Professors novel course to teach design and operation of wastewater treatment plants


Teaching the subject of wastewater treatment plant design has always excited me. I recall the textbooks by Metcalf and Eddy, Benefield and Randall, Sayed Qasim and those by S J Arceivala. Amongst these books, Metcalf and Eddy appealed because of the large number of “solved problems”. I was such a fan of this book that I engaged a summer undergrad student at IIT. He coded for me all the solved problems of Metcalf and Eddy in “VisiCalc” (Excel’s grandfather!) way back in 1986. I had kept these VisiCalc codes on a 8” floppy disk then but  these floppies had little “shelf life”. We lost everything that we had built within a year. Alas!

[Metcalf Eddy’s book is now in 4th edition with nearly 1900 pages covering not just treatment but reuse. I wish I get another summer student to work with me to prepare a suit of Excel codes for all the solved problems with some smart VBA programming. Anyone interested? Let me know]

Todays designs of wastewater treatment plants are however rarely done with the classical approach as in the design books like Metcalf and Eddy. Imagine an Activated Sludge Process (ASP) design with Lawrence and McCarty equation or sizing of a trickling filter using Gallar and Gotas equation or the NRC formula!

The gap between a theoretical design and design in practice is widening. How do we “design” a lamella separator and how do we size a fluidized bed ASP with plastic media? Each vendor is now modifying the basic process, and adding new features to distinguish from others. These modified or improved processes are backed by research in laboratory and based on pilots. You see treatment unit more like a “black box” with less transparency on the mechanism than desired. “Sizing” of the unit is done using company catalogues and to convince, the vendor produces results of the pilot studies in the style “before” and “after”.

Indeed, for developing design for wastewater treatment plant, you need carefully planned laboratory experiments and conduct of pilot studies.  There is no one size that fits for all. Each wastewater is different, and you need a customized approach, especially while working with industrial effluents. In the early days, conducting “treatability studies” was always the first step and consultants like Dr Deepak Kantawala and Prof S J Arceivala never ventured to prepare design without such studies.  Today, who has the time or patience?

The idea of treatability studies was to scale up the experience of lab and pilots to design in reality. One of the rare and perhaps the only book of this kind was by Eckenfelder W W and Davis Ford. This book written in 1970 in Texas (not available anymore -and sadly someone “stole” my copy!) ) provides an approach to unit process design based on laboratory and pilot-plant studies. The intent of these two distinguished  authors was threefold: first, to assist the design engineer in establishing laboratory and pilot plant programs necessary in formulating design criteria; second, to serve as a guide for sanitary engineering graduate courses in unit operations; and finally, to provide a training reference for practitioners in the field.  I simply loved this book.

[Another book that needs a mention is by Imre Horvath of Hungary titled “Modelling in the Technology of Wastewater Treatment”. This book was written in 1984 and introduces how to use non-dimensional numbers to scale up of results of wastewater treatability studies. The book is however more mathematical and not an easy read. But do take a look]

Given the “invasion” of proprietary designs, you need to focus now more on treatment plant operations. We need to understand how to tweak operating parameters of a treatment plant (e.g. return sludge in the ASP). The idea is how to run the plant efficiently to address variability in the wastewater flow and characteristics and debottleneck some of the operational issues (e.g. foaming in aeration tanks, bulking sludge in secondary settling unit) to ensure compliance. Sometimes I feel that real learning happens in operations and that is how one should be teaching the subject of wastewater treatment plant. Professors are not effective as they seldom visit or know how to operate treatment plants!

I asked my Professor friend for his views he has been a Professor of Practice unlike others.

“Dr Modak, you are quite right” Professor said. “In fact, I am developing a course on understanding design and operation of a wastewater treatment plant”

“Please tell me more” I was quite excited.

“Well, the course will run over two weeks at a wastewater treatment plant. I would like to work on a plant where there is a good laboratory and a little conference room that can accommodate say 12  “students”.

The plant will have pretty basic units like screens, neutralization tank, primary sed unit that is chemical assist (i.e. clarifloculator), aeration tank with floating aerators, secondary sed unit followed by a pressure sand filter, activated carbon column and disinfection to allow treated water reuse.  Sludge is thickened and then taken through a belt filter on sludge drying beds”

“Good choice Professor” I said

Professor lit his cigar and continued

“The course will essentially blend “some essential theory” and more practice experience in understanding the design and learn more through operations. A batch of 12 students will be divided into a team of four (three each) and each team will be “allotted” units to manage over 3 days. There will be rotation i.e. team of 3 students working on screens, equalization tank and clarifloculator will shift on 4th day to aeration tank and secondary sed unit. Each team will essentially “manage” the units assigned, do required sampling and analysis in the lab, do maintenance checks like oil in the gear box etc. and ensure compliance to “outputs” that I have prescribed (e.g. Suspended Solids and BOD in the clarifloculator overflow)”

“Great Professor” I liked this idea of allocation and rotation of teams to units and take on responsibilities.

“Dr Modak, each day will end by sharing the operational experience – challenges faced, strategies taken to resolve, what worked what didn’t and provide a feedback on the design. Do you remember Bob Hegg’s work on Composite Correction Program? I am giving a copy to each student”.

[I remembered the outstanding book of 1983 written by Bob Hegg of US EPA titled “Improving POTW Performance Using the Composite Correction Program”. Do grab a soft copy till it is on the web!

“And on the last two days, I  will ask all the 12 students to take a “design challenge” for different scenarios i.e. how to upgrade the existing plant for 25% increase in hydraulic load or how to address high concentrations of Total Dissolved Solids or how to modify the design to meet stricter effluent standards? Answering these questions would blend the design and operational understanding of the students”

Wow, I was simply floored by this novel method of teaching wastewater treatment plant. Two weeks practical course could perfectly fit as a summer or winter course for students as well as young professionals.

Professor extinguished his cigar and said

“This course will benefit the “host” wastewater treatment plant as in this process not only their operators will get trained but they will receive a “free” report from us on plant upgradation strategies”

Oh Yes, I realized the importance of these important side benefits

“So, when would you announce this course Professor? And may I join?”  I asked in all excitement

“Well Dr Modak, Sadly, I am unable to find a willing host. No one seems to be interested or serious to improve operations of their wastewater treatment plant to ensure compliance. Industries I have been asking say that everything is perfect (“all is well”) and they don’t need this kind of training cum advisory”

I understood that such a novel course of Professor was never going to run!

