A Lifetime of Quintessence: Prof. Somnath Misra Speaks

A Lifetime of Quintessence: Prof. Somnath Misra Speaks

Chaitanya Kumar Shibani Sabat | Sep 14, 2020

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A sailor without a destination cannot hope for a favourable wind.

It is rightly said that man is the maker of his destiny. One such person who correctly fits into this description would be Prof. Somnath Misra, the former Principal of REC, Rourkela.

Being highly esteemed for his pedagogical approach and compassionate nature, coupled with outstanding academic excellence throughout his career, Prof. Somnath Misra is a pivotal role model for many. He holds a Masters and Doctorate from the elite Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA). His tenure as Principal of REC Rourkela is an epitome of excellence and progress. He has been adorned by Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur as Tata Chair Professor. Under his visionary leadership as founder-director, the Biju Patnaik National Steel Institute made its way as a Centre of Excellence. His selfless service and dedication to the institute and the society are invaluable. It was of utmost honour for NIT Rourkela to confer him with Lifetime Achievement Award 2020 for his pioneering spirit and diligent hard work throughout his career.

Team Monday Morning had the privilege to interview Prof. Somnath Misra to garner insights on his life. Read on to know his inspiring story in his own words.

DOWN THE MEMORY LANE TO CHILDHOOD

I (Prof. Somnath Misra) was born in 1936 in Puri, the holy land of Lord Jagannath. I had my early education, sequentially, in a chatsally (in the portico of a house) headed by an Abadhan, from Haveligally Lower Primary school till 3rd class and Balisahi Middle English School up to 7th class. Although these were non-elite institutions, the teachers were strict disciplinarians and also at the same time affectionate. They impressed me deeply to mould my life.

I recall an incident when, on one occasion, I did not go to chatsally but continued playing with my sisters. After some time, I saw my Abadhan walking down the street to my residence to enquire about me. I wondered if I could hide. But I finally surrendered to Abdhanji. He then escorted me to the chatsally.

Similarly, on another occasion in the lower primary school, the Head Master Natabar Mohanty saw me trying to catch a butterfly in the playground. He then instructed me not to catch innocent insects during the holy month of Kartik.

In the Bali Sahi M E School, once the Headmaster Loknath Mohapatra  while announcing the examination result in the classroom, declared "Somnath, you have done well by standing first in the class, but you do not write a good hand." Indeed, my handwriting did not improve significantly, despite undergoing the daily chore of writing one page of practice writing.

I stood first in the board examination conducted by the Odisha State for the Upper Primary Class level. I was given the Junior Monthly Scholarship to pursue my onward high school studies.

Then I joined Puri Zila School to pursue High School Matriculation. I was tremendously impressed by some of my teachers, not only in academic matters but in several co-curricular activities. Teacher Ramani Ranjan Das was excellent in teaching mathematics. He was instrumental in advising us classmates to voluntarily contribute some amount each to establish a class fund. Out of which a student may borrow to pay the class tuition fee, with a nominally payable interest, and avoid paying a significant late fee fine. I was directed by him to maintain the register of such class fund management. Then as per his advice, we approached the headmaster for permission. The Headmaster, Sri Sukanta Rao, appreciated the venture and advised us to carry on, but declined to grant official permission. After four years of high school studies, we distributed back the accumulated fund with appreciable profit to the member classmates. Thus in that way, we learnt the process of cooperative financial management.

Teacher Indubhushan Mishra was teaching us English and History. He amazed us all by the extra-curricular activity of tourism. He escorted some of us classmates to visit the pilgrimage place Biraja Temple, near the Baitarini river, and in the year 1948 to the then newly-declared capital city of Bhubaneswar to see Khandagiri hills & Udaygiri cave sites. He nourished the seeds of patriotism in us, in a way similar to the film star Abhi Bhattacharya in the movie Jagriti singing "Aao bachchon tumhen dikhayen dharti Hindustanki".

