Why the Fuss?


[This blog is one of the longest I have written – but couldn’t resist telling the whole story – it may sound a bit technical too – The message is more for the students. My apologies]

When we were offered dissertation topics for B Tech project in IIT, I remember I took the selection of the topic rather too seriously. My interest was in environment and the only topic offered was Design of Sewage Treatment Plant for the IIT Bombay Campus. This topic did not excite me as I thought it was too mundane. I wanted to take a topic that will be “path breaking” and “impact the world”. Probably I was making too much fuss.

Identification of a Guide was equally daunting a problem. We had only one Professor in Environmental Engineering, – Professor S G Joshi – and he was the one who had offered the topic on Sewage Treatment Plant design. So obviously I could not approach him as I wanted to take “some other” topic.

Professor J T Panicker was one of the senior most faculty at the Civil Engineering Department then. He was Professor of Hydrology, Deputy Director of IIT Bombay and carried an umbrella for the entire year – irrespective whether it rained (may be as a true Professor of Hydrology!). He had his own lecture room and accepted only PhD students. I approached Professor Panicker as a Guide. Books on his desk always intrigued me such as a book on “Cloud Physics” and photographs of some French Researchers (He did his doctoral research in Paris).

When I explained Professor Panicker that I am not clear about the topic; and I want to do my project; and yet wanted him to guide me, he said “take your time to decide, I don’t think I can add value in the environmental engineering space – but feel free to drop in if you need any general advice” He then smiled and said “Well, do let me know your date of final examination in advance so that I can block my time!” So he essentially assured me the freedom to choose the topic what I want to do.

Having done this part of “housekeeping”, I set out my “topic finding mission” to motion. I thought to meet Mr. V D Desai, the Deputy Municipal Commissioner (DMC) of Greater Mumbai for advice. It took a while to get appointment of Mr. Desai – but perhaps my status of student of IIT Bombay worked. I was in his cabin one day late in the evening. He was winding up his work. When I said that I have come to meet him for guiding me for choosing a BTech project, he was a bit startled and a bit angry. “This is hardly something that you need to see a DMC of Mumbai. Take something straightforward and simple. You are too young to think of something different and the topic at BTech level is not like deciding a PhD topic”. But when I insisted, he ended the conversation abruptly and said – go and meet Dr Deepak Kantawala at Environmental Engineering Consultants. He works for us on Mumbai Sewage Disposal Project and has an office in Nariman Point in Mittal Chambers”

Two things fascinated me. First – I had not met someone who ran a consulting firm in environmental engineering (so I wanted to see how a consultant’s office looks like) and second – I had not seen someone who had done doctoral degree in environmental engineering from the United States!

I went to meet Dr Kantawala. The receptionist ushered me to his cabin. The cabin was filled with aroma of tobacco. Dr Kantawala was wearing Quadra jeans, a smart tie and had a pipe in his hand. His cabin had a window that gave a good view of the sea. He had an American-Gujju accent. He looked at me and said “We are working on a project of designing marine outfall for Mumbai’s sewage disposal. We are setting up a one dimensional DO-BOD model for this purpose”. The very term one-dimensional DO-BOD model impressed me (although later I realized that this one-dimensional approach for Mumbai coast did not make any sense!). I felt this topic to be a “lot elevated” than the design of sewage treatment plant. While I was about to ask him how can I get involved in this exercise of one dimensional model, Dr Kantawala said “ I would like you to join two of my young engineers – Saifee Attarwala and Nayan Khambati, get on to the sampling boat and do hourly DO-BOD measurements following the tidal cycle. You can then analyse the data, make plots and interpret. In this process you will also learn how to do sampling and analyses in the laboratory.”

I was disappointed. I thought this work was too mundane and won’t be “influencing the world”.  I was expecting to work on a computer based math model and simulate DO-BOD concentrations for various outfall locations and tidal conditions. Sampling and analyses in the laboratory was perhaps just a routine. I said to myself – why should I compromise my research to such routine tasks? I thought Dr Kantawala was simply looking for some cheap labor! I politely declined the offer.

