SAILing Through The Heights: Mr P.K Dash Bags Best ED Award (2020)
Ever since its inception, Regional Engineering College, Rourkela or NIT Rourkela as we all know it today, has created many great leaders who play critical roles around the world. Such is Mr Prodyot Kumar Dash’s (PKD) story, a graduate of the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering, class of 1981 who recently bagged the best ED(Works) in 2020. This dynamic personality is a celebrated alumnus and a stellar source of inspiration for us. Team MM corresponded with Mr Dash, as he shares his experiences of his earlier days, REC Rourkela, his professional life, his interests, and many more.
The following is an excerpt from his interview.
Early Life: Life Before REC
Monday Morning(MM): Walk us through your childhood and schooling days. How was life before joining REC Rourkela?
PKD: I did my schooling at a convent school named St.Joseph’s school, Sambalpur. The schools were very disciplined and strict back then in 1965 when I joined the school. The board I did my schooling was ISC (Indian School Certificate), a part of Cambridge. After schooling, I joined REC Rourkela in June 1976 as a student of the Department of Metallurgy.
MM: Why did you choose REC Rourkela? Was Metallurgy your first preference?
PKD: Frankly speaking, this wasn’t the case (smiles). In the 1970s, we didn’t have many engineering colleges in Odisha and hence didn’t have many choices. And we were the first batch of REC Rourkela to get admission based on an entrance exam. There was an option as well to change the branch as well. But I wasn’t interested as I had already a great friend circle in my original department. When we joined, it wasn’t about the department but more about engineering. Back then we didn’t have a plethora of departments like currently, we have in NIT Rourkela. REC Rourkela back then offered Mechanical, Electrical, Civil, Chemical and Metallurgy as the departmental options.
MM: How were your five years at REC back then? Would you like to share some of your fondest memories during your days at REC, which you still remember today?
PKD: The five years stay at REC Rourkela was quite a memorable phase in my life. We had various fond memories associated in the five years journey. The rules were stringent, and there were a lot of restrictions back then.
One of the fondest memories I would recall is 1977 when the state of emergency was declared. But as soon as the emergency was lifted in June, We had the freedom to do anything; thus, we were sent back to our homes. The college was closed at that time. Going out to watch movies on the first-day first show has etched an unforgettable memory in our hearts.
MM: How has REC Rourkela helped you develop as a person? How have the skills which you gained helped in your professional career?
PKD: When we work in any industry, teamwork becomes an integral factor in a project’s success. In my college days, we had a team. In our sessional classes, we were assigned some assignments in a group which we would complete. This is how the spirit of Team Work grew among us. We didn’t have many college students back then, so we knew everyone irrespective of year or branch in the five years journey. This is how a special bonding called the “Rencolion Bonding” grew among us.
MM: Being a graduate of the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering, how would you compare the job opportunities then, to those available now?
PKD: Till now, Metallurgy is a rare subject. I have already spent around 40 years in the industry; still, we don't find many Metallurgical graduates for recruitments. Metallurgy is also used in doing research. Metallurgy is a very challenging subject, as of now. In Industries or departments like blast furnaces and steel shops, the life of a metallurgist is tough, the temperature is high, it is risky, and we have to always be on our toes. There are various safety hazards, as well.
Even in my organisation from which I took retirement only a week earlier, there was a lot of void in the research department, which was persistent even 15 years ago.
MM: Tell us about your professional career after you graduated from NIT Rourkela (REC).
PKD: I joined the department of the blast furnace in Rourkela steel plant 39 years ago. I have seen very primitive blast furnaces from the 1950s to the latest designed blast furnaces. I had the opportunity to work on one of the biggest blast furnaces in 2013. In 2017 - 2018 we had the challenge to supply 1 billion tons of rails to the Indian railways for a 260m long rail followed up even by the PMO office, and we completed the target. I was associated with many modern units in SAIL Rourkela as well as Bhilai and Durgapur. I have commissioned many states of the art projects, welding shops, bar and rod mills, new pit mills, and many modern units. I was also involved in coal import. Steel authority imports coal worth nearly rupees 200 crores every year. I have set a lot of specifications for it as I was a member of the committee.
MM: What made you work in the Steel Authority of India Ltd. (SAIL) for over 35 years? Could you brief us about some projects which you were a part of during your tenure?
PKD: At that time, I kept working on projects one after another. When I joined Rourkela it was at 1.8 billion tons production, and we straight away jumped to 2.5 billion tons, similarly in Bhilai and in each of these jumps I was present and responsible for them. Even on 31st December, I had a state of the art mill commissioned at Rourkela, which I couldn't do due to covid 19 as foreign experts couldn't come to India.