[Read my blogs Operations without Certification and Blending Strategy, Design and Operations

Also read for your fun my blog wastewater treatment plants that speak!

Last year my organization Environmental Management Centre LLP prepared a training manual for wastewater treatment plant operators under support of GIZ for SCGJ (Skill Council for Green Jobs), Write to me if you are interested in a copy]

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A Dossier on Assessing Water Quality in our Rivers  

[More of a technical post, but I hope that it will interest our water quality professionals]

Today we are concerned about the problem of water pollution on a scale never before. All of us want to know the status on our water quality and whether the measures taken to protect or improve have been effective. Unfortunately, the picture so far has been rather dismal. But are we collecting, analyzing and reporting data correctly?

We have been monitoring India’s water quality in estuaries, coastal areas, rivers, lakes and ground water wells for years. At these monitoring stations, we have been analyzing a large number of water quality parameters ranging from simple measurements of pH, temperature and dissolved solids to dissolved oxygen, biochemical oxygen demand and in many instances checking presence of toxic substances such as pesticide residues. Biomonitoring surveys are also carried out on few stretches that can be compared with the results based on physico-chemical parameters.

Number of water quality monitoring stations at a national level have progressively increased. Few years ago, we started deploying automated water quality monitoring instruments that could report as many as 16 parameters at high frequency such as 15 min.  A considerable data on the status of water quality has got built in this process. High frequency water quality monitoring stations provide better insight to dynamic behavior of water quality as against limited and sometimes misleading information arising from manual sampling that is generally carried out only once a month and in many instances on grab basis. But remember that automated stations if not operated correctly can give voluminous but “garbage” data.

Choosing location of water quality monitoring station is a very important step. Stations are to be selected based on the purpose e.g. where the station to be cited is to serve as a baseline or to detect trends or to detect violations over standards especially in the mixing zones where wastewaters are discharged into the river. The latter category of the stations is called as “impact” monitoring stations. We cannot use for instance data from impact stations to infer long term water quality trends.

To answer the question whether the water quality status is improving or not, the water quality data needs to be processed with rigor. Ideally these computations should include detection of  trends on quantitative basis and assessment  of the extent of violations.

Computation of water quality trends is best done using tests such as Man Kendall’s (MK) statistic. MK has been applied extensively by regulators across the world to detect water quality trends. It is not presently used by India’s Pollution Control Boards (PCBs). MK statistic (that is non-parametric or distribution free), provides the direction, magnitude and significance of trend. On application of MK statistic on the data say for 5 years on BOD (i.e. 60 values), one can arrive at a conclusion whether the water quality trend is positive (showing deterioration) and significant (say at 95% significance). When shown on a map, we can spot stations showing significant improvement or deterioration for a parameter and investigate the reasons why. More sophisticated applications of MK test are also possible where we assess trend of a “system” of parameters such as DO and BOD, done simultaneously. Where the trends are found statistically insignificant, MK can be used to compute revised sampling frequencies. This feature is one of the additional major benefits of quantitative detection of trends.

See below a typical representation of “arrow-head” map of water quality trends for a river. S denotes significant trend and NS indicates Not Significant trend.

We have to be careful that for detection of trends, we do not process data from stations lying in the mixing zones of dominant wastewater discharges (typically 50 to 100 times of the width of the river at the point of wastewater discharge).  It is also important that we also assess the trends in flow as measured at the location of water quality monitoring station to understand the influence of flow on concentrations of water quality parameters. Carrying out seasonal MK statistics and/or “de-trending flow” and calculating trend of “residues” can provide better insight to answer the question “what is dominating the trend?”. These deductions help in coming up with more rounded water quality improvement plans by maintaining “environmental flows” in addition to the treatment of wastewaters. Unfortunately, PCBs do not measure flows and locations of flow measurements of CWC do not coincide with those of CPCB.

To understand the extent of violations, we should be computing the following

  1. Percentage of the times the prescribed water quality standard is violated
  2. The magnitude or extent of violations (calculated based on summation of the squares of the deviations around the standard; square capturing the severity)
  3. Percentage of contiguous violations with a specified period. (Such a computation is possible for high frequency water quality monitoring stations. If we specify our interest as 4 hours for dissolved oxygen, then the algorithm computes number of instances where dissolved oxygen has dipped contiguously over 4 hours below 6 mg/l, and reports the “total length of such as data train” as a percentage. This percentage provides understanding of the extent of undesirable exposure.

Figure below shows a conceptual representation of WQVI.

All the above attributes when pooled together can provide the criticality of violation or non-compliance at the water quality monitoring station. We can call this aggregation as the Water Quality Violation Index (WQVI) for a chosen parameter e.g. DO or BOD. WQVI can be calculated for more than one parameters as well. We can also use a surrogate as Water Quality Index (WQI). WQVI can be reported at all the hundreds of our water quality monitoring stations to prioritize for taking actions. Over the years number of water quality monitoring stations with high WQVI should reduce showing the progress made on enforcement and compliance. Concept of WQVI is my own innovation.

Presenting arrow-head maps of trends and changes in WQVI over years provide a robust way to communicate the progress made on water quality management. Importantly such an analysis and reporting assists in diagnosis and take appropriate actions.

In all above, we have to ensure that the water quality data we collect is of acceptable quality. This is possible only when we site monitoring stations correctly, strictly adhere to the water quality monitoring protocol (that we already have) and have trained teams for sampling and analyses. The laboratories should be well equipped and ideally holding NABL/ISO 17001 certifications. A lot needs to be done in these areas.

And there are additional challenges to address such as role of non-point pollution discharges influencing water quality trends and violations. Non point pollution discharges typically include agricultural return waters, storm water run offs, clusters of wastewater drains etc. that are difficult to measure and require estimations. Sadly, little work has been done on this subject in India.

For high frequency automated water quality monitors, we need to develop artificial intelligence (AI) based machine learning algorithms that can detect anomalies and outliers in the data and reject or assign “lower weights” while processing. Developing short term forecasting routines (e.g. using Artificial Neural Networks) will also be useful and worth especially to act in advance during any accidental spills of toxic substances upstream. Water intake works downstream could be issued warnings accordingly.

