe if we work in a disciplined and orderly fashion, we can improve our situation. We make laws, but don’t implement them properly which is a great malady for our country. We should have respect for our laws and our duties. If we utilize our resources properly, we could develop much more.
The prospect of getting a decent job is something which would attract students to pursue post-doctoral programs. More opportunities should be given to the Ph.D. students. Many students go for R&D work at national labs, following their postdoc. They have objectives, but the work done by them doesn’t have a wide range of utility. Hefty investments are done on the national labs, but the output is sparse. Furthermore, the industries in our countries don’t put their faith into indigenously developed technology. The technology developed in institutes or labs, before being circulated to the industries, must be checked thoroughly under various conditions because if it fails, it shatters the confidence of the industries on the same. There are many inherent problems that we must work out.
MM: What are the future prospects of a chemical engineer?
BKD: It’s a demand and supply issue. Nowadays, we are producing so many engineers that many of them aren’t getting jobs in the core sector. The students after graduating, go for IT companies, their branch or specialization playing little importance in that regard. I believe the prospect for a chemical engineer is good, as new forms of chemical industries are being set up that depends on the need. I believe there would be a big surge in the need of food processing products, for its preservations, to increase the shelf life of food products. This is one area where I believe there is a great need for development, and the chemical engineers have a huge role to play.
Coming to the research field, many MNC’s are setting their R&D centres in developing countries as they are cheaper. We should give more effort towards R&D and not for just producing research papers. In research, we ape the work done by the developed countries, and we don’t work on improving upon it, more than often. We should have specific targets and think how this research output is going to be put to use. There are two ways of research. The first one is fundamental research. It’s an intellectual exercise which adds to the store of knowledge. The second type is the research done with a specific target, to develop something that can be put to practical purpose. In most of the engineering departments, the research carried out is rarely useful in practice. In a country like ours, at least a part of the research work carried out should aim to produce things that can be put to use.
MM: How important do you think is the R&D sector for the development of the nation?
BKD: Let me explain this through an example. Oil and natural gas commission import a lot of pipes which are used in oil exploration. We spend thousands of crores for importing those pipes from Japan and other countries. Is it so difficult to produce those pipes in our country? I don’t think so! The people who implement those policies should change their mind-set. There should be some government policy that will emphasize on completing a particular research or project within a given period of time. This kind of time bound mission is done in China and that is why this country is far ahead of us. Their government policies are effectively implemented which is taking them forward. Indian Government has taken the initiative of “Make in India”. The question is how effectively it can be implemented keeping the track of time frame. Some group of people should be given the responsibility of developing the product within a given period of time. This kind of attitude will help the nation to move at a faster pace.
MM: You have published many books like mass transfer operation, heat transfer principles and operations. Why do you think foreign author books have dominated over Indian authors in reputed institutes of the country?
BKD: There are different reasons. There is a general mentality among professors that books by Indian authors seldom match the quality provided by foreign authors. I have seen examples of a teacher recommending a book by a foreign author who died 50 years ago and his book had zero corrections and updates since 40 odd years. Having said that, not all Indian author books are up to the mark. Some of the fault lies in the publishing house whose review systems are not good. I think the professors should judge a book objectively, not based on who authored the book, but how well has the book been presented.
MM: You had a shift from research field to administrative field. How has your experience been working as the chairman, West Bengal Pollution Control Board?
BKD: It is a good question. Government system in our country works complex. Very often, holding an administrative position, they do things which are not important for the organisation one is working in. It is a constant struggle between working for empowerment of people against general interest of the organisation. My experience was mixed. I have seen people who are dedicated towards using industrial equipment properly and follow environment and pollution guidelines. Then there were people with scanty regard for the law.
MM: How has been your experience working as the president of Indian Institute of Chemical Engineers?
BKD: My experience was pretty good. During my tenure, SCHEMCON (Students Chemical Engineering Congress) was organised for the first time in 2004 at Guwahati. I did other things with my colleagues like bringing regional centres under a single umbrella and consolidating the same. I was there 2 years as secretary and 1 year as president. We also worked for streamlining of all regional centres.
MM: How do you feel after visiting the institute and interacting with the professors and students?
BKD: I came here once or twice, when it was but REC. The changes are drastic. The infrastructure has changed and it has taken a completely different shape. My experience with the students here has been good. They are diligent is what I have gauged. After my seminar got over, they came over to me and by talking with them I could know they were serious and passionate about their interest
MM: What message would you like to leave to our populace?
BKD: My message to the students would be to have respect of your profession. Try to have a basic understanding of your field, so that one can work with confidence when one enters a professional field.