Tackling Unprecedented Challenges: Director's Desk

Tackling Unprecedented Challenges: Director's Desk

Sai Vanshika Adarsh Swarnakar | Sep 28, 2020

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It's been almost two months now that the new Autumn Semester has started, and we all are the witnesses to the paradigm shift in the way knowledge is imparted. While online education is revolutionary (and the only way out), it undeniably lacks in many aspects. The students facing problems is indeed a reality, and the administration is trying its best to mitigate the issues with the limited resources at hand. 

In such a critical time, we got an opportunity to catch up with the Director of NIT Rourkela, Hon'ble Prof Animesh Biswas, to discuss pressing issues related to online classes, attendance, fees, the COVID-19 outbreak in the institute, and much more

Snap from the interview.

Here is an excerpt from the interview:

Monday Morning (MM): Congratulations on winning the prestigious IETE-Ram Lal Wardha Award 2020. How do you manage to take out time for research activities amidst the Director's intense administrative work?

Director: I received the award for my contribution to research for the last ten years, and it highlights all my works related to multi-conductor lines, filter theory and antennas that I have done with my students mostly during my stay at IIT Kanpur campus. I am still in touch with PhD students who are doing the research there as a mentor. We discuss various things, and I try to resolve their problems whenever they face some. 

MM: What are your primary areas of focus for the session 2020-21 concerning the institute?

Director: As we all know, this is indeed not a typical year. This academic year, I would, first of all, want my students to come back to the institute as soon as the conditions go towards normalcy. The institute without students is dull and aloof; only students can bring back the spirit and charm. But of course, my students' health comes first, and we can't compromise on that. 

MM: How did you tackle all the issues related to the institute when the COVID-19 outbreak happened?

Director: Tackling with the grave COVID-19 outbreak in the institute does require a collective effort that we are moving ahead with. I have a team that works dedicatedly to sort out the problems arising from the pandemic. They keep me updated with the on-ground situation. We are following all the rules and norms mandated by the state and central government. We also have doctors in our institute who are working tirelessly. 

The circumstances were highly challenging in the initial stages. I had to make the urgent decision to close the institute from March 15. I was out of the station, and I could get the ground reality only after returning to Rourkela. Many students wanted to return to their hometown, while many were willing to stay back. I had to make some difficult decisions at that point, seeing the gravity of the situation. After that, I formed the team that works towards ensuring that things are under control in these unprecedented times. 

MM: What are the steps being taken for the smooth conduction of online classes and students' evaluation, seeing the uncertainty of the situation? 

Director: We are indeed one of the first institutes amongst all NITs to go ahead with online classes. And till now, things are going smoothly, if not perfectly. I am getting more or less feedback only from the faculty members' side, and I am eager to know what students feel about these online classes. I accept that there are shortcomings; transitioning so abruptly to an entirely different mode was challenging as neither did we have the requisite infrastructure nor the experience. But somehow, we managed, and things are going on. 

With that, we had to make many significant decisions like we won't conduct mid-sem examinations. We would probably have one whole week dedicated to only labs after the students return to the institute. Many professors are taking labs via online mode, but in my opinion, they are not very useful. So one entire week for labs will serve the purpose, and on that basis, professors can award the marks. 

Dean Academics can give more clarity on these issues. The article can be found here.

MM: The institute has decided to provide an amount of Rs. 800 to students who are facing issues related to data packages. Can you elaborate on this scheme concerning the eligibility and how is this amount going to be provided?

Director: Only those students who are not receiving any scholarship or stipend will receive the amount. We understand that due to online classes, students have to bear the internet charges, so it's a small effort from our side to help the students make the process a bit smoother for them. 

The modalities of it have not been decided yet. Our finance department is handling it, and most probably, it will be via bank transfer that we would be providing the said sum. 

MM: Is there any proposal for relaxation of attendance criteria for this semester?

Director: We have had an extensive discussion on this. As we don't have an efficient way to ensure that students are genuinely attending the classes, we have decided that we will consider the cases of students who are facing genuine issues. Special leaves might be granted to students who face genuine connectivity issues. More authentic details about the attendance criteria for this semester can be asked to Dean Academics.

MM: Can you give us some updates about the evaluation process which will happen this semester?

Director: The mid-semester exams have been cancelled for this sem. I think we will be having the end semester exams. The TA marks will be decided based on quizzes and assignments. As mentioned in the recent Senate circular, the end semester exams shall be conducted in conventional mode only after students return to the institute. More authentic and elaborate details can be asked to Dean Academics.

MM: The newly built Lecture Hall-II complex was supposed to record the lectures and teaching material for online transmission. Are the facilities being used by the professors?