In 1985, I wrote a manual for Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) on Analyses and Interpretation of Water Quality Data. Then came a phase between 1986-1990, where I developed one dimensional and two dimensional water quality models (STREAM series) for application on Ganga for decision making. We used the water quality monitoring data available at that time, information on flows and wastewater discharges and included estimate of non-point wastewater loads. In 2014, I analyzed 7 year water quality data on river Godavari in Maharashtra with interesting conclusions for actioning. This work remained as an isolated activity at MPCB. Currently, I am advising CPCB on processing the water quality data collected on river Ganga using several of the tools I cited in this dossier. This task simply excites me. Me and my team are developing a Tableau based application for CPCB and will train the CPCB team.

Many readers of this blog from the academia will realize that there are immense opportunities to carry out research on water quality data analytics. We need masters and doctoral students to take up such applied problems as dissertations to add rigor to water quality inferencing.  Needless to state that such opportunities exist for managing air quality and noise data. I will be most happy to help.

In 1990, I conducted a 5 day training program for water pollution engineers and statistical officers of PCBs in New Delhi on the subject of water quality data analytics.  I wish that I get an opportunity to conduct such a program once again and re-write the little manual I wrote in 1984. Once shown the power of these tools, especially to the younger and newly inducted team, I am sure that a magic will happen, and the data will dance – presenting an insightful show to the decision makers.

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A ladder to get out of the well


Designing an activity to raise environmental awareness and enthuse the participants towards action is an art and science. It requires both a passion and dedication.

Many “environmental communicators” (a cadre I wish is recognized in the environmental profession) have experimented and presented several pedagogical techniques and tools to make the activity interesting, meaningful and impacting. There is however relatively less documentation of experience and sharing.

The pedagogy is often a mix or a concoction of tools and techniques and you blend depending on the audience, objectives of the engagement, expected outcomes and the resources you have. The chef or the bartender or the conductor of the orchestra “in you” does the right blending and sequencing!

In India, most of us use tools such as PowerPoints, stickers, posters and video clips for environmental communication. Posters have now matured in the form of Infographics that are often creative. My post on Enfographics will give you some examples. You may also like to access the various communication tools we developed on Climate Change. Visit the site to view and download posters, PowerPoint presentations, fact sheets, stickers, children activity books etc. all free. Painting on the walls in the streets (a graffiti) is a recent technique. See my post on Creative Fusion that talks about the graffiti created by Dr Love on the subject of urban air pollution.  Holding exhibitions that display green products, show case innovative solutions on pollution control and monitoring and educate people on sustainable lifestyles is another powerful way to spread awareness on environment. Mobile vans are also used to move into rural and peri-urban areas carrying exhibits for holding demonstrations.

Video clips are now relayed through internet reaching a global audience. Few years ago, I launched a competition for making videos to communicate good stories on saving the environment under a caption “Anvaya” (means positive in Sanskrit). This resulted into some exciting video clips on the themes of waste and water management created by ordinary citizens – old and young. Visit our YouTube channel to view and download a collection of 11 select videos on the theme of waste management.

Street plays are now getting increasingly popular to communicate environmental issues mainly in schools and colleges. I would recommend you to view Street Play on environment ” Parivartan” by students of DAV Pushpanjali and the Nukkad natak on environment awareness. We should do the street plays more often and on a regular basis in local languages. These plays should address not only the local but global environmental issues and introduce good practices and responsible behavior. There is a lot to learn in scripting the street play, participating in it and handling reactions from the audience.

“We should seriously consider developing a course on environmental communication at postgraduate level and give the students an exposure and experience in this important area”. I said to my Professor friend when I was in his office on Sunday morning.

I saw that Professor was already busy. There were several papers on his desk that were piled and crumpled around with lot of scribbling done. He seemed to be writing some kind of script.

“Well Dr Modak, you are asking this question when I am just finalizing a design of an awareness and action event on the subject of Air Pollution” He said this while lighting his cigar.

I was curious when Professor used the term “design”. “What do you mean by the term design Professor?” I asked

“Well, a lot of thinking needs to be done if you want to organize an awareness event Dr Modak?” Professor now moved to the white board to explain to me the “design”. And in the next 5 minutes, this is what appeared on the white board

It appeared to me that Professor was planning to conduct the event in steps. The structure looked fascinating and so I asked Professor to explain.

“Well Dr Modak, this event is for all those interested and for those who want to know and take action on the challenges of urban air pollution. I plan to restrict the participation to only 40 and not more. Interested participants will have to pre-register giving their short profile and interest. All those who register will be able to see profile of other registrants and thus get e-introduced.  More importantly, I will use this information in forming the work groups.

The hall I have chosen can accommodate around 70 participants in a theatre style and so 40 will be accommodated very comfortably. The room has a separate entrance and a good illumination. Besides it is located in a central place in the city and convenient to reach. We will start the event at 2 30 pm and wrap up by 5 30.

The first step is to begin the event in a theatre style sitting.   Here I propose to introduce the challenge of urban air pollution using only picture slides with not  more than 10 words on each. There will be 20 such slides and I will take only 10 minutes (2 30-2 40). This presentation should do the job of “levelling up” the subject, provide a systems perspective on urban air pollution and its connect with Climate Change, a perspective not generally spoken. Having shown the slides, we will devote not more than 5 minutes for any “burning questions” from the audience.

Next, I plan to show three video clips not exceeding 3 minutes each. I have selected the video clips that are essentially statements made by the politicians (like the Premier of China), directors of key global institutions (e.g. UN Environment and WHO) and by citizens who appeal and showcase their efforts on combating air pollution.

Following the videos,  there will be four questions that will be projected on a slide for discussions. These questions will “force” participants to “think out of box”. Participants will spend 10 minutes to express their views. Example, are electric vehicles solution to the problem of urban air pollution? Are the policies on letting vehicles to ply based odd-even number plates or retiring of old vehicles of more than 15 years of age effective? And how about encouraging telecommuting (working from homes)  (2 40 – 3 00)

At this point I expect that the participants are charged enough to get into some action. We therefore break out of the theatre style sitting and ask participants to move to the walls of the room. We plan to place a number of flip charts in the room with thick tip color pens. Each wall takes on one of the questions raised and elaborates using a network diagram, following the technique of “mind mapping”. This wall session puts all participants in some physical action, provides an opportunity to interact and help in a deeper understanding of the challenge! We need to give good time for such a Wall Session of Mapping. I would give a time between 3 to 3 30 for each group for this exercise.