I completed my Matriculation examination in 1952 by standing First Class First, all over Odisha. I received so much appreciation and congratulations from teachers, friends, elderly personalities.

I remember my teacher Ramani Ranjan Das stated, “Soma, you have brought so much glory to your Alma Mater Puri Zilla School during its centenary year.”

REMINISCING THE OLD COLLEGE DAYS

I joined Samanta Chandra Sekhara College in the year 1952 for my Intermediate studies in the science stream. I completed the course in 1954, securing 1st Class 1st position at Utkal University & was awarded Senior monthly scholarship for onward studies.

It was then a fascination to study engineering. I got selected at Banaras Hindu University for studying Metallurgical Engineering, and also at IIT Kharagpur for Electrical Engineering. I then perused that engineering is applied science. Unless you have a strong foundation of science, you cannot be a knowledgeable engineer.  So I abandoned the idea of the pursuit of engineering studies at that level, in preference to strengthening my base of science.

So I joined Ravenshaw College (now University) for a B. Sc Course in Chemistry, Mathematics & Hons. Course in Physics. For the first time, I had to move out of my hometown Puri. There was the pleasure of discovering the broader dimension of being a resident student and getting to know outstanding faculty members, such as Professors Mahendra Raut, Gokulananda Mohapatra, Raman Rao- all of Chemistry, Shiv Prasad Mishra- Mathematics, B. C. Dutta -Physics, O' Brien- English, also our hostel warden and many others. Eventually, I got elected as the General Secretary of East Hostel, and in my tenure, I conducted several socio-cultural events. In 1956 I graduated with B.Sc (Hons.) 1st Class First, winning Mayurbhanja Gold Medal as the Best Graduate.

Later I applied and was selected for science-based technological studies of Metallurgy at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru which was then popularly known as Tata Institute. I completed the degree of DIISc (Metallurgy) in 1958 as the class topper.

MIT MEMOIR

While undergoing industrial training during 1958 at Tata Iron & Steel Co., Jamshedpur, I aspired to pursue post-graduation in the USA. Since I did not have financial resources to pay for airfare or even sea fare, I joined as a Research Assistant at Research & Control Laboratory TISCO, Jamshedpur with a salary of ₹400/ per month.

I was selected by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, to join as a part-timer Research Assistant cum graduate student from Fall semester, September 1959. With the savings from my TISCO employment, I paid for a sea voyage from Diamond Harbour, Kolkata to North Carolina, USA.

Studies and Research at MIT were deeply interactive. I undertook the path of procuring a Master of Science (SM) during 1959-61 and Doctorate in Science (Sc.D), during 1961-63, both in the discipline of Metallurgy under the guidance of Prof. Michael B. Bever. The path included graduating in a certain number of combination of theory subjects, some forming the principal base of physical metallurgy, some forming the interdisciplinary minor base (which I opted from Physics & Mathematics), two foreign languages with scientific & technological literature. It also included innovative research investigation into the area of the sponsored research (I opted for in the domain of Liquid Metal Solution Calorimetry under the guidance of Prof Bever), submission of the thesis & its oral defence interview. At the same time, I was awarded the financial assistance from my guide's research scheme sponsored by the Naval Research Scheme of the USA.

Calorimetry Lab, MIT Days

[In picture: Prof. Somnath Misra's MIT days, Calorimetry lab.]

Thus a graduate student at MIT spends most of his time extending into the late nights, involving classroom studies, performing experiments individually or with mutual assistance with fellow students, studying in the library, submitting data to the centralised computer centre & obtaining results from there.

My guide, Prof. Bever once told me, "Som, you have been studying & researching continuously for so many years, you need a vacation for two weeks”. So I made a trip to Niagara Falls, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec and had spectacular visits. On completion of my Sc.D in 1963, I worked as Research Associate at MIT for one year, then joined Union Carbide Corporation, New York as a Nuclear Metallurgist.