Director: The Lecture Hall-II complex is ready for online classes, but there is a lack of furniture, and we are in the process of procuring that. The classes are equipped with advanced technologies, and TEQIP-III funded it. Some professors are taking classes from there, but the number is less because of the fear of transmission of the COVID-19. 

MM: Recently, the provision of the highly anticipated 6-months internship was passed for M. Tech students? By when should we expect the same for B. Tech students as well?

Director: I did have a difficult time sailing through all the oppositions standing against the 6-months internship program. But somehow, I was able to convince the senators for allowing the students to go for these long internships, as I understand it very well how glorious results it can have on students' careers. I believe the students should have the freedom of thoughts and expression in the institute, and they wanted this. 

This time, we have introduced the fast-paced programs for the B. Tech students, which will be implemented from the coming academic year. Through this, even B. Tech students can get a chance to complete their coursework in three and a half years and can pursue a six months Internship or incubation activities at the end of it.

MM: The students staying in the institute hostels have complained about the LAN connection's slow internet speed that the college provides? Is there anything that is being done regarding that?

Director: Prof B.D. Sahoo (HoD-Computer Center) informed me that the LAN internet speed increased to facilitate the students to attend online classes well. We already are at 3GBps, and we are trying to improve further up to 10 Gbps in future. For more clarity on this issue, you can contact Prof Sahoo. 

Prof B. D. Sahoo:

Currently, the LAN internet speed we are providing is 3 Gbps (2 Gbps from Vodafone and 1 Gbps from BSNL). We are in talks with the higher authorities and working towards enhancing it to 5 Gbps. 

MM: Will the mess fees taken for Spring Semester 2019-20 be refunded for the period when the students were not on campus due to COVID-19?

Director: No, we have decided to adjust the mess fees in the subsequent semesters' fees for the period in which the students were not there on the campus

MM: Recently, the fee structure for 2020-21 was circulated, and there has been no change in the fees even when students are not availing the mess and other on-campus services. What's your take on that?

Director: We have had an extensive discussion on this. Our policy has been to take the full fees in advance at the beginning of the semester, unlike other NITs. Hence, the full fees will have to be taken this sem as well. About mess fees, it will be adjusted in the next semester fees for the period in which students won't be present on the campus. 

MM: The NIRF ranking of NIT Rourkela has increased in the general category, but it has dropped slightly in the NIT Rankings as compared to last year. How do you think we can do better next year?

Director: We have retained our number 16 in the Engineering Category, but NIT Surathkal took over us in the NIT Rankings. They have taken a smart step, I'll say. They increased their faculty strength from around 250 to almost 370 now. Even NIT Rourkela had an increase in the faculty strength, but it was a bit late. Nevertheless, this increase in our faculty members will have a positive effect on NIRF 2021 Rankings. This year we have selected 82 new faculty members, and out of them, 70 have joined already. Apart from the faculty increase, the other NITs also had the advantage of having international students visiting their institute as a part of the Study In India Initiative taken up by the Government of India. From this academic year, we will be having international students from around the globe who will visit our institute for academic learning, and thus we will be a part of SII (Study in India Initiative). So we lagged in these two categories this year, and hence the rank among the NITs dropped a bit.

MM: The new PRO (Public Relations Officer) has joined recently. Are there any plans for improvement in terms of Public Relations and Outreach?

Director: NIT Rourkela has been lagging in the perception parameter in comparison to other NITs. We need to improve on the same. To tackle this problem, we have appointed professionals who will help us enhance our perception parameter position. These professionals are involved with IIT Madras and IIT Ropar as well, and we have asked them to be involved with our institute. Periodically, they will be publishing articles about NIT Rourkela in the national news daily so that there will be a broader outreach of the happenings in NIT Rourkela. The PRO will be coordinating all these. 

MM: NITRAA had planned to provide washing machines, campus wifi, and other essential facilities to the hostels. What is the progress on this? Has the institute received the facilities from NITRAA's end?

Director: Yes, NITRAA had proposed these ideas, but I haven't seen the installations on the campus till now. I guess due to COVID-19, things are getting delayed from their end. 

MM: How satisfied are you with the alumni network's response in the last academic year, and what are your plans to increase the alumni network?

Director: We have very bright alumni. I expect the alumni interaction to increase even more, and I believe it will be much better in the future. It is at an excellent stage now as compared to the time when I joined here. It was at a very dormant stage at that time. With time, I am sure that the alumni will come up with new ideas for better interaction and involvement with the institute. 

MM: What different plans have been undertaken for the Diamond Jubilee Celebration at our institute?