What follows the Wall Session is the presentation by each group leader elaborating their analyses. We give 5 minutes to each group leader followed by an overall discussion (3 30 – 4 -00).  This concludes Step 3.”

I enjoyed the strategy. I could see that the participants were slowly graduating from awareness to action mode and this was happening rather implicitly.  Moreover, it was also a process of collective learning with guidance by the Professor.

Professor lit the second cigar

“Dr Modak, have you used software tools like Mentimeter?” He asked.

I had not come across this tool and so requested Professor to tell me more.

Mentimeter is an easy-to-use presentation software to create fun and interactive presentations. Each participant downloads on a Mentimeter app (that I do before hand) on his/her smartphone. Based on the real time questions that I would put, all participants respond from their smartphones and the Mentimeter creates a word cloud, histograms, 2×2 matrices etc. instantaneously to show the group opinion. Of course, there are several such products available today.

Mentimeter will be a short session say over 10 minutes where some top end questions will be put for a group opinion. I will basically get the priorities understood e.g. Indoor Air Quality or Outdoor Air Quality or priorities towards action e.g. wetting of roads, introducing higher vehicle tax as the vehicle ages or promoting use of electric vehicles etc.  The session will end with a 5 minute discussion (4 00 – 4 15)

Air quality improvement is often viewed narrowly and hence many of the interventions have not been found to be successful. There is a need to address the urban air pollution problem at a regional level (e.g. pollution traversing into the city from “outside” ; forge collaborations or partnerships, push phase outs e.g. of Volatile Organic Compounds and introduce ecological modernization across the polluting industries. Further an integrated approach to address both indoor and outdoor air pollution is necessary. I plan to give a 30 minute presentation as Step 5  (4 15 – 4 45). We don’t give here any time for discussion.

Step 5 maintains the theatrical style and I propose to end by screening a “transformational” video that shows the participants some success stories when a comprehensive and regional approach is followed. I plan to screen video on how Beijing improved the Air Quality over the last 3 years. This video of 5 minutes will be followed by a 15 minute discussion session facilitated by some of my colleagues questioning why cannot India follow the China model? (4 45 – 5-15)

It’s a good idea now to end the event with a feedback and “pledges” what the participants would like to do post the event and their expectations from us on the follow up and any propositions on “joint projects” of action. The event will be wrapped up by 5-30. The participants continue their interactions on Ekonnect’s collaborative platform.

If you do a day long event, you can include a workgroup session (1 hour) to develop action plans. In the workgroup, participants start developing an air quality action plan for the city by not just listing the actions but identifying who should be responsible. Another possibility is to use the Fish Bowl technique where participants take turns to “enter the fishbowl”, express their views and leave the fishbowl for someone else to get in (1 hour).

There are other possibilities as well such as keeping a dust jar outside the room and weighing the dust fall during the meeting period or putting a computer in the foyer with a GHG emission calculator to give participants an idea of the carbon footprint of their lifestyle”

I liked the overall design, especially the logic and creativity. As I was about to leave, I could not resist asking the Professor, “why is your event design of various Steps is showing up like a ladder? – any special reason?”

Professor extinguished his cigar and said

“Dr Modak, pardon me  but to me the participants to the event are sitting or trapped in a “well” of isolation and some ignorance. They don’t see the outside “world”. They only listen but stay inactive. All I am doing is to provide them with a ladder to step out of the well and get motivated towards taking action with all the excitement and knowledge”

“Oh, understood. So, the event is like a ladder to get out of the well” I exclaimed finishing my coffee.

Cover image sourced from Image

I will be conducting such an event on Urban Air Pollution on Thursday, December 13 in Mumbai between 2 30 to 5 30 pm at the Veer Savarkar Smarak, Shivaji Park, Mumbai as organized by Ekonnect.

An announcement will soon be made on Social Media.

In 2019, Ekonnect proposes to conduct such events on various topics once every month.

Please contact me on if you are interested to know more.

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Mind Mapping Industrial Pollution Control

This post is about how to prepare engaging presentations using mind mapping to bring forth inherent complexity of a topic. It is meant for professors, research scholars and students. I have taken topic of industrial pollution control as an illustration.

A bit longish deliberation, but I do hope you will find this post interesting and that it will serve the purpose.

Professor was busy in his study on Sunday morning. I saw him sitting on a drawing board with a A2 size paper and color pencils. He seemed so engrossed as he didn’t even notice me.

He was writing on the paper some “keywords” and then connecting them and making some side notes. Sometimes he would pause and do some google search and print few documents or note the URLs.

I did not want to disturb him. In the next fifteen minutes this is what appeared on the paper

Industry – good and services

Pollution – unwanted constituent – adverse change

Control – power to influence, regulate to achieve certain goals

Why are you doing this basic stuff Professor?  I asked when I saw him picking up a cup of coffee.

He noticed me.

“Well Dr Modak, I am preparing a “general” presentation on the subject of “industrial pollution control”.

It is good to begin with dissection of each term in the topic. This is often a good start.”

I realized that Professor had used the following definitions. See Box 1

Box -1 Some Key Definitions on the subject of Industrial Pollution Control
What is an industry?

Industry is the production of goods or related services within an economy

What is pollution?

Pollution is the introduction of contaminants into the natural environment that cause adverse change. Contamination is the presence of an unwanted constituent, contaminant or impurity in a material, physical body, natural environment, workplace, etc.

What is control?

Control is largely associated with power and having the power to influence people, decisions or processes. It is an important function because it helps to check the errors and to take the corrective action so that deviation from standards are minimized and stated goals of the organization are achieved in a desired manner.

“Now what Professor?” I could not resist to ask.

“Well, Dr Modak, we now continue asking more questions to ourselves on the subject” said the Professor.

“But we need to describe little bit more about the industry itself i.e. Its classification by size, type and pollution potential. The priorities and strategies change as we deal with different classes of industry. We need a better understanding and so I have prepared a handout”

Oh, so Professor was essentially mapping his thinking. I realized.

