When one great is inspired by another
The tale and vision behind IIT Kharagpur’s Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya Chair Professorship
Can industry and academia work together to promote the overall competitiveness of a sector through exchange of ideas and innovation, through synthesis of organizational and academic practice and discipline? The jury may be out on that one, yet there is one example that not only tilts the scale heavily towards the potential of success of a collaborative engagement such as this, but also serves as a model par excellence on account of the precedence that it has set: The Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) founded by illustrious British-Indian engineer, academic, manufacturing expert and leading consultant for industry and governments — late Lord Sushanta Kumar Bhattacharyya.
Now, almost four decades later, inspired by Lord Bhattacharya’s accomplishment in driving innovation through the WMG, one of UK’s leading research centres, his alma mater IIT Kharagpur seeks to create a similar impact in Indian manufacturing through the institution of a Chair Professorship in his name. The ‘Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya Chair Professorship Award’ is envisioned and supported by yet another eminent alumnus and academician, Professor Tapan Bagchi, who has set up an endowment for an amount of ₹75, 00,000/- to cover the expenses of the award.
But what is his vision behind this?
Professor Bagchi rues the huge gaps in Indian manufacturing to this date. “70 years have passed since this country became independent, and yet today, most of its peer nations – large and small – have moved way ahead, whether in income per capita, productivity growth or human development index,” he says. “Throughout these years, the government has to an extent prioritised farm output and primary education, but in sharp contrast the typical Indian hand still lacks the skills needed to add meaningful value to the huge stock of resources—the economic factors of production—at its disposal. Even as we exhort industry to Make in India, our products and services don’t sell even domestically, because of serious deficiencies in quality and cost.”
This is precisely the scenario that he hopes will change through the efforts of the incumbent who will drive state-of-the-art teaching, research development and industrial collaboration at the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “I dream of making the Kumar Bhattacharyya Chair Professorship in Mechanical Engineering at IIT Kharagpur one of this Institute’s most prestigious academic appointments. This Chair should deliver a fraction of what Lord did in his sojourn,” says Dr Bagchi, referring to the establishment of the WMG at the University of Warwick and its role in reinvigorating the British manufacturing industry through knowledge transfer.
The WMG provides research, education and knowledge transfer in engineering, manufacturing and technology directly to manufacturing stalwarts of UK, including the producers of Jaguar. A faculty at the Centre is directly engaged in applied research, the goal being to innovate, patent and commercialize technologies that can impact product design. Each of them is an eminent scholar and possesses significant publication and teaching record as well.
It is expected that the Chair Professor at IIT Kharagpur will also lead a similar mission, leading to aggressive and game-changing strides in design and technology in every engineering field that the Institute may be engaged in. This will enable Indian manufacturers to substitute or displace their existing products, facilitate import substitution and make the quality of Indian products globally export-worthy.
Dr Bagchi notes that UK manufacturers value WMG so much that over thirty years they have continued to send their engineers, designers, technicians and others to WMG. “Even in the US and Germany, such single-handed reinvigoration of manufacturing through research and knowledge transfer is rare,” he says. That realisation is also where the inspiration, the thought of this Chair Professorship germinated. “Could we not someday replicate these in some bit in KGP for Indian manufacturers (what Lord and WMG had done for UK manufacturers)?”
It is of course a tall task to live up to a legacy such as this. In Dr Bagchi’s own words, “The incumbent must be ambitious, striving to make India a force to reckon with in manufacturing in select sectors. He must be able to shape India’s manufacturing future by bringing the technological prowess of IIT Kharagpur to real products and manufacturing methods. He should be given to understand that this is an unconventional professorship that counts patents filed and conversions achieved, not papers published.”
The professor also refers to passion for hands-on engineering work, the initiative to reach out to Indian companies in manufacturing, and very importantly, the ability to convince the Indian government to vigorously expand vocational training programmes, allowing even graduate engineers to be trained as welders, robot assemblers and expert construction workers.
“This is selective skill development, a key human resource development strategy followed by China, learnt from the Germans. Some of you might know, interning technicians from China built the thermal 1.1 MW power plant at Bilaspur and bronze-cladded Sardar Patel’s statue. Indians were unavailable for these. Why should it be so?”
Memories of a legend
Professor Bagchi’s association with Lord Bhattacharya, also known as Baron Bhattacharya in his lifetime, goes back a long way. It was while he was planning a five-year B Tech/M Tech programme at IIT Kharagpur in 2012, focused on new product development, that he visited Coventry to see for himself how the WMG worked.
“Lord Bhattacharyya wholeheartedly supported this and hosted my visit, introducing me to WMG researchers, product designers, factory personnel and technology managers and spending quality time with me himself,” recalls Professor Bagchi. Much of what he learnt during that visit was built into the five-year UG/PG QEDM programme eventually launched at Kharagpur.
But it is not just his brilliance or his immense impact on British industry and economy that has left a mark. “Not only did he introduce me to WMG and participate in technical or constructive discussions, he and Mrs Bhattacharya, along with Dr Sujit Banerjee and family, also interacted with me personally and ensured that my stay was comfortable and I was well cared for. To this day, I remain deeply grateful for that and remember them fondly.”