A Tale Of Vision, Perseverance And Will: Arun Kumar Rath

A Tale Of Vision, Perseverance And Will: Arun Kumar Rath

Sai Vanshika Aishwarya Nanda | Aug 31, 2020

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Learning doesn't depend on whether your hair is black or grey. It should always be from a higher potential to a lower potential.

These inspiring words have come from a person who's determination, perseverance, and clarity in life have taken him to heights of success which all of us dream about. Mr Arun Kumar Rath, the current President of NIT Rourkela Alumni Association (NITRAA) and a graduate of the batch of 1981 (Electrical Engineering), has served as the CEO of Durgapur Steel Plant and Bhilai Steel Plant and after that engaged himself with NITRAA. A person with multiple visions and will to carry the organization to great heights, Mr A K Rath speaks to us about his professional life, love and passion for helping students and his success mantra (He went down his memory lane and made sure that he provides us with every minute detail even though he was getting nostalgic and emotional).

"Your problem is a reflection of your inner weakness."

Here is a brief excerpt from the conversation with Mr AK Rath:


Monday Morning (MM): Walk us through your childhood and schooling days. How was life before joining REC Rourkela?

Arun Kumar Rath (AKR): I have done my schooling in a vernacular school (Odia medium). I wasn't very good at studies. I was pushed to go to school. Once I reach there, I seek ways to get out of it. My education didn't have a great start too. Then I was admitted to Ramakrishna Mission School in Bhubaneswar, which already had a reputation of having an exceptional standard, discipline, and moral values of Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna. This changed my outlook on education. Then I was enrolled in Secondary Board School in Cuttack. After that, I studied at BJB College in Bhubaneswar. I preferred enjoying my life more, but my parents were always worried about my education as I am the eldest of six and will set the trend for the younger ones. My school life was highly disciplined. In my first year in college, I tried to break out of all the discipline imposed on me. I started studying ardently from my second year onwards because, at that time, I already had a realization that if I don't study now, I won't be able to succeed.


MM: Why did you choose REC Rourkela? Was Electrical Engineering always your preference?

AKR: No, there wasn't anything particular about my college selection. Though I resided in Odisha's capital, I didn't have many outlooks into these matters or what career I should pursue. I had a bit of fascination for Electrical Engineering but not to the extent that it is my favourite subject or any inclination towards it. We had a paper on Electricity and Magnetism in Intermediate Science (ISc), and the subject had fascinated me a bit. That's all. When I got the admission letter from REC, it was by default in Electrical Engineering. In this way, my interest and what I was assigned, matched. 

MM: How were your days in REC Rourkela? Any unforgettable memories that you wish to share with us?

AKR: REC happened to me because there was an entrance test. Our batch was the first one to face an entrance. We had no prior knowledge about how this test was going to happen. So everything depended on pure knowledge. If it had been based on academics, I had no chances of getting into REC Rourkela. 40 years have passed since, but I remember one incident very clearly because it helped me discover myself.  

In my final year, which was in 1981, we had to write about a topic out of our area of interest for the seminar writing. I wanted to do something out of the league, and that time the microprocessors were whooping fresh and developing steadily. A professor joined our college at that time who had done prior research on microprocessors and became the HOD. I, along with some of my friends, requested him to enlighten us about microprocessors. But he simply denied. That hurt me because I felt as if we were inferior. The rebel in me got aroused. Thus I decided to prepare my seminar on microprocessors and prepare for a technical talk. Library also couldn't help me because all the books had already been issued. But one of the professors, fortunately, came forward to assist me incognito. My friends were supportive of this matter. They also put in all the efforts to help me out in my seminar and technical talk. They even volunteered to make my chart paper presentations. That new professor was the session head, and at the start of the presentation, the professor questioned me rigorously and later decided that I had to reappear for the seminar. I was given a chance to change the subject, but I stood firm on my decision. For the second time, that professor didn't turn up. But my presentation went very well. The only reason due to which I took this risk in my final year was because I wanted to convey the message that no one should be deprived of knowledge. And I secured the highest marks in the whole batch. This experience has always been with me.