“It may be interesting Professor to ask about how can we reduce pollution in the first place. This could be an effective strategy to control pollution. No point to let the pollution happen first and then worry for solution”. I suggested.

“Yes indeed”, Professor agreed. “In early days we did not think “upstream” i.e. production stage itself for minimizing pollution. In fact, pollution prevention was not considered as a strategy for pollution control. Professor pulled out a nice infographics explaining the “evolution” that he had researched from the web – of course improving the figure based on his experience.

“Looks great” I exclaimed. “I am sure you will “plug in” this figure in your presentation slides”

Professor nodded while lighting his cigar. “Yes, I will. But let us continue building this diagram further. By the way, this diagram is called a Mind Map.

“What is a Mind Map Professor?” I asked

A Mind Map is an easy way to brainstorm thoughts that occur naturally without worrying about order and structure. It allows you to visually structure your ideas to help with analysis. A Mind Map is thus an intuitive framework around a central concept. A Mind Map can turn a long list of monotonous information into a colorful and highly organized diagram that works in line with your brain’s natural way of thinking.

Professor invited me to make contribution to the mind map he had started drawing.

I wanted to go further “upstream”

“Professor – what about rethinking about the product itself?  And the raw materials used?” I put a question.

“Oh Yes”, said the Professor. “We must bring in both upstream and downstream elements when discussing industrial pollution control. Immediate thinking downstream will be recycling and recovery that the industry must do – extreme thinking being the so called Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD).  But further down, we must account for pollution caused beyond the factory gate covering transportation of products including packaging, pollution during product use and pollution after use i.e. during disposal. We call this as a life cycle approach to understand the problem of pollution – on a holistic basis”

I expanded the mind map further capturing the life cycle consideration with a question in my mind that why should such downstream thinking be discussed in the topic of pollution control.

Professor lit his cigar and took a deep puff. “Well Dr Modak, considering both upstream and downstream perspectives in industrial pollution control is a great idea – but this is something hard to “control” isn’t it? The stakeholders are different in each stage of the life cycle and industry may not have enough information, opportunity to participate and control”.

Hmm – I said and added “Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)” in the mind map.

The EPR concept was formally introduced in Sweden by my good friend Thomas Lindhqvist in a 1990 report to the Swedish Ministry of the Environment. In subsequent reports prepared for the Ministry, the following definition emerged: “[EPR] is an environmental protection strategy to reach an environmental objective of a decreased total environmental impact of a product, by making the manufacturer of the product responsible for the entire life-cycle of the product and especially for the take-back, recycling and final disposal.

Initially EPR was encouraged but now it is getting legislated in many countries – including in India.

So we were looking at pollution control not just of controlling emissions through stacks or managing effluents draining out of the premises. That itself could be a good point of discussion in Professors presentation – I thought. We were perhaps heading towards the new avatara of industrial pollution control as “responsible manufacturing”.

I thought we should introduce two terms now – 1) benchmarks and good practices and 2) standards

“You are right Dr Modak in pointing out these two terms”, Professor had a lot to say and he elaborated citing some extracts from literature and shared with me a print of key URLs.

Benchmarks tell you where you stand so that you move towards increased resource efficiency and resource recycling to achieve pollution prevention. Standards on emissions bring in the need to come up with technologies that help meet the requirements of compliance to achieve environmental protection. As standards become stricter, costs of compliance increase if you don’t bring in pollution prevention. Best practices provide a guide on how to achieve benchmarks and standards so that the industry is both competitive and compliant. Pollution control is then a logical outcome and not something done solely just because it is mandatory. “Integrated Pollution Control” becomes an opportunity for ecological modernization.

Wow, I said to myself.

We expanded our Mind Map further.

“Remember Dr Modak that we must keep in mind the concept of total overburden and build ecological rucksack in terms of consumption of resources and generation residues across all the media and across all stages of life cycle” Professor spoke slowly but had a lot of emphasis.

I understood that this statement was pretty loaded and deep. Perhaps another Mind Map will be required to capture what Professor was arguing. It introduced the need for circularity that each industry should think about and together with the government and communities. Partnership was important.

The concept of total overburden also highlighted the need to consider not just technology based solutions but hinted the role played by policies e.g. banning, planning measures (like eco-industrial parks), use of economic instruments like taxes and market mechanisms like pollution trading, influencing consumption patterns and promoting  innovative business models with appropriate financing. Role of common environmental infrastructure in achieving pollution control may also be discussed especially for small and medium industries.

We were perhaps talking about the industrial pollution control now as a sector and not a case of an individual polluting industry.

I attempted to add all these important keywords in the Mind Map. Now the map looked pretty complex. I wasnt fully satisfied though.

“Don’t tell me Professor that you are going to prepare slides to cover everything we have expressed in this Mind Map” I was now worried about the audience.

“Well, Dr Modak, this is my “general” Mind Map on industrial pollution control; I will decide which parts of this Mind Map need to be focused and emphasized to make my slides depending on the context and the audience. The presentation will be thus customized. Not everything will need to be said” Professor explained as he was probably expecting my question. “I will use less text, more infographics and provide handouts of key materials” Professor added.

“This is great, Professor. No wonder why I find your presentations always stimulating and so different from others. You must have prepared several such Mind Map-based presentations by now.” I asked

“No Dr Modak, this is my first time that I will use the technique of Mind Mapping” Professor said this while extinguishing his cigar.

And I was simply puzzled with his candid confession. Perhaps, the technique of Mind Mapping was simply “built in” Professors mind.

Mind mapping is simply a great fun with lots of learning.

The mind map that we created was indeed a “raw” representation. There are several mind mapping freewares that can be used to construct much better visualization, show connections and plugging in the details.

If you are interested, then do attempt creating a mind map on industrial pollution control by using some of these tools and build further on the raw map we prepared. I will publish your maps on this post.

Do send me a copy at if you wish to receive any comments or guidance. Will be happy to work with you.

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The Lonavala Experiment

One day while teaching at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay; I received a call from Manjula Rao of the British Council Division. She said “Dr Modak, I have some budget to spare for conducting training on Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Would you be interested? We will be able to support travel and stay of two British Professors. And you can design the course the way you deem fit. We won’t micro-manage”

As usual, I was itching to do something different and I thought I must make use of this generous offer from Manjula.

