Research Interest and Dividend in Practice – Case of Water Quality Modeling

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The subject of environmental modelling always interested me. But I got into this subject by accident. I remember that seminar topics were being allotted at IIT Bombay during our third year of civil engineering. We bunked the lecture where the allotment of topics was to happen and landed at the staff canteen – screaming and shouting. Prof J S R Murthy after waiting in the lecture hall reached the staff canteen to have tea. He was raging with anger and frustration. When he saw me there giggling to glory, he called on me and said, “You deserve to be punished – you will get the topic that is not chosen by others”. The topic that was left over was “DO-BOD modelling” and I didn’t realize that I was going to be stuck with this topic not just for the seminar but my entire professional life!

During our master’s days, me and my colleague Shirish Naik, continued working on DO-BOD models. Professor P Khanna was our guide. We were fascinated by the work done by two electrical engineers Koivo and Philips. This paper was published in Water Resources Research in April 1973 titled ‘On determination of BOD and parameters in polluted stream models from DO measurements only’. The feature of doing away the direct measurements of BOD and instead predict BOD concentrations using DO measurements attracted us. We attempted application of this technique on a river quality data set in Maharashtra and published our first research paper in the Journal of Indian Water Works Association (IWWA). I recall we met Professor Dr Niloy Choudhuri, Chairman of Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) at the annual convention of IWWA where the paper was presented. He listened to our “revolutionary idea” very patiently. He showed all the curiosity and gave encouragement. (We returned home with a great feeling that the Chairman of CPCB listened to us. Looking back now I feel that he taught me how to encourage young students even though they come up with stupid propositions!! Every idea has its worth – and should not be simply dismissed! It should be respected)

When I completed my doctoral research and returned to IIT Bombay, water quality modelling and management became a focus of my teaching and research. In 1984, I received a long telegram from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF), Mr T N Seshan. The telegram said that I attend the first technical meeting of experts for Ganga Action Plan (GAP) in Delhi. Newly inducted Prime Minister of India, Rajeev Gandhi was to preside over this meeting and address us.  During this meeting, Prof Choudhuri was also present. When Mr Seshan turned to him and asked what to do with this young man pointing at me (I was 28 years old then), Prof Choudhuri answered “He will take care of water quality modelling”.

Prof.Dr. Nilay Chaudhuri

The Ganga Project Directorate (GPD) of MoEF awarded me a million Indian Rs project on developing and applying water quality models on Ganga. In addition, the CPCB contracted me as a consultant for 4 days a month for 4 years to provide advice. I used to come to Delhi every month for 4 days with no prefixed agenda and sit in the offices of Prof Choudhuri at CPCB and K C Sivaramakrishnan, Project Director at GPD. These interactions gave me an insight to the Project and the Politics. In addition it exposed me to the work on water quality management happening across the world. Numerous presentations used to happen at GPD from experts, especially from countries like USA, UK, France and Germany. It is in this project, I met L Panneerselvam who was then the Joint Director. We have been close friends all these years.

Just before launching the Project,  I organized a five days International Workshop on Water Quality Management at IIT Bombay where top water quality modelers and managers participated. I built a national and international network in this process and made new friends with whom I am still in touch. Those were the golden days.

Two computer based models were developed in the GPD project – acronymed STREAM-I and STREAM-II. STREAM-I was a one dimensional DO-BOD model with calibration, verification, validation routines and importantly with an optimal waste allocation algorithm.  STREAM-II was unique and one of the firsts as it modelled DO-BOD in a two dimensional space with lateral dispersion. This was relevant to Ganga. Work done by Professor T P H Gowda in Canada was my source of inspiration. I trained around 200 professionals across the country using STREAM models including Member Secretaries and Chairmen of the State PCBs (SPCB). In this period, an extensive field application of STREAM-II took place at Allahabad Sangam where I managed a team of 40 scientists working round the clock for 72 hours. This was great experience of research administration and practice.

The team of research associates who worked with me on the STREAM project did extremely well in their careers. Juzer Dhoondia went to Deltares in the Netherlands and developed Fuse series of models. Clement Prabhakar developed MODFLOW and RT3D routines for US EPA on groundwater contamination modelling and now teaches at Auburn University. Rakesh Gelda is a lake modeler at the Upstate Freshwater Institute in New York State and worked with Prof Steven Chapra.

In the training programs, I could rope in Professors Sam James and David Eliot of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK with the support of British Council. Sam and David lectured in the training programs.

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(L to R: Rakesh Gelda, Juzer Dhoondia, Ramakant, S R Choudhari, Swarna Venkateswarulu, Anisul Islam, Clement Prabhakar, ?, Sam James, L Panneerselvam, Prasad Modak, David Eliot, Prof S G Joshi, ?, Prof C Natarajan, ?, Mrs Bhende, ?, ?, R Dalwani, Prof S K Gupta, Prof R S Patil – Participants to one of the Training Programs, Photo taken outside Centre for Environmental Science & Engineering at IIT Bombay)

Speaking about Newcastle reminds me of the two months of teaching, research and consulting tours that I used to do in the UK, France and Germany. These tours were over three years – between 1985 to 1987. I must thank late Professor B Nag, Director of IIT Bombay then. He used to approve my travel on the same day of application and get post-approval from IITs Board.