Many told me that I should approach National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) at Worli in Mumbai to get guidance on the topic. I met the Head S R Kshirsagar and his colleague R K Pandit. Mr. Kshirsagar was known to be a very kind hearted and positive person and Mr. Pandit was someone always negative and would play devil’s advocate. “Take a topic on treatment of distillery effluents – It is a real tough problem to solve and we do not have a good solution today ” Mr. Kshirsagar said in all seriousness Mr. Pandit added “Do you know that typical BOD concentrations of the distillery effluent? Its over 30,000 mg/l. Distillery industries in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh have been polluting the surface and ground waters over the years due to absence of suitable technology – but I don’t think you will be able to handle this kind of complex topic”. He had a smirk on his face.

I was impressed with the “problem”. When I read more about it, the topic further motivated me. I saw myself getting felicitated by the Indian Environmental Community for solving this problem and protect the country from the menace of distillery effluents. I thought like Water Mitty – a character created by James Thurber who day dreamed.   I decided my topic as “Treatment of Distillery waste”

When I told about this topic to my senior colleagues A D Kini, S L Naik and Hemant Jamenis in Hindustan Dorr Oliver, they supported the idea. Hemant said “Boss, if you cracked this problem, you will be making loads of money”. This possibility further boosted me to stick to this topic.

Anaerobic pathway was the method for the treatment of distillery waste. So I started looking for a “Guru” on anaerobic digestion. All cited name of Professor A D Patwardhan at VJTI, Mumbai. So I went to meet him. Professor Patwardhan was in the laboratory wearing an apron. The laboratory carried aroma of chemicals. Professor Patwardhan’s doctoral research was ongoing at Nagpur University on Anaerobic digestion. He was attempting treatment of sewage sludge with shredded municipal market waste (i.e. cellulose substrate). When I expressed Professor Patwardhan my interest on distillery waste, he recommended that I meet with Professor B Subba Rao at Walchand College of Engineering in Sangli. Professor Subba Rao had completed his Ph D on the anaerobic treatment of distillery waste.    So I travelled to Sangli to see Professor Rao

I remember I wrote a letter on a post card to Professor Rao before reaching Sangli about my research interest seeking his help. I wish I kept a copy of this letter. I had written how passionate I am on this topic and how honored I would be if the Professor could guide me and enlighten….  And how this would influence my life and how I could help the country! I am sure Professor Rao must be lost with my expressions but was kind enough to let me meet him.

I met Professor Subba Rao in his office and laboratory. After initial discussions, I requested him to give me a copy of his PhD dissertation which he gave me a bit reluctantly (I am sure I must asked him this rather rudely).

I read through his PhD dissertation whole night. The dissertation was centred around experiments that used 3 to 4 buckets simulating anaerobic lagoons. Sampling was done of the BOD/COD of the distillery effluent as it moved from buckets 1 to 2 and 3 and so on exhibiting different levels of removal efficiencies over a period of time. After such several experiments, an optimum configuration, retention time and BOD/COD loading was found and a design methodology was recommended. Professor Rao used this methodology to provide solutions to various distilleries around Sangli.

I remember – I was not quite excited with this “enumerative” research. I also thought that the approach taken was too empirical (input-output limited) and trivial.  When I spoke about my impressions openly to Professor Rao, I don’t think he liked my “criticism” – especially from a 22 year old kid. I greatly appreciate that the Professor heard me, gave me a patient hearing and let me speak. He said “Go to the anaerobic lagoons at Ugar Khurd Distillery – I suspect that the four lagoons in series there show acid-methane segregation. You may like to investigate the phenomenon of “di-phasic anaerobic digestion”.

How to reach Ugar Khurd I asked. The Jeep is about to leave Professor said, “Ride on!” And I went to Ugar Khurd in the Karnataka border.

