In town for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, TSA caught up with Prof. Vishwanath Rao Kalvey, former Deputy Director. What followed was a very candid conversation, with the ex-DOSA and TSG President sharing quite a few memories from his stint at IIT Kharagpur.
TSA: What would you say about your experience as a professor here?
Prof. Kalvey: My experience as a professor here was excellent. I came here directly from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I was a post-doctoral fellow. Even in those days when things were not as happening as they are today, I liked this place. I use to tell everyone – students and staff alike- that you will realize the value of IIT Kharagpur even more when you leave this place.
TSA: After MIT, I guess it was your love for teaching that brought you here.
Prof. Kalvey: Absolutely. In those days I used to teach in the Physics department, as well as at the Cryogenic Centre. I still get calls and e-mails on Teachers’ day. In fact the other day, I got one from an old student, who was a gold-medalist by the name of Anurag Rana and currently has a top job at ITC. He called up and said he did so just because he felt like it. We had a chat for quite some time. I also got an email once from one of your earlier VPs whose name I cannot recall. But he was of an aggressive kind. In every matter had an opinion and would not fail to put it forth. When he left IIT, he started his own business venture. He mailed me saying that he just felt like doing so. So you see, even at this age when I have left IIT, people still remember me and that makes me feel wonderful.
TSA: You were also the President of the TSG. Tell us something about the functioning of the Gymkhana.
Prof. Kalvey: Well, TSG is a place that is more or less run by the students themselves, and I would like to mention that they used to do a superb job. We were there just as the ultimate supervisors to intervene occasionally when the decisions made by the students were not in the interest of the Institute- just like your grandfather with his wise head would interfere in certain family matters. Otherwise the students were free to organize their shows and fests. Today I don’t know how challenging it is to organize something like SpringFest and Kshitij but in those days it was quite a demanding task, which the students executed flawlessly. They used to arrange for the funds, talk to the industries, alumni and get everything in place. Everything was very well funded. It was very impressive how the students managed to rope in big companies as sponsors. Also Kshitij has guest lectures from Nobel Laureates and other eminent personalities – I can recall some of the speakers during my tenure. One was a certain Professor Warwick from England who had a chip embedded inside his hand. He came and talked about how the human brain can be programmed with such a chip. The point that I would like to make is that students had an eye for technology and they used to call exactly the right people who they knew would make an impact. Another speaker I remember is a Physics professor from Germany who discovered the Quantum Hall Effect (Prof. Klaus von Klitzing). It was supposedly very difficult to get him to India even for international conferences but the students managed to convince him to come to deliver a lecture at Kshitij. I was surprised as to how they managed to do that and I asked them about it. They told me that they had managed to convince one of Kolkata’s classiest hotels to give him complementary stay for 2 days and also a free tour of the whole city by telling them that they could host a Nobel Prize winner. Also the Professor was all the more interested because students, and not his colleagues, were calling him. I realized that sometimes students can be more influential than we can be and I encouraged them all the more in their initiatives.
TSA: Were there any problems that you faced at any point of time as the President, or as the Dean of Students’ Affairs?
Prof. Kalvey: Yes during the time when I held these posts I did face a few issues-mostly disciplinary problems for that matter. Most of them were of a routine nature but action needed to be taken. There was a student once who got drunk and was driving a motorcycle at high speeds some distance away
from Kharagpur and while taking a turn he crashed and broke his entire arm. He had an exam the next day but he had to be hospitalized for treatment. I did not however take any action on him because I felt that God himself had punished him and there was no need for any further action on my part. He, by the way, was an excellent musician and very popular on campus because of his music skills.
There were also other issues (like students getting drunk on Hall Days) where taking action was necessary on our part. We were never too harsh, but we did have to take a few steps. What happens is, if we are lenient to one student about a disciplinary matter then the news spreads and the others start thinking that they too will walk away unpunished. That is an uncontrolled, runaway process that we cannot permit, and so we have to take action.
Occasionally there was found to be a fraud in the records and in such a matter the student had to be asked to leave the institute since such things are absolutely not acceptable. You know such news spread very quickly among the student community. If we turn a blind eye at such times, everyone will commit some scam or the other and expect to get away with it. I always used to tell all my students that within a couple of years they’ll be joining the corporate world and discipline there is a must. You have to abide by the code of conduct of the company, you have to establish yourself among your sub-ordinates, colleagues and your superiors, and you have to fit in well so that you can perform well.
All this cannot be done unless you start learning it from now. And most of my students used to agree with my point of view.
One remarkable thing is that I used to feel very comfortable while in a group with students, whether in class or while taking a round around the halls late at night, or even in restaurants when they used to bump into me. For me, we were all just one big family.
TSA: Tell us about some of the reforms you brought about during your tenure as Dean of Students’ Affairs.
Prof. Kalvey: Well there were quite a few reforms that I introduced as DOSA. One of them was the semester payment of mess bills instead of the monthly system that was in place earlier. After it was introduced things changed drastically. It looks like a very small step but it goes a long way. It was helpful to the students, staff, the accountants, the contractors. Everyone was happy in the end.
