My first visit to office of Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in India was in 1980, nearly 40 years ago. The office was on the Shahjahan Road in a kind of barrack. I was then a student doing master’s at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay. I went to see Chairman Dr Niloy Chaudhuri. Dr Chaudhuri was earlier a Professor of Civil Engineering at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. I wondered how he gave me an appointment to meet. Perhaps because I was a student of Professor Purushottam Khanna.
I spoke to Dr Choudhury about need for setting “probabilistic effluent standards” in India. I had read a very thought provoking article by Paul Mac Berthouex titled “Some Historical Statistics Related to Future Standards” that was published in the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1974 .
I built on the basis my argument stating that compliance to effluent standards cannot be on 24×7 basis and the CPCB should be more pragmatic and practical while developing the “future standards”. I argued that a probabilistic standard will demand more collection of data and in the formative years of legislation and enforcement, building such data will matter.
We spent two hours on this subject and Dr Choudhury didn’t refute what I was saying. He listened to me very patiently as he usually did. As he got up to leave office wearing his coat, he said “Mr. Modak, your ideas are good but a bit too early. You have to give me some more time to think”.
In 1983, we met at Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok. Dr Chaudhuri was there for a meeting organized by the World Health Organization. He was accompanied by several senior officials from the Government, e.g. Dr Dilip Biswas (who later became Chairman of CPCB), Dr K R Ranganathan (who was later appointed as the Member Secretary of CPCB), Dr Subramaniam (who became Advisor at the MoEFCC).
“Mr. Modak, Good to see you again. I know you always want to say something different and exciting. Can you give a talk to all of us after the dinner? Find a nice room where we all can fit in” Dr Choudhury said this in a warm tone and with a smile.
I was 27-year-old kid then and so was extremely happy to get this audience. I spoke on the subject of river water quality management. At that time, Ganga Action Plan was under discussion at the CPCB and so my “discourse” on this subject to this august body generated a lot of discussion. To my every theoretical or analytical bit, Dr Chaudhuri volleyed questions, few questions raising practicalities and few related to the “science” itself and some related to policies. I remember we started discussions at 8 pm and spent 2 hours – mindful that we must close by 10 to ensure that we get the last round of coffee at the restaurant at the AIT Center.
Within a month, I received a letter from Dr Niloy Chaudhuri. The letter was typed on a butter paper using an electric typewriter (which I later Iearnt was only available for the Chairman). Amongst many nice things (like thanking me for the “discourse”) the letter said “Mr. Modak, on your return to India you are at liberty to associate in any manner you wish as appropriate with the Central Pollution Control Board of India”. I have still preserved this letter from Dr Chaudhuri.
In May 1984, CPCB appointed me as a Retainer Consultant. I was to spend 4 days every month over 4 years. There were no Terms of Reference. Dr Chaudhari and Dr G D Agarwal, Member Secretary (a legend in the field of Environmental Pollution Control in India) told me that CPCB will decide what to do with me as I land New Delhi. A fund of 1 lakh was transferred in advance to Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay to meet costs of my air travel. Dr Chaudhari said that he did not want me to waste time in filling the forms claiming the expenditures. “Please visit all the offices of CPCB except the office of accounts” he said smilingly. He was such a gallant personality.
With this arrangement, I worked on practically all the functions of the CPCB. I was a part of the team that was appointed by MoEF on the Ganga Action Plan that was steered by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Mr. T N Seshan was the Secretary. MoEF and K C Sivaramakrishnan was the Project Director of the Ganga Project Directorate (GPD). My retainership was expanded by these two stalwarts to GPD as well, on a special project of Water Quality Modelling.
At CPCB, I started working on establishing a Management Information System (MIS) for the data and created systems for storing, retrieving and analyzing water, air and industrial pollution data. I remember I was present at the Nehru Place office of CPCB when the first computer (It was an IBM PC/AT) was installed. This PC/AT was “inaugurated” by P R Gharekhan, then Member Secretary. For the MIS I worked with Usha Ghosh and Mita Bhattacharya extensively over 3 years and by 1990 we could establish MIS at several State Pollution Control Boards and impart training.
During my travel to Delhi, I used to stay at the Guest House of CPCB at Alaknanda Apartments near Chittaranjan Park. Staying at the Guest house was a great fun as I used to meet several senior staff of CPCB and SPCBs, experts visiting CPCB for meetings etc. This helped me to make new friends, build a huge network and understand the work going on in environmental management across India. Most of the staff of CPCB used to stay at the Alaknanda and hence there used to be dinner invitations and “gupshups” with the families. These dinners will never be forgotten; especially with Ghosh, Chakraborty and Baruah families.
In the early 2000, CPCB shifted to East Arjun Nagar that was quite distant from the city. My retainership moved to the World Bank as Short-Term Consultant. I started visiting CPCB more as a Consultant to the World Bank and worked on several major projects. These included Industrial Pollution Control, Industrial Pollution Prevention, Environmental Management Capacity Building, Capacity Building in Industrial Pollution Management, National Hydrology Project and Water Quality Monitoring. Apart from CPCB, I had to visit several SPCBs, formulate projects with them, guide as well as do an oversight on behalf of the World Bank. My visits to CPCB office thus reduced. I guess the only person I remained in touch, and feel greatly honored to have worked with, is Mr. Paritosh Tyagi, Ex Chairman of CPCB. I just saw him two weeks ago at his residence.
Last month, Dr Prashant Gargava took over as the Member Secretary of CPCB and I paid a visit to CPCB to congratulate him. I took his appointment. The security guard asked me to go to the reception. The lady at the reception asked for my details for preparing a gate pass. “Do you have appointment with MS?” she asked. When I nodded, she said “He is generally very busy and many times he has to be at the Court all of a sudden. So, let me check if he will still be free to see you”. I thought she was kind and considerate, especially to a stranger like me.
When I was with Dr Gargava I realized that I hardly knew anyone at the CPCB. The world seemed so different. Chairman CPCB was busy with other pressing matters and rightly so as I was there just to have a cup of tea for old times sake. I did not have any “business” to look for.
I left CPCB as if I had been to an Income Tax office.
Dr Ajit Vidyarthi of CPCB called me last week and asked if I could become a Retainer Consultant to CPCB. I knew Ajit in my past interactions with CPCB. We met at the Claridges hotel and Ajit told me that CPCB would like to take my advice on water quality data, water quality modelling and pollution management for Ganga.
Ajit’s request and subsequent conversations took me back in time some forty years.
I recalled my sessions with giants like Dr Niloy Chaudhari and Dr G D Agarwal, as a young kid and for a while my eyes were moist with memories.
Indeed, those were the magical days with CPCB in its golden era –
Moments you just cannot ever forget!
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