Director: I would like to share a piece of good news with you all. For the first time in the history of NIT Rourkela, the President of India has accepted our invitation to be the Chief Guest in the Annual Convocation of the class of 2020. Whether it will be in person or digital mode will be confirmed later. The President has agreed to deliver the Chief Guest speech. Hopefully, if some vaccine is out by that time, we can expect him to visit our campus. Several other significant events are planned as well, but currently, our primary focus is to bring the President of India to our campus safely. His visit is crucial, and we are trying to smoothen out all the required procedures before his arrival. After that, we will take over other activities. 

MM: What is the status of the Golden Jubilee building's operationalization and the new Sports Complex?

Director: We plan to have the foundation stone of the new Sports Complex laid by the President of India when he visits the campus. It will be a unique thing for any of the NITs in India. The sports complex will house almost everything in it, be it badminton, billiards, basketball, lawn tennis, roller skating, dance floor, rock climbing, yoga anything that you can name. In addition to this, there will be an open-air theatre. The initial stage of the implementation has already started. Money has already been funded by HEFA (Higher Education Financing Agency), and CPWD will carry out the construction. The bushes and weeds are being cut down now. Some trees are being relocated before they start the construction. It is a complete forest area, so certain restrictions need to be looked upon as well. There is a rule that if the diameter of a tree is more than the limit set by the authorities, then it shouldn't be cut down. So we are considering all the rules and restrictions, and the tendering procedure is being done now. Everything will be handed over to CPWD. 

About the Golden Jubilee Building, the building was designed in a way so that it will be fully air-conditioned by nature. For a building to be completely air-conditioned, there is a requirement of chiller systems. In this case, money wasn't allocated for that system. It was an arduous task for me, but somehow things are under control now. As of now, I can say that it will take one more year to be completely functional. Apart from the air conditioning system, there is a problem of furnishing the whole building. Furniture for the entire building has to be purchased, and interior decoration must also be looked upon. 

MM: What is the update on the renovation of Tennis and Basketball courts started this lockdown?

Director: The lawn tennis and basketball court are being revamped completely. When the students return to the campus, they will see a completely new state of the art tennis and basketball court. We are expecting the work to end by the end of this year. The work has already started, but it was put at a halt due to heavy rains in Rourkela for a few days.  

MM: What is the update on the situation of COVID 19 on campus? How many cases have been reported, and how is testing being done?

Director: In the initial phases (March), the number of COVID-positive cases on campus was zero. But slowly, the conditions started deteriorating. Currently, there are around 15-20 positive cases on campus. And I say this with too much grief that we also had to lose one of our professors to this disease.

Seeing how the numbers are growing in Sundargarh district, we are still on a relatively much safer side. We are continually monitoring it and sanitizing the area/building as soon as we detect COVID patients. We also invite the Rourkela Municipal Corporation regularly to conduct the mass Antigen testing. Nonetheless, numbers are growing because we can't restrict people inside the campus. They have to go out for essential activities, and this is how the numbers grow. Still, I believe it's not very alarming until we can monitor it efficiently. 

MM: How has this global pandemic affected you on a personal level?

Director: I am staying on the campus, and I haven't gone out for long. Two of my office staff were infected with COVID-19, so I had to put myself in home-quarantine twice. It is excruciating to stay indoors for a long stretch. Due to travel restrictions, I am not able to move out of Rourkela either. We have to adapt to situations and change our mindset accordingly. 

MM: How do you think NIT Rourkela will be in the post-pandemic days when the students will be brought back to campus?

Director: You all have a lot of scope and role in the upliftment of the institute. My main aim is to make the students excel in academics and extracurricular activities both. I realized this personally as I played a few sports like Football, Badminton, and Table tennis, which helped me remain focused on whatever actions I did. Hopefully, when students' come back to the institute, this balance will be restored, and things will move on smoothly.  

MM: What final message would you like to give to our readers?

Director: My tenure as the Director of NIT Rourkela will end in October 2021, roughly a year to go. I have tried my best, and I will keep that on for the institute's upliftment and the benefit of my students. I have made the curriculum as flexible as possible. In line with NEP (National Education Policy) came into existence in recent time, I already had introduced the concept of Major and Minor degrees, things related to internships, and various other measures. I have emphasized on the quality of the research and teaching-learning process in our institute. I tried to enhance the quality of examiners so that the thesis should go to renowned universities across the world. Also, I encouraged faculty members to purchase high-end equipment like HRMS, XRD, HPC etc. to conduct cutting edge research. 

When you do a good job, there is a feeling of satisfaction which comes from within. Being an academician more than being an administrator, I think I have done whatever I could do for the growth of this institute academically. Students have to cope with the online classes, and we will help them overcome whatever difficulties they face from our end. Work hard, study well, and make your institute and nation proud of you. Most importantly, Stay Safe and Stay Cheerful

 

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