Mr Arun in his initial days of his professional career

MM: How has REC Rourkela helped you develop as a person? How have the skills which you gained helped in your professional career?

AKR: At this point, it is challenging for me to differentiate between what I learned in NIT and what I learned afterwards. I can tell you that there are two types of lessons that residential colleges teach us. When you spend 4-5 years in hostel, you meet different people and mix with them; how you interact with your juniors and seniors, with your friends and roommates every day, create some great memories that stay in your heart forever. This kind of ecosystem; all the gossips, fests, mess, studies, etc., enters into you, and you can't find it anywhere else. Your generation has mobile phones and other technologies, and you choose to spend your time in those. In our time, we utilized our free time with our friends and families, which created excellent bonding among us. We learn a lot from the people with whom we interact.

Once I was talking to a past head of the institute, he made a remarkable statement that,

I am not here to produce engineers. I am more interested in the institute's ambience than what is being taught in the class.

I was an introvert before joining, and these interactions that I had with my juniors and seniors broke apart the introvert in me. I had a transformation in my personality, which I can't quantify in words. We all have become professionals, and the foundation for this was laid in the college, and we went on polishing it. 


MM: Tell us about your career after graduating from REC Rourkela. How were your initial experiences of getting a taste of professional life?

AKR: I was never inclined towards the industry. Unlike these days, we didn't have campus placements. At that time, the public sector was only recruiting. I was more into academics and research. I joined the M.Tech course in IIT Kanpur. REC Rourkela had a tremendous reputation in IIT Kanpur. So my professors were very supportive. But then, I got an interview call form SAIL, and my father convinced me to attend it. The first phase of the interview was around my summer training in Rourkela Steel Plant, and it went horrible. But when they found out my background, the agenda of the interview shifted towards power systems - my area of study. After a few months, I got an appointment letter for Rourkela Steel Plant. Being the eldest, I felt like staying close to my family. So I didn't go back to Kanpur. I joined RSP. During the new joiners training in RSP, the top 10 in the training assessment out of 120 got to decide their branch, and I was among them. My fellow mates challenged me to go to a specific service department. So I even joined that department though the career growth opportunity in that department was very bleak. Subsequently, I got two to three opportunities to leave SAIL, but my root was in SAIL. I stayed in that department for over 28 years. Then I got promoted overnight and became one of the youngest general managers and took charge of looking after a project building Steel Melting Shop at ISP Burnpur, subsequently becoming head of the project of 2.5MT integrated steel plant at that place.

Mr Arun Kumar Rath at SAIL

MM: What made you work in the Steel Authority of India Ltd. (SAIL) for over 34 years? Did you think of changing paths at any point in time?

AKR: I was too immersed in my job. I never depended on my job to define me; instead, I always defined my work in my job. If I am given some task, then I do it to my satisfaction. If I get more time, then I invite jobs to me. There are mundane jobs, routine activities, and other work, but if I get some free time after working in the plant, I try to involve myself in social service. I had visited the institute library sometime back in 2008. There was a scanner that would automatically flip the pages of the book and scan the pages. I, along with my colleagues, have converted rare Odia books into digitized ones to make them available to everyone. In this way, I was too immersed in enriching my active time and never thought of changing paths. SAIL is a vast industry, and everyone has a specific role to perform. When you go to different places, your environment and job changes accordingly, and it has happened to me as well. 

MM: You have been the CEO at two different steel plants, namely Durgapur and Bhilai. How was your experience at handling the responsibility of such a high position?

AKR: The CEO of a plant has to look after the workings, the finance, the HR, procurement, the township, Government, and stakeholder. The CEO is the driver. The job has tremendous pressure. In Durgapur, I came to know about the losses in the previous quarters, so I worked on reducing the losses and increasing the revenue. While I was the CEO of Durgapur Steel Plant, I got a call and was informed that I had been appointed as CEO at Bhilai Steel Plant. There was an accident and major casualties before I joined. I had to work with employees who were affected morally. Bhilai is the flagship plant of SAIL and recipient of the Prime Minister's Trophy eleven times. My challenge was to bring up the morale of the plant while reviewing, taking corrective measures on the safety system and also bringing up the operating capability of the plant. Our team started with a visit to every victim's family and spent as much time as possible with employees individually - inspiring them, identifying problems, and coming out with solutions. It was great teamwork. Another big challenge was to enhance the production of rails from the newly built Universal Rail Mill for Indian Railways. It was a huge challenge and filled with very innovative initiatives.