I stayed at the plant, did some assessment and picked up samples for analyses in Mumbai following the required sampling and sample preservation protocols. A chemist at the plant guided me. I boarded a train from Ugar Khurd to reach Mumbai via Pune with a carton of distillery waste samples.

In Pune station, Railway Police came to arrest me on complaints from the fellow passengers that I was carrying illicit liquor on the train! To them the distillery effluent was the liquor as my carton was badly stinking. I had a tough time to explain and finally my IIT ID card and a phone call to Professor Panicker at IIT by the station master helped my “release”. Professor Panicker asked me to see him immediately on return. What a mess you are doing – he said in a shrill tone.

We did not have an environmental engineering laboratory at IIT Bombay. So I requested NEERI for help that Mr. Kshirsagar generously granted. I did my analysis work in the NEERI laboratory. It helped me in learning how to use instruments, follow the standard methods and interact with the NEERI scientists.

While all this rekey and the mission to meet people was on, I splurged into the literature survey. Again, library at IIT Bombay was no great in stocking environmental books and journals and so I had to look for other options. I spent most of the time in Matunga at the libraries of VJTI and UDCT. I still remember looking through the back issues of Journal of Water Pollution & Control Federation, Proceedings of the Purdue University Industrial Waste Conferences etc. at these libraries. Those were the treasures to me. Even now I remember some of the papers I read there. I used to walk home from Matunga (a 20 minute walk over the Tilak Bridge) and not take the Bus as it helped in pondering over what I read in the journals. It used be my think-walk.

In one of the readings at UDCT, I came across paper by Barker on “Evolution of Methane” (a classic 1938 article!) and experience of Chicago Recirculation Pump (CRP) Company. CRP practiced gas based recirculation for mixing the digester liquor and found that the methane fraction in the gas could reach to 80% as against 65% generally found.  This was called as the CRP process. Barker had argued the role of CO2 in the evolution of methane.

By then I had realized that “breaking of the propionate” in acid-methane segregation was the key and a thought came to my mind to conduct experiments with certain species of methanogens and propionate under CO2 and “no CO2” bias with beakers placed on a shaker. The idea of doing such an experiment excited me.   The question was where to do such an experiment?

My experiment needed a Gas Liquid Chromatograph (GLC), inoculum of methanogenica genre of species and a mentor who could teach me how to work with anaerobic organisms. I also needed to know how to handle a GLC.

I was told to approach Dr Gokhale at the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) at Pashan, Pune and Dr S H Godbole at the Maharashtra Association for Cultivation of Sciences (MACS). Both Dr Gokhale and Godbole liked my “idea” and supported me. Dr S H GodboIe had a research group working on anaerobiosis.

I stayed in Pune for 30 days for conducting the experiment at MACS after training on GLC at the NCL. Two doctoral researchers at MACS helped me for my experimental set up. The results were extremely encouraging. The breakdown of propionate in the flask with CO2 bias was much earlier. As CO2 bias was increased, the methane content increased too – unfolding the mystery of the CRP process. At that time, I came up with a concept of Biochemical Carbon Dioxide Demand (B CO2 D) for anaerobic treatment process. This was my own proposition. I developed procedure to estimate (B CO2 D) over 10 days and design anaerobic reactors on this basis. To me it was the major outcome of my BTech project – It also satisfied my “appetite” of doing research in my own way.

Well, the fuss I made to pick up my topic and working on my own – taught me a lot in later part of my life.  I met very interesting people, visited different institutions and built skills that helped me immensely. In the process of this “chequered research”, I made new friends and established a network. Indeed it was struggle for me but I think the “fuss I made that time was simply worth”.

Other day, I got a student from IIT Bombay looking for a research topic. He almost interrogated me to assess whether I was worth his Guide and said in a candid tone, I want to find my own topic and I am not really sure what to do. But please don’t think that I am making a fuss….”

