My Memoirs of the International Workshop on Water Quality Management

Last week, I did some exchanges with Tom Barnwell, Ex-US EPA on LinkedIn. I asked Tom about the epidemiological models and whether these models could predict the spread and severity of COVID-19. Tom sent me some good material to read and wrote that these models were in fact quite close to the ecological models that we use in water quality management.

“Aha, water quality management” I said to myself. I was sitting in the balcony with a glass of Campari reading some of the reports Tom had sent me. The street down below was quiet due to the national lockout on account of COVID-19 pandemic. I could see the streetlights dim perhaps feeling lonely and the road was missing the shadows of the passersby. Only the wind was blowing and that too gently turning the dry leaves under the trees with a hissing sound. Indeed, this was the time to introspect. Perhaps the best time to go back to the memories associated with water quality management.

I remembered the International Workshop on Water Quality Management I organized in 1985 for the then Ganga Project Directorate. Tom Barnwell was one of the invited speakers from US EPA. Tom spoke on the QUAL-II model. I remember when I picked him up at the Mumbai airport, he carried for me a big box of US EPA manuals on water quality modelling and wastewater treatment. I kept all these manuals till couple of years ago as my treasure. Sadly, I have lost this treasure now. Where is the space? and who has the interest?

Clean Ganga project was launched in 1985. A Directorate was formed with Mr K C Sivaramakrishnan, IAS as the Project Director. I was appointed as a Consultant to the Directorate. Mr Sivaramakrishnan and then secretary Ministry of Environment and Forests, Mr T N Seshan asked me whether India should seek an international assistance and if yes then what should be the preference. There was already a proposal for partnership from Thames Water International.

I suggested that we hold a 5-day International workshop on water quality management at IIT Bombay (where I was a lecturer) and invite top experts from various countries and ask them to make presentations on their experience on cleaning of rivers. We should also invite some of the top Indian experts to attend and contribute and serve like peers to the presentations. Both KC and Mr Seshan liked the idea. Within no time, a budget was sanctioned, and I was given all the freedom to design the workshop and identity the experts. This was not easy.

I was always fascinated by the 1981 book “Models for Water Quality Management”, edited by Professor Asit Biswas published by McGraw Hill. . This book gave me a very good insight as it had contributions from leading experts from various countries. (Later, I was fortunate to author a book with Professor Biswas on Environmental Impact Assessment. I always tell my students that keep in your bucket list a possibility of co-authoring a book with the author of the textbook you studied! I consider myself very fortunate)

I started with UK as Thames Water International was already in the picture. David Triggs was the manager. Thames Water had a model called TOMCAT that was a “sub-catchment” model with ability to use time series of data as input with temporal correlations to take account of seasonal as well as diurnal variations in flow and water quality. It was quite a sophisticated model of that time. I requested David to share Thames experience and have someone to describe the intricacies of TOMCAT. Sam James and David Elliott from University of Newcastle Upon Tyne also joined to narrate the Tees estuary experience.

Ruhr basin was considered as one of the important success stories in Germany. So, I invited Professor Gunther Rinke of Darmstadt and Professor Poppinghous of Aachen (Later, I was lucky to  have an opportunity to work with both these Professors). From France I invited team working on the river Seine. US EPA nominated Tom Barnwell of the Water Quality Modelling Group in Athens, Georgia along with Etal Eralp from the wastewater technology branch at Cincinnati. We also had Prof Lettinga of Wageningen university in the Netherlands who was working on Up flow Anaerobic Sludge Blanket (USAB).

You see here John Decruz on the left and me in the extreme right

I invited A Maheswaran, Director General from Department of Environment, Malaysia and Ely Ouano from the Philippines. Dr R D Deshpande joined from Bangkok, representing UNEP regional office. We had galaxy of Indian experts. Of course, there was Professor Arceivala, Dr Deepak Kantawala, Dr A D Patwardhan and stalwarts like Dr Niloy Choudhury, Paritosh Tyagi (who was then with UP Jal Nigam) and John Decruz from Delhi Municipal Corporation. The list is long, and I am now short of the memory.

Late Professor B Nag, Director IIT Bombay – he was a great support to me

You see here Mr and Mrs Tyagi, S J Arceivala, A. Maheswaran, Professor Rinke 

Conducting the workshop was a great experience. I was just 29 years old. So, there was so much learning – right from planning, handling logistics, managing diplomacy apart from the science, engineering, economics and management.

Inauguration session – V. Subramanian, Governor State of Maharashtra was the Chief Guest

I remember Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) asked us to get all the international experts “cleared”, a week prior to the workshop. I was at a loss what to do. At that time, Rajiv Gauba , IAS was the deputy secretary  at the Ganga Project Directorate. He called me on phone and said “Dr Modak, leave the clearances to me. I will handle. You focus on the workshop”. And he handled the MHA like a breeze, Today Rajiv Gauba is the Cabinet Secretary to the Government of India.

I needed a logo for the event. So, Professor Kirti Trivedi (a creative mind of extraordinary kind) of the Industrial Design Centre at IIT Bombay designed one for me with a wall hanger imbibing our traditions. This gave the workshop an “Indian identity”.

And there was immense networking as the workshop was residential and everybody stayed on the IIT Campus next to the Powai lake. Students had an opportunity to meet with some of the top water quality experts.

Post the workshop, the Ganga Project Directorate sponsored a two-year project on development of water quality models. I with my team developed STREAM-I (one dimensional) and STREAM-II (two dimensional) water quality models and trained more than 150 people across the country on their application. My team members today are well-established researchers and professors in the subject of water quality modelling. Again, I have been so fortunate. So the workshop had several “other” outcomes!

By organizing this international workshop, I sensed the power of bringing great minds together. It’s been more than 30 years now, but international workshops of this kind haven’t happened on this subject in India. Couple of years back I had an opportunity to interact with officials of the National Clean Ganga Mission (NMCG). Neither I could connect myself to the NMCG and nor the officials knew about or had any interest to know about – my association in the early stages of the Project. The issues and solutions we discussed in 1985 are still valid today.

I told my Professor Friend about my memoirs and ended saying that students of this generation must make an effort to hold at least one such workshop in the early stage of their careers. It helped me and sure it will help them.

Professor heard me patiently and responded in a tone of “matter of fact”

“Gone are those days Dr Modak, we are now in the COVID-19 era. Given the risks and need to maintain social distancing, all events will have to be virtual. Students will have to think of platforms like Zoom and the like”

Professor was right but not exactly.

I protested

“Well Professor, technically the event could be held virtually no doubt, but wont the participants miss the hugs and the handshakes, laughter and the arguments and toasts with cheese, wine and champagne while learning and sharing? And won’t these make the event more productive, vibrant and memorable?

I must be right as Professor put the phone down.

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  1. I too have fond memories of the workshop and exchanges with Prasad and his students. And I took home the poster from the workshop and kept it hanging in my offices until retiring from US EPA in 2008. Unfortunately, like Prasad’s trove of manuals, it has been lost to downsizing.

    Tom Barnwell

  2. Prasad Modak Sir. Very nostalgic, a documentary needs to be done. Expanding it can have a bio pic.. You have talked about 3Ss, and many others in water- matters.
    We had real brains then, D’Cruz, Uppal Sirs, had given a lot to WatSan.
    Kudos Sir.. w wshs for the present bunch to learn from experiences of the past..

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