Then there was the issue of ragging. Of course it was not a major problem but once in a while we used to get complaints. So we set up Internal Committees in the hostels to monitor and prevent ragging. And let me say that it worked very well and brought things to a near-zero situation. Occasionally a stray case used to erupt but that was very well handled.
Another issue was that of motorized vehicles on campus. Students used to keep motorcycles and I found that it was a very major problem. Driving at high speeds used to cause a lot of accidents and we were concerned as to what we should do. So I suggested that students be disallowed from keeping personal vehicles. People argued that even if you disallow students, what about those who come from outside to go to say Tech Market, B.C.Roy Hospital, or any of the numerous restaurants on campus? The argument had its logic, but ultimately, we took a decision to not let students keep vehicles. We permitted a few special cases that had valid medical reasons but otherwise, no one was allowed to keep motorized vehicles. This decision created a lot of ruckus in and outside campus. Newspapers reports came up-some of them against me. In fact a newspaper also praised me saying that this Dean wants to make the campus green and clean and that is why he took this step (Laughs). But believe me that was not really my intention. My aim was to ensure the safety of students and others. Also if I remember correctly there was also a cartoon in TSA, which showed the previous situation when students had vehicles and girls from SN hall could easily be taken for rides, and compared it to what would happen now (Laughs).
Anyway all criticism apart, by and large everyone agreed to my decision. I have found that if you have good intentions, people will understand it and you will get support. One should not have crooked intentions that are directed against any individual or group. It should only be in the best interests of the institute and the student community.
Also certain other things are not permitted by the institute, like smoking in public places. You can do it in the privacy of your room but not in restaurants, hall common rooms and anywhere else because it affects everyone who visits these places. Also you need to keep a check on your behaviour in public even if you are with your good friends, especially your language, which needs to be acceptable because even that adds to the environment. A certain minimum level of ethics should be maintained.
TSA: As an alumnus of MIT, and as a professor of our very own KGP, what are your views on the current situation of the education system in the IITs, specifically Kharagpur?
Prof. Kalvey: When I was coming to Kharagpur right now, I met a railway manager who was taking his daughter to Bhubaneshwar for her engineering studies. I told him that teaching is one of those professions where we are in constant contact with an age group of 17 to 25, and these bright young people keep us on our toes- both academically and otherwise. In almost every other profession, you work with your colleagues who’ll grow older as you grow older and the creative being inside you will eventually die away. But when we are with young people, many new ideas are put forth and interesting discussions happen – not only in the class but wherever we meet them. And we learn from them. In fact I have learnt a lot from my students. Many times I would be doing something when someone would come and point out a better way to do that task and would actually implement it practically.
This and many other reasons make teaching such a wonderful profession. I encouraged my students to take up the teaching line but not many in those days were interested. I used to attend hall farewells and would ask the out-going batch as to how many are planning to join the teaching line and I would see very few hands raised. I used to think to myself that it was not a good sign at all. Technical education today is suffering a lot because bright young students are not taking to it. Obviously the poor pay structure is one of the reasons, and the government is taking steps in this direction. But, to be a teacher, the most important thing you need is the love for teaching. That is why I encouraged this feeling among my students because if they do not take to teaching as profession then the quality of technical education will slip drastically, and its effect will be seen 15 or 20 years down the line. In the early 70’s career options were very limited for us and so many top rank holders used to opt for teaching. You’ll see that many of the older teachers or those who have just retired will be the ones who bagged top honours in their time. But what happened in the late 70’s was that the salaries in other fields became so high that students forgot that there was something called teaching as well. And as a result today, there is a dearth of quality engineering teachers. I’m told that even the IITs are advertising for teachers but are not getting many good applicants with a good doctorate degree and established publications to their name. We might get the second best or the third best person but we can’t be satisfied with that because we need only the best.
TSA: So where do you visualize IIT Kharagpur to be in the future as an institute of academic excellence?
Prof. Kalvey: See where IIT will stand 20 years from now depends a lot on what faculty you have in the present and the quality of students that join the institute every year. However for the sake of a better future BTech students need to be encouraged to take up research. Frankly the total money spent on research in the IITs is still very sub-standard. If you choose any reputed US university and compare the laboratories of IIT with the laboratories they have there, you will find that a lot of investment is needed here. The IITs have not come up with a single invention that can be talked about throughout the world. That single invention takes place after years and years of dedicated work and that kind of work will only sustain when you have the proper infrastructure. For that we have to go a long way yet. I don’t say that the faculty here is not good. In fact they are world class. But what they need is continuous long-term support. Everyone joins the IITs with a lot of zeal but slowly it fades out if you don’t get support.
TSA: Before we wrap it up, do you have a message for the student community?
Prof. Kalvey: Dedication, dedication ,dedication. Whatever you do put your full heart and mind to it, then you will definitely succeed.