JOURNEY INTO TEACHING PROFESSION- HOMECOMING

During my MIT days, I, along with my two Indian apartment-mates, Mr Ahindra Ghosh and Mr Asit Sengupta had taken the vow that we will return to mother India and join the teaching profession. My erstwhile Guru, Prof. T. R. Anantharaman, earlier my teacher at IISc, Bengaluru, and later head of Metallurgy Department at Banaras Hindu University, (BHU), wrote to me, "Misra, you have served abroad for so long, now it is time to serve your motherland."

I recalled how a farmer keeps the best seeds of his produce for plantation in the next season, similarly, being a product of my Guru, I must be his seed for plantation into the world of academics.

Award of National Metallurgist 1972

[In picture: Prof. Somnath Misra receiving Award of National Metallurgist 1972 by M. Kumaramangalam, Union Minister Steel.]

Thus, I accepted his offer and joined BHU as Reader in the Metallurgy department, in July 1965 and got promoted in 1970 to the position of Professor at a record age of 34 years. I was awarded the National Metallurgist Award by the Union Steel Minister, Mr Mohan Kumar Mangalam Birla & The Indian Institute of Metals in 1972 for installing the first Liquid Metal Calorimeter of Asia, at BHU. Thus, my childhood ambition to become a teacher got kindled by joining BHU as a faculty member. Incidentally, my erstwhile apartment-mates Mr Ahindra Ghosh and Mr Asit Sengupta joined as faculty members at IIT Kanpur and Anna University, Chennai, respectively. I enjoyed my journey into the world of teaching and never looked back.

DAYS AT REC, ROURKELA

I joined REC, Rourkela in October 1974 as Principal. There were then about 15 RECs, a chain of Federal Educational institutions, spread all over India. The vision of Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru for generating qualified human resources for the development of the country translated into establishing a chain of IITs under the Central sector, and a chain of RECs under joint (State and Central) sector management.

The RECs admitted students based on the quota of 50% for the location state and 50% for all other states' quota-based proportionately on state-wise population. Thus, the RECs comprised students of all-India denomination and truly displayed -"Punjab, Sindhu, Gujrat, Maratha...... Dravida Utkala Banga" - the epitome of India.

At that time, the RECs were not autonomous but academically affiliated to the nearby University. With a lot of campaigning, I got REC Rourkela academically liberated from the affiliating University of Sambalpur in the year 1992 by converting it to the rank of the 1st Unitary Autonomous College in Odisha.

After a long period, during Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Prime Ministership, the Union Minister of HRD, Mr Murli Manohar Joshi in 2002, announced the implementation of the proposed amendments; thus, liberating the RECs, academically and management wise, by converting them to Central fold NITs.

Each REC selected the merit list of the students to be admitted, by their marks secured in the qualifying examination of the respective State 10+2 or equivalent boards. The non-uniform standards of marking resulted in a disparity of standards and quality of admitted students. In 1975, I introduced a state-level entrance examination for admission to the REC for the first time. The other engineering colleges of Odisha at Burla and even the medical colleges joined this common entrance test from next year. Then I was advocating for an all India Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for all the RECs.

The legendary Shri Biju Patnaik established REC of Odisha on 15 August 1961 at Rourkela primarily for interaction with the Rourkela Steel Plant (RSP), the premier integrated steel industry of Independent India, by way of practical training, joint research projects and employment of the graduating engineers. I found that the RSP and other integrated public sector steel industries of India were going to the IITs for campus selection whereas, the products of RECs were to appear at an all India entrance test along with all other aspirants. I complained to the Union Steel Ministry stating that the majority of IIT recruits (~90%) utilised their steel plant employment as a stepping stone for migrating to foreign countries within a year, by contrast, ~ 90% of the REC graduates, selected through the general entrance test continued their employment faithfully. But the Ministry did not bother to include REC for campus selection.

