Prof. Goutam Saha took up the responsibility of heading the Health&Fitness division of NSO recently, changing the framework dramatically to make things functionally efficient. The Scholars’ Avenue caught up with him for a tete-a-tete. Edited excerpts:
TSA: You’ve recently taken the responsibility of heading NSO – Health & Fitness and Yoga and have brought about a change right away. What was the reason behind it? What are your future plans?
GS: Thanks for appreciating the effort but it was not me alone. Everybody concerned was looking for a change which would strengthen this component of EAA. We all worked together – Director, Dean (UGS), EAA Coordinator, Gymkhana President, NCC Coordinator, NSS lead members.
IIT stands for excellence. We wanted to see NSO – Health and Fitness program become a matter of pride for all of us. This is the second largest program after NSS. While NSS serves about 1000 students, this program serves about 850 students. Young IITians who dream to be in IIT, are exposed to these programs when they join here in their 1st and 2nd year of UG studentship. We wanted to ensure that our students get the right kind of exposure and derive benefit from it.
Health and Fitness is vital for all. We see a cascading effect going forward. The feedback from the students undergoing this program has been extremely positive. We shall build upon this and go from strength to strength.
TSA: Your views on the changes in the mentality of the students towards NSS/EAA since your time as a student here and now.
GS: I would like to say that the general ‘mentality’ of the students has changed in line with the changes that have taken place in our thought process as a whole in the last two decades. However, in the two EAA programs where I interact with the students, I see a very positive trend and a great attitude. Many students in NSS are doing much more than the mandatory three hours of community service a week. They are very popular among the young population in respective villages and slums. We learn many things from our students. There are many examples.
It was the NSS Annual Camp. The task every morning, from 9:00 AM to 12:00 noon used to be the physical work of village road building. After returning to the camp site everyone used to take rest for an hour and then queue up for lunch. There was a student who would not bother to take rest and help the kitchen staff in making ‘rotis’ for fellow campers who returned after a labour intensive job. To our gentle prodding, he only had smiles to offer. On the concluding day, everybody forced him to say a few words on what was his motivation. And we heard from him, “I feel that through this ‘roti’ making I am serving those who are serving the nation.” Then there was a student leader of a group who was an inspirational figure not only to his group but all the groups. In the afternoon assembly, we used to listen to him captivated. This is how he used to exhort fellow students, “There is only one religion – religion of love. There is only one language – language of heart. There is only one caste – caste of humanity. There is only one way – way to service.”
TSA: Students have raised concerns about the minimum attendance required to pass the programmes being too high. They moan about the ‘uselessness’ of it saying they ‘gain’ nothing from it. What would you like to say to them?
GS: Consistency is important for the success of these programs and meeting program objectives. If you talk about NSS, the community will lose faith and the service will not be effective if we are irregular. In Health and Fitness, we cannot benefit if we are not regular in our workout. The minimum attendance that we request the students to maintain is to be seen in reference to UG regulations. Without it, we cannot ensure meeting the program objective. The students will not find it “too high” if they benchmark it against the program objective to be met and not something else, unrelated to this program.
We are always open to ideas that will improve the quality of these programs. There are many activities in NSS Units which have been conceived and implemented by students themselves. We want it to be that way only. Youth in every country across different age groups are in the forefront of such activities. These programs provide our young students a platform, an opportunity to come forward and make it more useful.
Whatever little has been put in place by the combined effort of the past and existing students of this program and the faculty, provides a decent start-up material. New students can build on this and make it more meaningful.
We would like to repeat one thing here- The more we take a program seriously, the more we find it useful and start gaining from it. These programs are to add new dimension to the personality of an individual and make education complete. The journey which is spread over four semesters helps us to discover ourselves in relation to our society. It is an opportunity, not a burden. Yes, one has to come out of inertia and that often looks for an excuse. One needs to be careful about tricks played by our mind. Mind, if under control, is the greatest tool, the best friend. Mind that tricks us is the greatest impediment to attaining our superior self. Let all of us work together towards improving our programs and not allow complacency to set in.
TSA: What is your analysis of the achievements with respect to NSS since you took over the reins almost three years ago? How successful has the implementation been?
GS: Let me clarify at the outset that if we have achieved anything, the credit goes to the team where our students form the bulk of the members. Everybody associated with NSS, directly or indirectly – the administration, the faculty, the larger campus community-have contributed in their own way. I just got an opportunity to coordinate the strong collective will and energy that was already present and played my role as everybody else played theirs.
As far as achievements are concerned, we have put in public domain whatever little we have been able to do through our blog . It is for others to talk about achievements, if any, or the transformation brought about by the team.
What these blog posts might not explicitly say and I may place that on behalf of the team here: First of all, we have defined the NSS program to the comprehension of our student members and have put a system in place that can serve 1000 students together effectively. We have established footprints in fifteen villages/slums in our neighbourhood. People, irrespective of their political, caste and religious affiliation, which are dominant factors in villages / slums, see us as friends. A friendly relationship has been developed with administrative heads like BDO, SDO as well as elected representatives like Panchayet, Panchayet Pradhan. Our help is sought in Kissan Credit Card distribution, block website development or allaying the fear of tribal household on events with serious superstitious overtones. We are now invited to participate in village social functions. Villagers participate in our functions held in IITKGP auditorium. Past NSS volunteers, now alumni, contribute fifty PRERANA scholarships for village school children. There is some support from institute Alumni Office too. Cloth collection from the campus community and the distribution of that to the needy is now an annual event, a part of Durga Puja festival month. Two village high schools which serve mostly BPL families have been provided a distance learning platform with the help of Ramakrisna Mission Vivekananda University. This serves students from Class VI onwards with two-way communications between the teachers and taught on Cisco WebEx platform. There are instructors from abroad too. The same platform can provide tele-medicine facility to villagers with specialist doctors from cities or foreign countries at the other end.