I spoke to my good friend M G Rao (who today is unfortunately no more). MG (as how we used to call him)  was working with Rashtirya Chemicals & Fertilizers in Mumbai managing company’s environmental affairs. MG was a seasoned environmental professional, a passionate personality, a perfectionist and had a great insight to the EIA process. He always looked at EIA beyond mere compliance and more of an opportunity to value-add and de-risking.

MG, me and Manjula sat together in the Nariman Point office of the British Council and discussed to identify targets to train and prepared an outline of the program.

I proposed a case study-based approach to “teach”. At that time, EIA of Mumbai-Pune expressway was in the news. Report prepared by Associated Industrial Consultants (AIC) was under scanner. Erich Bharucha, Professor at Pune had raised concerns about the impact of cutting trees on the flying squirrels that harbored in the forests on the Ghats (hills). Alternate alignment of the expressway was therefore demanded. The State Government had another viewpoint and wasn’t sensitive to the concerns raised by Professor Bharucha.

The Giant Flying Squirrel

In the EIA report, the Consultant AIC did a comparison between the “project” and “no project option” and this comparison showed that over long run, the expressway would certainly be an environmentally sound option to connect Mumbai with Pune. “Business as usual” was no good! The benefits of saving fuel (and so the emissions) and time and reduction of risks during travel were simply enormous given the projected volume of traffic between the two cities.

I thought this case study could be used in the training program. I met Mr. B V Rotkar at the office of AIC who was heading the EIA Team. Mr. Rotkar, a veteran in the subject of Environmental Governance, was earlier Member Secretary of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).  Mr. Rotkar was a Guru and an inspiring personality to many of us.

Rotkar listened to me. He liked my idea of using EIA of Mumbai-Pune as a learning case study. “Well Dr Modak, Go ahead but you would need to “doctor” the details and not lift the sections of our EIA report on as is basis. Make a “new story”, He smiled while handing over the EIA report to me. It was so generous of him.

Manjula asked me about the Venue. And I proposed Lonavala, a little holiday town perched on the hills and lying mid-way between Mumbai and Pune.  We were planning the program in the month of October and that was perhaps the best period to be in Lonavala. I selected Fariyas Resort.

Fariyas Resort is a 5-star hotel located picturesquely at Frichley Hills.  It enjoys proximity to the express highway, main market and several tourist attractions, including Pawna Lake, Lohagad Fort and Karla and Bhaja Caves. It is one of the best resorts in Lonavala.

I did a reiki by visiting Fariyas, inspected the training rooms, met the F&B Manager and saw the facilities as the program was going to be a residential one. We decided to accommodate 40 participants. A two days program on this basis fitted well in Manjula’s budget.

The next task was to identify the British Professors and check their availability. Two names occurred to me – one was Christopher Wood from Manchester University and second was Peter Wathern. Chris taught in University’s EIA Centre and had just published a book titled “Environmental Impact Assessment – A Comparative Review”. Peter taught at Aberystwyth University and had edited an amazing book “Environmental Impact Assessment – Theory and Practice”. I loved both these books and was keen to “teach” along with these two Professors.

(I would highly recommend you to read these two books – its been a while that the books have been written but do good old things ever get outdated? These books are even relevant today.)

When we contacted the Professors, both of them agreed to come and join in my “Lonavala Experiment”.

So, what was the experiment about?

This idea was to introduce a new way of teaching the subject of EIA and do capacity building of training institutions.

The “learning path” was first designed following the “process” of EIA. That led to the program design. For instance, the opening session was on Screening and the last session was Environmental Monitoring for Compliance and for Adapting the Environmental Management Plan. Mumbai-Pune expressway case study was “woven” across all the sessions.

The participants were split into 4 groups. For each work session, the group composition was changed so at the end of 2 days, almost all participants got “connected” to each other.

The method of teaching was not prescriptive. For example, each Group was given one-page brief with another page showing the project location. There were four such “sample” projects. To start with, each participant was asked to apply screening in his/her way and come with a conclusion on – whether an EIA is required? And if Yes then at what level (e.g. Initial Environmental Examination was adequate, or a detailed or comprehensive EIA should be done? And why?).

When groups were formed, a Group opinion was to be presented and this required that each member of the Group had to communicate his/her rationale, defend or critique and learn how to arrive at consensus. Oh, this was the toughest part! When each Group leader presented the Group view on project screening, a discussion followed that was even more enriching.

The session ended with a short discourse on the Screening Criteria followed in India and in other countries. Participants were then encouraged to comment (e.g. on criteria of project type, size/investment and location) and in specific the case of Mumbai-Pune expressway. Each session was thus exciting – both to the participants and the faculty.

Location of Fariyas Resort at the mid-way of the Expressway made a difference. We visited the site of Flying Squirrels to understand the sensitivity better! Session on alternatives was therefore full of ideas and energy and debates! At the end of the course, all participants learnt the practice of EIA, and as MG used to repeated say “its power as a value – add”

But I think the best part of the “Lonavala experiment” was integrating the training program with potential institutions and faculty who could replicate. I invited faculty from 8 renowned institutions in India who taught EIA in their curriculum. We called these faculty members as Observers and they served as Facilitators or Resource Persons during the period of training.

I requested these faculty to stay for one more day after the 2 days course and discuss the course content and pedagogy. The 40 participants had left by then.

The third day was very productive as these 8 faculty members made observations to further improve the training program. We made plans on how could we continue this model of training at their respective universities and what help would they need from us and from the British Council. There was so much positive energy when we closed the session on the third day.

Peter and Chis were amazing. I learnt a lot from these two stalwarts. We did a Training Manual after incorporating suggestions from the 8 “peers”. Peter took the responsibility to edit and finalize. Manjula found money to print the Training Manual.

MG and I spent good time in selecting the 40 participants. We chose participants from different disciplines and practice experience that ranged infrastructure developers, regulators, financiers, academicians, environmental NGOs, media personnel  and of course the EIA consultants. Many of these participants of the Lonavala experiment are still in touch with me today. Its sad that Peter Wathern is no more. He died in 2015. I don’t see any recent “google footprint” of Chris Wood. Last I saw him was at the IAIA Conference in Hongkong.