MM: How has Covid-19 affected the Industrial Sector, and how has SAIL managed to battle the deadly pandemic?
PKD: We had two things to do during the Covid-19 situation, i.e. keep the plant running, utilising the people and maintaining the safety of people working in the plant. Being a part of the public sector, we were answerable to the Government and our stakeholders. We had to work initially with various types of restrictions, i.e. 30 per cent of the workforce was only allowed. In a steel plant, you cannot stop the coke and burn blast furnace suddenly. We took 10-15 days to step down our productions. But when we produced, there were no buyers; thus, we suffered a lot of losses in April. But slowly we improved and stepped up our export drastically from 1 million tonnes to 3 million tonnes. From July onwards we started ramping up our production. We had some issues and restrictions in importing essential raw materials. But the most daunting task was to keep people engaged. Our liquid cash kept on decreasing, and debt rose in the period.
These were some of the major challenges we faced during the pandemic period. We have our own township and a huge hospital as well. I was a chairman as well of the Apex task force committee for Covid-19. We installed a covid testing centre at IGH in a short span of 1 month and created a 500 bedded centre at IGH in a record time of 2 months. We also have our isolation centre for patients. Other than what the State Government directed us, we managed to achieve all these things. We also distributed 10-15 thousand meals to the slum dwellers daily. Producing this huge amount of meals wasn’t difficult but distributing it was tough. It was indeed a tough phase, but I am happy that we managed to cross all the hurdles we faced.
MM: You have been the GM at steel plants, namely Durgapur and Bhilai in 2016 and 2017, respectively. How was your experience working there?
PKD: Durgapur was a small unit. Its main products were semi-finished products and merchant products. In my time Durgapur was manufacturing wheels and axles like LHB wheels for superfast trains like Rajdhani and Shatabdi. The furnaces were too small, and there was no difficulty in working in Durgapur. The literacy level of people working in Durgapur was very high, unlike in Bhilai and Rourkela. Bhilai was one of the biggest plants in India, only recently Tata steel took over.
MM: You bagged the best ED award of SAIL recently. Please share with us your experience when you bagged this prestigious award.
PKD: This reward was given to me, but I'm not the one who should get it, it's my team. It was a recognition of the good work they had done. The award is given to me, maybe due to the management of both the plants Rourkela & Bhilai.
MM: What is your take on alumni's role for an institute of national importance like ours? How do you think the present scenario of alumni interaction can be improved?
PKD: Around 6 months back, our alumni president Mr Arun Kumar Rath, contacted us on how to have our alumni meet as the campus was shut down due to COVID-19. We, as alumni are always ready to go forward, be it business or research. For this, the alumni network has to be strong. We have started building our alumni network over the past 2-3 years. Had there been no Covid-19 things would have been better.
The number of physical meetings must be increased if the scenario of alumni interaction is to improve. But we might have a physical meeting at the end of the year, which will definitely help improve the scenario.
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?
PKD: I visited the campus last year in the first week of January. I was accompanied by some of my batchmates, as I remember we saw a movie screening in the auditorium and then took dosa near the back post. Pointing out to the changes I think the infrastructure has improved drastically, the number of hostels has increased, and the campus's road connectivity has improved. The board outside the Metallurgy department looked a bit ugly, and I pointed out someone should change it (laughs).
We also celebrated the National Metallurgist Day and opened a student chapter Indian Institute of Metal (IIM) in collaboration with NIT Rourkela and Rourkela Steel Plant (RSP), SAIL (link here). It was activated by the secretary-general of the Indian Institute of Metal (IIM) in the webinar. We gave awards to all the best papers and toppers. Every Saturday, we have a meeting over Zoom, where research papers are presented from our industry and academia. We also want to give assignments related to analysis and data analytics.
MM: How do you keep your spirits high amidst professional pressure and hectic schedule? Any long drawn out hobbies that you still indulge yourself in?
PKD: When you are working you have a lot of concerns every day like production issues, environmental issues, so to relax, I prefer to have a nice sleep. I also like to listen to good music in my leisure time, and I also enjoy travelling a lot which has been restricted due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Currently, I am thinking in the next 3-4 months I will try my best to visit various places where I haven't been to and wished to visit.
MM: What does it take to be Mr PK Dash? Please enlighten our readers with a few lines of inspiration.
I think being sincere in your profession and being loyal to your organisation is very important. We should also try to learn something from our peers, irrespective of their position every day. You will get an edge over others by learning more. There are many things to learn and explore in your day to day work. Certain things are not there in the book, and people tell you by their experience, which is sometimes difficult to accept. But there are certain things that we must accept and learn from them. There is no age for learning, and it should never stop.
Team MM wishes Mr P.K Dash a very successful journey and all the best for his future endeavours.