And I said to him reassuringly – “No worries – Please do go ahead and make the fuss – I promise you will enjoy and cherish”


I was close to Mr VD Desai after his retirement and visited his house in Mahim, Mumbai several times, He is now no more. Dr Deepak Kantawala has always been my well wisher, friend philosopher and guide. We have done several assignments together and when he “sold” his environmental engineering consulting company, I was involved to some extent.

I am in touch with both Professor Patwardhan and B Subba Rao. Professor Patwardhan advised us recently on the training of effluent treatment plant operators. Mr S R Kshirsagar is no more. I took over from him the job of Hon Editor of the Journal of Indian Water Works Association. We worked together for several years to shape the Journal.

(cover image taken from http://www.foundationsforfreedom.net/References/OT/Historical/Joshua/Joshua01-5/Joshua01.12-15_Participation.html)


  1. Long? Not really.. I would say this is a gripping piece where every moment I was looking for what next! One of the best till so far. May be knowing many of the towering personalities you interacted with makes it further interesting for me. But meeting them for you was no accident, It was perseverance and a wish to do things, differently.

    The route you took in pursuit of a project holds true for most activities in hand, There’s always a shorter and quicker way but there’s no short cut when it comes to learning and succeeding.

    Thanks for penning this (or rather keying in!)

  2. Dear Prasad, I had seen your B Tech dissertation in CESE. I was impressed and remain impressed. I did not know efforts you had taken. While reading this post I felt as if I am walking with you. I am student of Prof. Subba Rao and beyond his subject expertise more memorable is humane dimension. Dr. Kantawala was my M Tech Examiner and remain one of the idols for me.
    If you have preserved photographs and communications, I suggest you should prepare something on the line of concept “Last Lecture” and we should arrange in IITB Convocation Hall. While it is easy to get impressed with your success in life and your professional work, one simply forgets your hard work.
    Live Long life.

    1. Dear Vijay

      I like your suggestion. We should all work on this project, collate photographs and correspondences with some of the towering personalities in our field, put up a mini exhibition and follow by few inspiring lectures.



  3. Dear Prasad
    Today there may not be dearth of sources of information- provided you know what you are seeking (else it is very easy to get lost in ocean of info without getting specifics) but your strength has been the ‘urge’ which defeats any time frame and is what I appreciate from the Story. And the amount of damage that distillery waste had done in Mahrashtra (and may be UP too) and how the Industry is on Anaerobic Digestion as core treatment- but the issue of meeting final BOD, I suppose still remain and you may think of yourself/ some research aspirant meeting you to look into this issue. That would then be ‘sustainable’.
    Kishore Kavadia

  4. Great Post Dr Modak. It was a gripping narrative. Like Dr Singhal commented I am impressed that you recall the names of all the people you interacted with.
    Your research was indeed pathbreaking..

  5. Dear Dr Singhal and Rudolf

    Meeting people and remembering them has been my “hobby”. Fortunately, people I met have been so good to remember!


  6. Students should take inspiration from your account of great efforts you put to select the topic
    of the dissertation and still greater efforts you put to produce the dissertation document.
    It was ” Down Memory Lane ” for me since I had close contacts with some of the personalities you have mentioned.

  7. Dear Prasad Sir,
    You are one inspiration not just to students but to everyone. I enjoyed your post and I am glad I am a part of your memory lane. It has been a pleasure to be a part of your on-going effort to be the change the world needs.

  8. Brilliant piece, Sir !
    Your passion and thirst for meeting and learning from people is simply amazing..

    Thanks to you, we at EMC, have also had the privilege to meet and work with some of these stalwarts. I echo Dr. Kavadia’s experience of a walkthrough, as I too remembered all those learning moments with Dr. Kantawala, Dr. Kshirsagar, the IWWA team, Dr. Patwardhan, Dr. V D Desai (had met him with my parents after my HSC exams, for guidance)……

    Totally agree with Vijay, a photo collage and ‘Last Lecture’ like concept on some of the pressing environmental matters, is worth organising. Count me in for any support you may need.

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