I would very be interested to repeat my “Lonavala experiment”. It was EIA the last time and this time, the topics could be different – may be Circular Economy? Do write to me if you have any suggestions or need any help.

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Teaching Environment with Meta Data

I went to see my Professor friend on a Sunday morning. Idea was to chit chat and have delicious dosai prepared by his wife with a tangy green chutney and ending the breakfast with a strong south Indian filter coffee.

Professor was busy as usual and was glued to his laptop doing some frantic Google search.

I asked “Professor, what’s your search today, You look real desperate”.

“Well Dr Modak, I am looking for data on sales of Asthalin in the city of Mumbai over past 10 years.” Professor responded while glaring at the computer screen

Some of you may know that Asthalin is a product of Cipla Pharmaceuticals that has been a life saver inhaler to combat asthma.

I was surprised about Professors interest in sale of Asthalin.

“I am teaching the subject of air pollution tomorrow and I badly need this data” Professor said

I did not want to disturb him and so kept shut.

A few minutes passed by and Professor seemed to have found that he was looking for.

“Aha, I finally hit on the data I wanted, now let us get to the dining table for the breakfast” Professor seemed to be relived

While relishing the Mysore plain dosai, I asked Professor the connection …

“Well, Dr Modak, You probably know that I always teach the subject of environment with the help of meta data.” Professor said.

Meta data – what’s that Professor? I knew a bit about this term, but wanted to have a better explanation

“Metadata is simply data about data. It means it is a description and context of the data. It helps to organize, find and understand data. In most instances, meta data is used to search data, but I use meta data to make understand data better.” Professor explained

Take a case of continuous air quality monitoring data. When we see sudden spikes in the concentration levels, then you may check the “meta data” that tracks the “surround” situation e.g. may be a truck was standing next to the monitoring station puffing emissions over 10 minutes. This meta data could be in the form of a video file that records the surrounding as much as the air pollutant concentration is recorded by the monitoring instrument. Another example could be an instance of a sudden fall in the particulate concentration. This  may indicate a shower of rain (like a spell of a drizzle) washing out the particulates. So, records of the rain events become a useful meta data.

“Oh yes,  understood Professor” I said. “So, what you are saying is that meta data is required or is very important to understand the environmental data we monitor. In many instances. we don’t pay attention to this kind of data. We don’t record or we overlook”.

“Indeed. So, tomorrow when I teach air pollution, I will be showing map of city of Mumbai with air quality trends over 12 monitoring stations and show at the same time the information or trend in the sale of asthalin inhaler at some of the major chemists. Probably, the air quality (especially the particulates) near to the chemist shops may be correlated with the sale of asthalin. But I am not very sure. I plan to show last 10-year trend between the two, based on monthly average data. It may throw interesting relationship between PM10 or PM2.5 or ratio between PM2.5 and PM10 with the sale of asthalin”

Professor showed me a map that he was attempting to prepare. I thought this was a great idea to make students understand the air pollution in Mumbai and raise a debate. Merely looking at the air pollutant concentrations wouldn’t  perhaps give a deeper understanding of the problem.

I  thought of similar associations. I remembered that we got some statistics from Western Railways in Mumbai about the frequency of cable coating they had to follow to combat cable corrosion. When Mumbai had moderately high Sulphur dioxide concentration, the frequency of cable recoating had increased. A plot between average seasonal Sulphur dioxide concentration and expenditures on per unit length for recoating showed an interesting proportional relationship.

Professor continued. ”There are known relationships that show coupling e.g. per capita income and per capita waste generation. So richer you get more becomes the waste generation. But if you start digging more, you may find even more interesting relationships. For instance, value of goods purchased through e-commerce websites may explain the rising fraction of plastic in the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). So, it may worth to expose the student to the meta data on e-commerce platforms to understand the changing composition of the MSW. Patterns and modes of consumption help to know the generation of waste”

Professor was right. I remembered that increasing cost of raw water treatment reflected the deteriorating quality of river water. More dosage of flocculants and disinfectant had to be used to combat the pollution released upstream of the raw intake works.

Professor had another example. In the city of Hubli in India, he had found that high concentrations of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) in drinking water were related to the insurance claims made by patients for the treatment of kidney stones.  That showed serious health and economic implications to justify investing in a TDS management plan.

Sometimes we assess the effectiveness of a regulation and a degree of enforcement by examining the trend in the fines collected or number of non-compliance cases filed. I analyzed the data on the number of cases filed to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) over 5 years across India and this statistic showed the “hot spots” or the “troubled areas” that we should worry.

Extent of night illumination at industrial estates (detected through the satellite imageries), the amount of octroi collected on the road entering the industrial estate and the water cess records provide a good measure to assess the resource intensity. These are interesting elements of meta data to serve as a proxy. You can then compare the resource intensities and potential environmental impacts of two industrial estates on this basis.

Professor said that it is necessary that the Teacher should use the “associativity” and appropriate meta data to make students think beyond the silos, be creative and learn to question or inquire. This style is perhaps most desirable to explain the complex subject of environment and its management. Remember that examining meta data also helps to check the “quality” of the data and validate some of the hypothesis. We need to build a number of interesting teaching case studies for this purpose.  Professor lighted his cigar

“Oh Professor, since you mentioned about validating the hypothesis, I must share with you something funny” I said while sipping the filter coffee.  Generally, higher is the number of environmental professionals available in a country, the national Environmental Performance Index (EPI) should improve. [EPI is a measure developed by the Yale University. EPI for each country is estimated every year and the index has been published for more than 15 years].

And so, what was your finding for India data Dr Modak? Professor asked.

“Well, I found that as the number of environmental professionals increased, the levels of EPI for India  deteriorated! Quite contrary to the hypothesis”

“Aha, you did not use the right meta data Dr Modak. Professor exclaimed. “If you had used meta data on corruption and scams in India, then you would have certainly found a relationship between corruption in the country and the deteriorating EPI”

I thought Professor was absolutely right.

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Making a Career in Environment

I receive on an average five applications with Curriculum Vitae (CV) every day from students and young professionals who are interested to make careers in the field of environment. Out of the 100 CVs that I examine, I would say that less than 5% of the CVs look promising – or worth taking the discussion ahead.

I worry about the remaining 95%. I see that many of this category do not get jobs or advice (in the right time!) and subsequently run into a frustration and many a times even drop their plans of working in the field of environment. The ever-hungry IT sector offers them alternate opportunities.