If I have to describe my professional journey then it goes like this, “Rourkela prepared me, Burnpur gave me the strength, Durgapur brought maturity in me and Bhilai gave me the opportunity to go beyond my capability”.

Mr Arun at Bhilai Steel Plant


MM: When was the last time you visited NIT Rourkela? What are the remarkable changes you have observed since the time you graduated in 1981?

AKR: Till 2010, I was in constant touch with NIT Rourkela. I am a frequent visitor to the campus, and I have been in contact with many students, whoever was coming for vocational training. Sometime in the early 2000s, I used to take classes on Sundays. Some of the students who were vocational trainees used to request me to discuss the practical aspect of industries because this was not a part of their curriculum. Eventually, I started taking classes on "Selection of drives", and I also got some of my friends to deliver lectures on PLCs and other relevant topics. The very recent visit of mine was in January when I had received the Distinguished Alumnus Award. I stayed in the guest house and had a walk around the campus. In 2015, I visited NIT Rourkela when I was posted as CEO of Durgapur Steel Plant and had a tour of the campus, and I was overwhelmed to see the beauty of the campus, the buildings, infrastructure, etc. It was wonderful. 

MM: Tell us about the motivation behind your YouTube Channel and the type of content you intend to upload there.

(The link to the YouTube Channel can be found here.)

AKR: I had built meditation centres in both Durgapur' Arise & Awake' and Bhilai "PEACE HOUSE "so that we can meditate. The Brahma Kumaris wanted to share my experiment of meditation in the industry. So I recorded it on my phone and uploaded it on my Youtube channel and asked them to download it. That was my first YouTube video, which got telecasted on the Awakening TV channel. During the lockdown, I had nothing much to do. So I was casually going through my recorded speeches, and I found my speeches during my tenure as CEO that had been presented to me in my farewell. I uploaded only the stand-alone videos. I cherish the memories.


MM: What do you think about the outreach of NITRAA? How can the interactions be improved?

AKR: Till 2010, I had a low-key involvement in the alumni activities, but after I left Rourkela, and till I retired, I could not devote any time to alumni activities. I attended the Global Alumni Meet, which was organized in Bhubaneswar last December 2019. I met a lot of people over there, and I had a vision for the alumni association. Some of my friends asked me to give a try in the elections. I never intended to be the president, but I was comparatively free at that time, so I decided to give it a try, and things turned out to be in my favour. I want the alumni to connect more and frequently with the Institute, the faculties and most importantly, the students. The alumni should be part of the ecosystem and take the role of mentors for the students. We are planning to open the alumni website to the students. My daughter was connected with the alumni association for her college while she was pursuing her MBA. During that time, she built up a strong relationship with all her college alumni and developed many qualities. I want our college students to have a similar kind of exposure. I am ensuring that the website work is completed as soon as possible. We have our alumni scattered all across the world, and we are your mentors. In this virtual and digitalized world, I want the alumni to be visible to all students so that they can seek help in any form. I want to be just a click away from you people. Our website went live in January 2020, and now we are expanding it in the way it is planned. Any help related to internships, jobs, finances, and education will be provided to the students. The message will be spread throughout our network and not just to a single person or official. I was supposed to visit NIT Rourkela in this period, but due to this pandemic, I wasn't able to travel. Despite this roadblock, we are working on this digital platform, and I am looking ahead to the success of my vision. 

MM: How much are you satisfied with the alumni involvement?

AKR: A lot of things need to be done, and I am looking forward to it. We have a vision, and we are working on it.

MM: On 15th August 2020, NITRAA launched a new mentorship program for the students. Can you please enlighten us about the technicalities and initiatives of this program?

