When we were completing our Masters at IIT Bombay in Environmental Science and Engineering, we all wanted to become “Environmental Consultants”. It was the period of 1980 and the environmental consulting market wasn’t much established in India.
In 1976, I remember, I was doing my internship with Hindustan Dorr Oliver (HDO) in Mumbai. I was at the laboratory doing some wastewater treatability studies. My seniors A D Kini and S L Nayak were discussing how to translate the results of the treatability into the plant design. “We will have to ask Dr” said A D Kini.
Who is the Doctor? I asked (a dumb question). Kini said “Dr Deepak Kantawala, our Consultant. He is an authority in the treatment of industrial wastewaters. He did his doctoral at Wash U in the United States”.
I saw Dr Deepak Kantawala in the next week at the HDO in his trademark Quadra jeans, long whiskers, a white shirt with cufflinks and a red tie. He was walking around smoking a pipe that had a unique aroma of tobacco. I learnt that he ran a company called Environmental Engineering Consultants (EEC) at the Nariman Point.
(Dr Deepak Kantawala – A recent photograph)
Dr Deepak Kantawala (or Doctor) became our hero, or someone to follow in making our careers. One of my colleague and a close friend, Shirish Naik joined EEC after completion of his Masters. He used to say that Doctors library was a real treasure. It had all the consulting reports he did for the industries, many of them were multinationals. The library had full collection of Purdue University’s Annual Industrial Waste Conferences. One could spend hours browsing through these reports and conference volumes.
One day, Shirish and I thought that the best way to become a Consultant would be to steal Doctors treasures. We thought of photocopying all his important consulting reports. Once armed with this “knowledge” we thought we will be able not just compete with Dr Kantawala but even surpass him and become the most sought after Consultants in India.
But the problem was how to do the photocopying of the consulting reports discretely. It had to be done after the office hours and not noticed by Doctor or other seniors in the office. The only way was to get access to his office on the weekend.
I thought of an idea of approaching Doctor as IIT MTech students and request him for the use of his library over a weekend. We were sure that given Dr Kantawala’s love towards students (he was a Professor at MS University in Vadodara prior becoming a Consultant), he would allow us to use the office on the weekend.
We met him in his office and made this request. He was very pleased to know that we were interested to spend our “precious” weekends in his library and with his reports and the books. He took a deep puff from his pipe and thought about how to get us the access to his office on the weekend.
“Where do you stay Prasad?” He asked. I said “Shivaji-Park”.
“Oh then it is pretty easy and straight forward. On this Friday evening stand outside the Sanman restaurant on the Cadel Road around 7 pm. I live in Juhu so will be passing over the Cadel Road. I will pass you my office key at the Sanman spot. You and Shirish can use my office and be in our Library over the weekend to your heart’s content. On Monday morning, stand opposite to Sanman at 8 00 am sharp with my office keys. I will get the keys picked up from you on my way to the office”
We were shocked to see the ease in which he made this proposition. Clearly, the poor Professor cum Consultant didn’t see the devil in us. We readily agreed to Doctor’s proposal.
We went to a photocopying shop at Nariman Point next to Dr Kantawala’s office. We negotiated and booked the photocopying job for getting us good quality prints in the shortest time possible. We estimated photocopying of some 1000 pages each day. The photocopying cost of Rs 1000 was worth for the “knowledge acquisition”
As agreed, I picked up the office key from Doctor on the next Friday evening at Sanman restaurant. On Saturday morning, Shirish and I reached the office of Environmental Engineering Consultants (EEC) on the 9th floor of the Mittal Chambers at Nariman Point. We opened the office and rushed to the library of treasures.
We first picked up report prepared for Ciba-Geigy, then Park Davis and then Pfizer and so on. We ensured that we had both the treatability studies as well as the design reports. We included in our heap, structural designs of the treatment plants prepared by Dr Kantawala’ s cousin Mahendra Shah, a wizard in this subject.
Within two hours of hard work, we were able to pile an impressive heap of “knowledge” on the desk of the library. The next task was to lift the heap and reach to the photocopying shop, give him the “job” and then go for lunch at the Woodlands (a famous south Indian restaurant on the ground floor that served a great grape juice). Once photocopying was done, all we were to do was take back the books to the office of EEC and place them in the original sequence they used to be.
We were about to begin our secret mission.