I used to start with Sam James group at University of Newcastle upon Tyne. We worked on some of the modelling aspects of Tees’s estuary then and did some joint teaching and guiding of PhD students. After the lectures, which many times we jointly delivered; we would walk across the golf lawns to retire at a Scottish pub at the far end. Here we would discuss the class and how we could have improved our teaching. These discussions were absolutely engaging. I don’t think in India faculty do that.

After three weeks at Newcastle, I used to reach Paris to work with Seine-Normandy river basin and be with A Leousef, the Basin Manager. Leousef preferred to use simple water quality models and focus more on decision making and economics. He was very practical and a man of action. I liked his style.

I used to live in a boutique hotel near Montparnasse Tower and enjoy romance of the city of Paris after returning from Work. I would invariably stop by to listen to the box guitars played on the streets. Me and colleagues from Seine-Normandy office would occupy wooden chairs on the Avenue Charles de Gaulle and order flutes of dark beers. Leousef would join later. He would completely disagree with our views on water quality modeling perhaps because he was not drunk and we probably were!

The next stop for me was Aachen in Germany with Professor Poppinghause. We used to do some work together on water quality management of Ruhr. Again, some teaching, some research and some guiding of students was the pattern. Emphasis was however on combinatorial optimization and operation of wastewater treatment plants.

At the end of each visit, Professor G Rinke would drive to fetch me from University of Darmstadt near Frankfurt. Prof Rinke was a very senior German Diplomat Professor.  He would drive a Porsche car.  His interest was to teach me how to take a walk through in a wastewater treatment plant and develop an insight for plant inspection.  A  different kind of Professor.

In my first car ride with him, Professor Rinke drove me though some of the uniquely designed wastewater treatment plants in the Ruhr river basin. We used to lug close to some of majestic castles, pass through thick patches of forests and stop at places where the beers were the best! The conversations were most educative and rewarding. I wish Professors in India take along students on such conversational modes.

Once driving, Prof Rinke took a diversion. When I asked, he simply said – “let me introduce you to a friend”. We reached an old castle like house after a few kilometers of drive. It was evening time and the door was opened by an old man with sharp eyes. He shook hands with Professor Rinke and both exchanged greetings – excited conversation happened in Deutche. Sure they were meeting after a while. Professor Rinke then turned to me and said “Meet Klaus – Klaus Imhoff”. I was shocked and simply overwhelmed – I was meeting the Guru of this Century on Wastewater management and so casually.

Dr Klaus Imhoff got us some Ruby wine and when learnt about my passion to teach, he asked me to go upstairs. “You will find an old wooden chest of drawers there” he said “Open the drawers and choose any slides you wish – they may help you to teach”.

When I went upstairs and opened the drawers, I saw a neat stack of metal framed slides with wonderful shots of wastewater treatment plants, unusual units and varied configurations… To me it was like how Alibaba must have felt after entering the cave of gold. I did not know where to start and what not to take! I spent more than 15 minutes looking around.

And then came a voice from the ground floor. “Oh Young Man, take as many slides you want. These are all duplicate sets. Feel free to pick”. And I simply celebrated Dr Imhoff’s suggestion. I still hold today that priceless collection of Dr Imhoff’s slides.

So my “research interest” in water quality modelling gave me much more “practice dividend”. It taught me how to work with the Government, build national and international networks and meet personalities that inspired and humbled. Indeed, research contribution was one of the outcomes – but education for life was perhaps something much more – that I long cherish today.

Cover picture sourced from http://www.slideshare.net/jonaldjustine/theory-research-and-practice-in-educational-management

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4 thoughts on “Research Interest and Dividend in Practice – Case of Water Quality Modeling

  1. Inspiring and very happy to go on mental tour with your submission and wonder whether your take on today’s Prof. has happened or not. GAP is ready for 2nd Innings under new PM and hope you are participating and Govt. does worthwhile implementations.
    Regards

    Like

  2. Nice to read this post which reminds me of academic flavor which i lost over years due to applied research i am interested in water quality modelling especially of lakes which is meant for drinking water like in Hyderabad, and Bhopal especially like nutrient cycling etc and prediction of algal bloom and control . But these studies which are so useful is not done in India but so popular in canada and USA. With advent of MBAs in water sector as business development water quality is reduced to TDS and RO and lost romantic charm , This is precisely due to few few professional left out in this aspect.
    Hope we bring back those who still retain their interest locked in academic portals .
    We need experts who can guide the policy makers in highly bureaucratic driven society.
    Thanks
    Srikanth

    Like

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