At the time, Government of India had introduced some industry-oriented M.Tech courses, in REC, Rourkela, like Machine Design, Furnace Technology, Energy Transmission, intending to provide facilities to in-service steel plant and government sector engineers to augment their qualification.

Since Rourkela Steel Plant did not permit its engineers to undertake such courses, I was guided by my U.S. experience of most post-graduate students pursuing part-time courses, utilising simultaneous part-time employment. So, I offered these courses as part-time evening courses, even by collecting fees on self-financing mode. There was a good response to these courses. I was surprised that most of the organisational management in India were rigid, instead of being flexible.

The excellence of an educational institution depends essentially on the quality of its alumni, and not much on faculty. My products of REC have proved their quality worldwide. They have become global assets, contributing significantly in many directions.

It is not possible in my short write up to discuss such performances comprehensively. Still, as an example, I have great pride to mention about our 1983 graduate Soma Mandal, selected to head the Steel Authority of India Limited as Chairperson. I recall my pleasant congregation with our alumni at Global Meet in the USA, at Georgia, Atlanta, in 2015, and the Convention of Odisha Society of America at Princeton in 2010.

PHILOSOPHY OF TEACHING

The present system of education in India has evolved primarily from the British Colonial System. Lord Macaulay in 1835 introduced the British colonial outlook of school education for India through his 'Minutes of Education'. The universities at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were established in 1857 primarily to generate human resources to manage the administrative, lower level clericals and bureaucrats. They created a system of affiliating universities, which they did not have in Britain even! With greater demands for such manpower, the British opened several colleges which were under affiliative control of the ruling University. These colleges did not have any autonomy- neither administrative, managerial, academic nor financial; the system was entirely government-controlled.

After the dawn of independence, the leaders, as a measure of "Tryst with Destiny" took steps essentially to focus on the issues like framing the constitution, the administrative, the legislative, judiciary, socialistic, financial, law and order matters etc. Educational reforms were of secondary importance to them. Several new educational institutions were later conceived and established in independent India, step by step, such as the IITs, IIMs, AIIMS, RECs etc.

The affiliating university system of the British days, however, did not undergo significant modification, post-independence. Thus, the components of the Indian system of education- academic, or administrative, or financial - were essentially government regulated, be it state government or central government as per the sponsorship.

The University Education Commission was set up in 1948 under the Chairmanship of Dr S. Radhakrishnan to report on Indian university education and suggest improvements and extensions that might be desirable to suit the present and future needs and aspirations of the country. It recommended that the University Grants Commission of the United Kingdom be reconstituted into the University Grants Committee (UGC), which was formally inaugurated by late Shri Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the then Minister of Education, Natural Resources and Scientific Research. The concept was borrowed from the British system of primarily controlling the process through the instrument of "Grants". The UGC, however, was formally established only in November 1956 as a statutory body of the Government of India through an Act of Parliament for the coordination, determination and maintenance of standards of university education in India.

This system has made our academic institutions government dependent. This is not a desirable trend. By contrast, the educational institutions in the USA are truly independent. The primary Mantra of autonomy is financial autonomy. None of the top universities of the USA, such as Harvard, MIT, YALE, PRINCETON, COLUMBIA, CORNEL, CALIFORNIA etc. accept any recurring financial grant from the government. They, of course, accept funding by way of sponsorship for research projects. The universities have created their financial resources, e.g. Chairs of Professorships, foundations, investments, real estate, sponsored donations, alumni created capital donations, etc. It is unimaginable that these universities will accept any directive by the government towards academic, cultural and co-curricular activities. Recently, President Trump declared that given online studies due to the Corona pandemic, the international students in the universities may leave the USA. This resulted in a lot of protests, and the declaration was withdrawn.

The American educational institutions also have mechanisms for attracting meritorious students. They provide research assistantships, part-time on-campus job assignments, part-time teaching assistantships combined with the flexible part-time studies, whereas affluent students may pursue the regular time scheme studies. There are no governmental dictates for reservation of seats, quota system, affirmative action, etc. The institutions provide financial assistance for financially poor but meritorious students.