But, something was in the thin air. We looked at each other before embarking our adventure. Both of us suddenly felt that we were doing something wrong, indeed unethical and something shameful to us and our families.
We realized that Dr Kantawala had trusted in us fully and handed over the office keys so that we use this library to read and learn. It was wrong on our part to cheat and steal his Consulting reports. We were clearly misusing his kindness and generosity. We paused and decided not to…
Within next half hour, we put back all the reports, the Ciba Giegy, Park Davis and the likes where they originally were. We did not speak while this “reverse operation” was going on. We skipped lunch at the Woodlands and went home,
I met Dr Kantawala on Monday morning at the Sanman spot as earlier decided. While handing over the keys, I said “Doctor, can I get a ride till Worli Naka”. “Sure” Dr Kantawala said.
In the journey between Shivaji-Park to Worli, I did a confession and told Dr Kantawala everything, about our ulterior motives, the plan and the failure or abortion of the plan. He listened to me patiently, puffing in between his pipe with the unique tobacco aroma.
He then smiled and said “I knew you and your friend were up to something – but what it was I wasn’t sure. I had however a confidence that both of you won’t do anything that will be unethical, tarnish your souls and damage reputation of your families”.
He then patted on my back, and said “Prasad, if knowledge was so simple to acquire then universities and such halls of knowledge would be have been long replaced by the photocopying machines!”
I understood what he meant.
There was a difference between having documents and possessing the knowledge. Most think the former.
Years later, while at IIT Bombay, I was developing water quality modelling software for application on river Ganga. The project was funded by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The models we were developing were unique, Ganga relevant and complex – meant for optimizing investments on the wastewater treatment plants along the river. There was another “rival” research group at an institution of national importance working on water quality modeling.
I got a call one evening from a close friend at the MoEF alerting me that one of my Team members was quitting and he was “stealing” the source code of our models on a Mag Tape and joining the “rival group”. “Stop this Guy, Dr Modak and don’t let him take away the source code” My friend said in all my interest and earnestly.
(Thieves of two kinds)
I thought for a while and remembered the story of the office keys of Dr Deepak Kantawala.
I then simply let go this Team member without any questioning. “Won’t harm me at all” I told my friend at MoEF.
Indeed, our modelling software was “stolen”.
In a short time however, I could build far superior water quality models by working with two brilliant masters’ students – Rakesh Kumar Gelda and C Clement Prabhakar. Our models solved coupled DO-BOD equations in two dimensional space factoring transverse dispersion for the first time using Crank-Nicholson algorithm. The model calibration used advanced techniques of non-linear optimization with heuristics. The MoEF topped up our funding as we were found to be way ahead!
Rakesh Kumar Gelda (Rakesh Gelda is now a renowned lake modeler at the Freshwater Institute in the United States)
Clement Prabhakar (Clement did outstanding work of developing the famous MODFLOW and RT3D codes for ground water quality modelling for the US EPA)
You cannot steal knowledge. In fact, knowledge sharing helps one to grow.
Only those who are insecure, hide and try to “lock” the knowledge.
Today, the whole era of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) has brought in the barriers, led to distortions and given great business to the lawyers.
Sometimes, want or quest of personal recognition affects the free flow of knowledge. Recognition or taking the credit is I believe most a difficult thing to conquer that prevents free knowledge sharing.
You may know that Jagadish Chandra Bose was the first one to invent a wireless coherer and an instrument for indicating the refraction of electric waves. However, instead of trying to gain commercial benefit from this invention, Bose made his inventions public in order to allow others to further develop his research. He later turned his attention from the inorganic to the organic world. His revolutionary discoveries as a plant physiologist outpace even his radical achievements as a physicist. Although Bose filed for a patent for one of his inventions because of peer pressure, his reluctance to any form of patenting was well known.
I salute his ability to go beyond the quest of personal recognition and enjoy the discoveries of science and make them public for the interest of social good.
[Bose’s place in history has now been re-evaluated. He is now officially credited with inventing the first wireless detection device, discovering millimetre length electromagnetic waves, and being a pioneer in the field of biophysics]
So you don’t work or look for recognition. Recognition comes to you.
Every day I take a walk over Shivaji-Park and pass over the restaurant Sanman on Cadel Road. I remember the keys of Dr Deepak Kantawala – keys that opened up my mind to be what I am today and will always be.
(Picture on “thieves” taken from