All this has made NSS, IIT Kharagpur a great melting pot. We felt honoured when institute’s diamond jubilee program highlighted NSS activities in its laser show or in the capsule video. We feel humbled when we are asked to give input that goes in the making of vision document of the institute. NSS, IIT Kharagpur activities is now congratulated at state and national level and finds mention in the report submitted to Prime Minister of India by NSS HQ.
Still, we would humbly say that what has been achieved is very little compared to the needs and our capacity. We can and will achieve much more.
TSA: Three years ago, we had a guest article by you on the issue of Child Labour, which still exists on campus. Do you see a change in the attitude of the people towards the issue? What more can be done by us?
GS: It was drawn from the experience of young students of the NSS Unit of which I served as the Program Officer. The Unit was named Team Vivek and this was my first assignment in NSS. I tried to share with the community what the team felt through that article. There are many issues that we can address inside the campus including child labour, if we have a collective will. NSS team and Health & Fitness, NSO team comprising UG 1st and 2nd year students can add to the strength of any effort undertaken. NSS has discussed this with the district representative of ‘Bachpan Banchao Andolan’ (Save the Childhood Movement), who promised to support us if and when we make a move.
TSA: Three major issues in KGP, according to you. What can we do to address them?
GS: I have great faith in the students of this institute. I am sure that they are well aware of the issues and are intelligent enough to find a way and take affirmative action. Still, if you insist, I would like to share a few things not as a faculty member but as someone who was a student here, once upon a time.
(i) Getting into the hallowed portals of IIT Kharagpur through the toughest examination of the country is fine, but what next? We should see that we get our focus right and do not live in the glory of the past. We should be careful about the false sense of security– “life is made when we are at IIT and it is fun time now.”- that may descend. The indulgent mind would like to divert its attention from non-trivial things and exploit the freedom available. However, the fact is that the competition is tougher once we are here, as it is with the best of the country. The delivery by the faculty is smooth and the student is often not aware of the pace with which the topics are covered. If we as students allow things to accumulate, there will come a day when we will be clueless about what to do. The erstwhile school or district topper, who is worshipped like an idol in the school/native place/extended family may suddenly find that (s)he is among the crawlers in the class. It has the potential to shatter one’s self-image and self-confidence even if one tries to put up a brave face with logic that deceives him/ her more than others. Thus, I would like to say, “Beware!” In IIT system, if you attend class regularly and follow-up discourses on weekly basis, without allowing things to accumulate, it is next to impossible to perform poorly given the talent that brought you here.
(ii) In most cases, the four/five-year stay here is an important transition period between academic-only pre IIT-JEE days and the professional world that awaits when one steps outside this campus after getting degree. IIT Kharagpur is known for providing numerous avenues to pursue extra-academic activities which takes academics to its logical conclusion – develops fellow-feeling, team spirit, compassion, leadership, real-life problem solving, awareness of community and self. In short, a balanced development of Heart, Head and Hand; Heart – that can feel an issue or a problem, Head – that can plan, provide a solution; Hand – that can execute. Participation in Extra-Academic activity here are through mandatory and voluntary programs. Mandatory programs are all-inclusive with a larger, sustainable platform and a mandate that has the strength of institutional support. Voluntary programs are target-specific and conducted by smaller work-groups It is important to participate in these and learn important life skills. This goes into the making of character and personality. To empower is to make more responsible else the power can be misused and harm the individual, family and society, in general. The formal education empowers. The informal education, the extra-academic components build character and make us more responsible.
(iii) The IIT brand was established over the decades through the hard work of everyone who was a part of it. We are enjoying the fruits of that labour today. It is our responsibility to uphold and enhance the brand value, the prestige of IIT and not dilute it by the way we conduct ourselves. It will be a pity if our extra-ordinary students appear less than ordinary due to lack of application. Very few institutes in this country enjoy such a warm and healthy relationship between teachers and students. We can work together and address issues that students face at an embryonic stage only, before it becomes formidable.
TSA: A message for the students?
GS: Challenges– both internal and external – were, are and will always be there. Life is but continuous striving. We can and will reach newer heights by remembering what our head of the institution said while unfurling our National Flag this Republic Day. Quoting Vivekananda he said, “ Three things are necessary to make every man, every nation great – (i) conviction of the powers of goodness, (ii) absence of jealousy and suspicion and, (iii) helping everyone who is trying to be and do good.”
We can enjoy life the most if we have a sense of proportion. CGPA is important. But if one cannot look beyond CGPA, some beautiful things that could have made life more enjoyable and could have given a greater meaning to CGPA get missed! At the same time, neglecting CGPA is not the way as something pricks us the entire time saying, “All is NOT well.” And there are certain privileges that come with a decent CGPA. Therefore, let us all make the most of both Academics and Extra-academics by striking an appropriate balance thereby feeling good and confident. Yes, feeling good and confident – that is in the DNA of an IITian.