The primary mission of our educational institutes should be to provide inspiration as a gateway for knowledge, opportunity for innovative ideas, creative thinking, whereas, employability is a subsidiary by-product.

Thus, the gateway for advancement for our educational institutes is to be motivated to attain financial autonomy by various means such as the creation of foundations, achieving excellence to attract substantial capital resources, inspiring bright and well-established alumni & industrial organisations to contribute, initial venture capital non-recurring funding from the government. The other components of autonomy- academic, administrative, attracting bright students & faculty members, and policy aspects - will follow.

Many privately managed educational institutions have been created in India since independence which is financially independent of government grants and controls. Some have attained excellent standards of quality and research-developmental activities, some coaching for success in all-India entrance tests, civil services examinations etc. Many private institutions, however, are largely money-making ventures. Thus, an independent (non-governmental) regulatory and assessment authority should be entrusted with the responsibility of assessment and publication of the quality ranking of all educational institutions- governmental and private.

The educational institutions should look beyond the periphery of the State or the country to interact globally. Thus, our institutions should widen their vision to attract international students and faculty members, interact with foreign universities by way of academic exchange, joint research schemes, mutually interactive course activities etc.

Experience as Director of Biju Patnaik National Steel Institute, Puri

The Biju Patnaik National Steel Institute was established by the Government of India at Puri on 1 January 2000. I joined the institute as the founder-Director. Whereas REC, Rourkela was a structured institution when I joined it as Principal. The steel institute at Puri was in the primary stage of conception. The vision and mission were to admit engineering graduates/diploma holders to be imparted with the intensive knowledge of iron & steel making, to generate much needed human resources for ferrous industries. It required active course work (2 years), supplemented with frequent in-plant training with the steel industry. In the beginning, there were problems involving the choice of venue of the institute, conceivings & materialisation of MoU with integrated steel plants, curriculum formulation, and recruitment of capable faculty & students. The first batch of around 30 students was selected based on their biodata and diploma certificates. Some faculty members were recruited. A computer laboratory was set up in the institute. The classes got started with a lot of motivation. Services of some guest faculties were availed. The management was essentially controlled by the Union Ministry of Steel from the Delhi & regional branch at Kolkata. The classical governmental control & affiliation with a university were problematic. The newly conceived the Biju Patnaik University of Technology, then located at Bhubaneswar was to be the affiliating University. Thus my experience was another pioneering approach of initiation and reformation.

Recreation & Relaxation

I had a fascination with travelling and sightseeing, both at home and abroad. I recall my last visit to Puri during February 2020 by flight from Jharsuguda airport to Bhubaneswar and onward to Puri by road. I had holy Darshan of Lord Jagannath, Siddha Mahaveer and the Chilka lake at Satpada, visit of Alarnath Temple at Brahmagiri. After my return to Rourkela, there has been the Corona pandemic bringing the world to unprecedented lockdown and shutdown. Now I spend most of the time indulging in the other hobbies of reading books, listening to old Hindi movie music. Life goes on!

On Being Conferred the Lifetime Achievement Award

Lifetime Achievement Award, 2020

[In picture: Prof. Somnath Misra receiving Lifetime Achievement Award, 2020]

My immediate reaction was that the credit must be attributed to my life team. The blessings of parents are paramount. The inspiration arises from the love & motivation from my life-partner Susama. The journey of my life involves my professional travel mates, my Gurus, my colleagues, my co-workers, and above all, my students. Whatever I have achieved is by their contributions. Whatever I am, is the result of teamwork.

“Carry on the journey of your pursuit of knowledge. The sky is the limit.”

We are grateful to Prof. Misra for his invaluable insights that he so dedicatedly and earnestly shared with us. We hope this account resonates with many a young mind that seeks glory! Team Monday Morning congratulates Prof. Somnath Misra on his achievements of a lifetime and wishes him good luck and good health.

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