AKR: Initially, I wanted to launch this mentorship program directly for the students, but we did not have any organized or stabilized structure of the plan. So first, we tested this program with the alumni itself to establish a proper structure of the plan. I, along with 15 others, registered as mentors. A lot of my friends who are also very successful professionals have registered as mentees. They want to learn something from you people as well. The whole process will take some time to implement according to my vision. It is not a mechanized process; instead, it is a 'Guru-Shishya' process where a mentee should be the highest priority of a mentor. This culture has to be brought in. Very soon we will be launching it for students and faculties of the institute.

Mentoring is not only about emphasizing success. It is also about empathizing with the mentee's failures and encouraging him/her at each step.

MM: Brief us about the progress of the upcoming projects for giving new and better facilities to students that NITRAA is planning to undertake.

AKR: We are aiming to add to the institute effort in enhancing facilities in hostels and many other facilities on the campus as well. The alumni are looking forward to furthering developments on the campus. Once a pilot project starts, it can build a base for the upcoming projects, and then we can inculcate your ideas too.


MM: How do you manage your professional career, personal life, and at the same time, keep NITRAA active?

AKR: I have got two other assignments with me, which I am doing at free will. I am an expert in CSIR – Institute of Minerals and Materials Technology. I am guiding the scientists in getting more and more entrepreneurs for their research project in waste processing areas in the mineral sector. I am also working as a part of a working committee member in Steel Hub, which is conceived for the Kalinganagar area. I don't need to stress myself because I am very comfortable with the type of work I am doing.  

I didn't have a balance between my personal and professional life when I was working in SAIL. I didn't bother about my health, family, social functions because I was way too engaged with my work in the last ten years. Now I want to devote my time and attention to my personal life. My priorities have changed now. NITRAA is most important for me at present. I have taken it as a full-time job. I am fortunate to get a very passionate team with me. All of us in NITRAA feel fortunate and obliged to have got an opportunity to contribute something to the Alma Mater. 

Mr Arun busy with his professional life

MM: How do you see yourself in the future?

AKR: At this stage, I am not worried about my future; instead, I'm focusing on what I can do today. This has been one of the essential things in my life. There is a saying.

Take care of the present, and the Future will take care of itself.

MM: What is your success mantra? Please enlighten our audience with a few lines of inspiration. 

AKR:  All of us are unique in our own ways. Everyone has to write their own story. I prefer genuine rather than a fake relationship. And this has paid me back as well. Whenever I talk to someone, I talk with them genuinely and from my heart. So I would say that be genuine and natural. Try to find out your weakness and attributes which you lack. The purpose of life is to grow continuously, not only as professionals but also in human qualities. Rediscover yourself and work on yourself continuously rather than looking towards others. 

When I entered college, I was a very shy person, and I was inferior at communicating or public speaking. I could write good drafts, but if someone asked me to speak, then I used to back out. I identified this problem myself, and I started looking for ways. My willpower to overcome this weakness of mine automatically bought me solutions, and now I can say that I have crossed all the difficulties while developing myself as a good communicator.

I read a lot of books. In college days, I used to skip my lunch and dinner and stay back at my room to read books and complete them in a go. There was this book by Paulo Coehlo, "The Alchemist" which was a bestseller. I didn't know about that because I generally buy books during my travel for the sake of reading. So after completing the book, I had a walk-in my hometown and I went to an internet café. Randomly, I started searching about that book and realized that it was a bestseller all around the world! I visited the author's page, and there was an option to contact him. I clicked on it without any purpose and sent a mail expressing my love for the book and how enjoyable the experience I had while reading it. I forgot about that mail after I came back to work. When I checked my mailbox after a few days, I saw that Paulo himself had replied to my message! I was so amazed at that moment (laughs cheerfully). The mail read, "Hello, Arun. Readers like you inspire us to write more and more. Just remember that "NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE IF YOU DESIRE IT FROM YOUR HEART." That was it. This line has kept me inspiring since ages and will do the same for days to come. It is embedded in me now.

Team MM congratulates Mr Arun Kumar Rath for his successful professional career and also conveys our gratitude for taking NITRAA to great heights.

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