I am writing this blog today to guide the students and young professionals on how should one build a career in the field of environment. I don’t have a remarkable story to tell about myself, but still I will use my career as an illustration wherever relevant.

The starting point is that you must be sensitive and have a passion towards environment. As you learn more, you should get even more excited. Does this make you restless? If it does, then great. I remember environment was always my passion. I was clear that this is what I want to learn about right in my undergraduate days.

You need to meet with people who work in the field of environment. You need to ask them questions and listen to what they have to say. I remember I met practically all those who mattered across the country. I travelled.

Think who you want to be? Identify personalities that may inspire you. Read my blog on who you want to be?. But be careful as it is a satire but has a lot of hidden messages.

See how can you add green (or more green) in your undergrad/grad program. Take electives and mini-projects that expose you to different topics of environment. I remember the second year elective offered by Professor S M Khopkar of Chemistry Department at IIT Bombay on “Environmental Pollution”. We had a choice to take 4 electives in the fourth and fifth year of BTech. You could do 4 electives on Systems and Control or  Humanities or Environmental Science. I chose the latter.

If required, audit the courses that are “lateral” but are important e.g. a course on mass communication. I remember during my doctoral research I took lots of such lateral courses such as system simulation, combinotorial optimization.

Internship is very important. Carefully plan your internship. Ideally look for two internships – one with an industry and another with a research organization or a science based environmental NGO. If you can manage getting internship outside India, then go for it. Intern where you have someone to mentor or the program is well laid out. Practice based learning is the essence. If you are asked to produce a document only through Googling, then this kind of internship is not worth at all.

At Environmental Management Centre LLP, we have been running a serious internship program for more than 15 years. So far nearly 80 students have completed their internships. Visit and I would recommend you to browse through the internship topics we offered.

Selecting your project (bachelors/masters/PhD) and the Guide are very important decisions. The project should give you research as well as project management experience. It’s the experience that is more important than the outcomes. So, select a topic such that you meet lots of people and travel in the field. Aim for a good publication – ideally two – one in a national and one in an international refereed journal. Read my blog on the fuss that will tell you my story how I chose my bachelors project. You may enjoy my another blog on how to carry out  “inconsequential research

It is a clever idea to take part or start green campus initiatives. This could mean setting up of a solar hot water system for the college canteen or replacing incandescent bulbs with LEDs or designing and installing a waste to compost facility. These initiatives will expose you to the practical aspects of design, costing, getting the sponsor (such as alumni) and getting involved in the implementation. Use your summer vacations for such a project implementation experience. In some cases, you could even link these campus projects with your research interest and formulate a bachelors or masters dissertation.

Become secretary of the student association on environment –set up FB /LinkedIn pages, bring out a newsletter and organize lectures of external faculty. Consider holding a national workshop – learn event management, make contacts and maintain them post the event. I remember working for a national workshop on environmental management that we conducted at IIT Bombay during my Masters. Professor P Khanna was the convener.

At bachelors and masters level, don’t overly specialize – look at all media (e.g. air, water, land) and get the nexus right. That will distinguish you from others. Give Indian statistics as much importance as the international. Familiarize with local and national situation, challenges and opportunities. Blend both theory and practice. Be comfortable in working in the lab and be familiar with instruments.

Pick up a job before moving to Masters or Doctoral – work for at least 2 to 3 years preferably at an institution that gives you a rounded experience.  Getting the right experience is more important than the salary. Do read my blog on three interviews I faced during my job hunting! Oh, this was hilarious.

Small organizations with great people should be the first choice. Opportunity of working on “unconventional” projects should be the priority.

Join a professional association. Get involved. Help the association and learn. Get elected. Take a position in the organization of the association, Patronize the association and Grow. For last several years, I have been closely associated with the Indian Water Works Association. I edited the Journal over 8 years, organized national and international workshops and this helped me a lot.

Continue referring to the “library”. Identify the problems and opportunities you see in practice (as of today and as anticipated in the future), talk to to seniors/experts and see whether answers are already there. You may hit on something where solutions need to be evolved. Write two pagers on your ideas. Communicate and get them peered. I remember that I wrote my first two pager on the research needs on water supply engineering and sent the note to Professor Daniel Okun, legendary professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Professor Okun replied and offered me research assistanceship. That was amazing.

Find the best place where you want to research. Don’t compromise the university. Wait and have patience. Brand of the university where you do advanced learning is extremely important.

Make the best of your Masters/PhD program. Shape yourself well to face the world as you complete. You will never get such a time again.

Pick up a career stream based on your passion and the skills. Teaching? Research? Consulting? Technology Development? Technology Marketing? Project implementation? Policy and Regulations? Financing? You may experiment for a while if you like but all this should be done within the first 5 years max. In my case I tried to do all! But I must say I have been lucky to be the “free radical”

When you work take additional qualifications to update and build more skills – keep annual and five-year cycles for learning. Avoid templated work to the extent possible. As you grow, learn to manage teams and build experience on project management.

Become a mentor – keep connections with the Academia as the subject of environment is so dynamic. Look for visiting professor appointment. If required, spend your half Saturdays.

Continue working for professional associations, build your network – nationally and internationally

Publish to create impact. You will automatically be visible. Maintain high quality with no compromise. Keep a balance between individual and group publications, conferences and refereed journals.

Aspire to bring in a change that is impactful and measurable. You need to have patience and doggedness to pursue.

Finally, money should not be the objective of what you do. Money will chase you as much you stay away! Stay humble and celebrate others success. Have a compassion.

And finally, give back to the society. Environment is such a great subject that giving back enriches everybody’s life and makes your life worth living.  And only those who are fortunate, take environment as their career.

I have said a lot and everything what I have said may not be possible. You may “delete” and “add” and “adapt” depending on your opportunities and situation. Feel absolutely free and if you need any advice then do reach me on

Each year, I hold a one-day counseling workshop on making careers in environment called as Disha. We will hold Disha this year after the academic sessions are over around April end or so.

I will notify and if you are interested, then please do attend Disha.

I will be glad to help.

I will be on on Facebook Live on Sunday 28 9:00 AM India time/ Sat 27 10:30 PM US EST. If interested then do join me


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