Visit to Jadavpur University, Kolkata, Wednesday 14 December 2005

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In the afternoon we made a most interesting visit to Jadavpur University, located in south Kolkata. It was really to enter another world as we walked into the campus meeting all the students and teachers on their way to various activities. There were posters with all sorts of activities, seminars, workshops, training courses, etc.
One of the big posters was about the 50th anniversary of the University, which was to be celebrated within short, with all sorts of cultural activities. Jadavpur was, when it was started a technical and science university, but due to a very conscious policy on part of its founders, a sizable faculty of Arts and Social Sciences was also included. There is no technology without culture, seems to have been the motto.
But there is more to the history. Already in 1905 a college named National Institute for Education was started here and provided advanced higher education. This later became one of the core resistance nodes in the Bengali struggle for independence.
With such traditions and without much heavy colonial academic luggage, Jadavpur today gives a very pleasant impression of informal interaction and less hierarchy compared to the old Indian universities. It has about 12 000 students and a faculty measuring about 750.

We were hosted by Prof. Asoke Bhattacharya, Prof. of Adult and Continuing Education (photo to the right). A vigorous and still quite young enthusiast, he has taken the ideas of the Danish Grundtvig about education and democracy to his heart. He thinks segregation in society can be prevented by continued and adult education. Since 1999 he is involved in an exchange with the Grundtvig Institute at Göteborg University (contact person Ingrid Lomfors) and as a result there is now also such an institute at Jadavpur University. The faculty is among other things involved in practical development work among people in the South Parganas District of West Bengal, for which they have been given the ‘UNESCO Award for Adult Literacy.’
We informed Asoke about the interest for adult and continuing education with the Ministry of Education in Bhutan and promised to send details. It would perhaps be far more efficient and feasible for Bhutan teachers to come down to Kolkata for interaction on this, than going straight to Denmark or Sweden.

Our first meeting was with the Vice-Chancellor, Prof. A N Basu (photo to the left). He was well informed about ongoing exchange and cooperation programmes with Sweden (see also below) and after we hade reviewed these, he suggested that we should write a Memorandum of Understanding, MoU, to consolidate the cooperation. We discussed that and came to the conclusion, that since SASNET is just a facilitator, it would have to be between Jadavpur and one or two universities in Sweden, with which most of the cooperation took place. A MoU should come when cooperation has taken on a certain size and durability.

Next we had a meeting in the Dean’s office, Faculty of Science with:

• Professor Subrata Pal, Dept. of Biotechnology & Dean of the Faculty of Science
• Professor D Bandyopadhay, Head of the Dept. of Mathematics
• Professor Tridib Chakraborti, Dept. of International Relations
• Professor Parimal Debnath, Dept. of Physical Education
(We also had a brief encounter with Professor Shibhashish Bose, Head of the Department of Architecture, who also was present at the seminar at CBE the day before)

We had a lively discussion about what kind of cooperation and exchange could be possible besides the already ongoing one on Adult and Continuing Education. The interest for Ling’s Gymnastics is great here (perhaps more than what it is right now in Sweden) so that could form one basis of interaction. We also discussed what kind of partners would be possible within International Relations Studies, pointing out both Political Science and Peace and Conflict departments at Swedish universities.
We informed about the advanced state of biotechnology at several universities in Sweden and that there were already ongoing cooperation and student exchange. Finally, we discussed the status of Astronomy in Sweden, pointing out some of the strengths of these institutions with access to advanced observatories also outside Sweden.

Visit to the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology, Kolkata

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We then proceeded out of the Jadavpur University campus, and entered the grand building of the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology, focussed on the chemical biology of human diseases. It is situated in a green and neat campus just across the street west of the University, and is an independent institute financed by the Council of Industrial and Scientific Research (CISR) and by various collaborative schemes with institutions world wide. It has a staff of 400 including technicians and administrators. 250 PhD research students also work here, many from Jadavpur University, with which it has a MoU so that the University confers the degree when the thesis work is finished. The Institute conducts research in Molecular Biology, Biochemicals/Chemicals, Enzymology, Drugs and Diagnostics, Neurobiology, Immunology, reproductive Biology, Biotechnology. IICB was established in 1935 as the first non official centre in India for biomedical research and was included within the aegis of CSIR in 1956.

Our host was Dr. Rukhsana Chowdhury (photo to the left) is involved in a research project on ‘Effects of environmental stress on the production of cell surface proteins and of regulatory and virulence genes by gastrointestinal pathogens (Helicobacter species) and by Lactic Acid Bacteria with relevance for the pathogenesis of chronic infections as well as for applications in the food industry’, which received a SASNET planning grant in February 2005. The main partner in this project is the Department of Medical Microbiology, Dermatology and Infection, Lund University, through Prof. Torkel Wadström and Dr. Åsa Ljung.

After explaining to us about her research and how they hope that they can develop a research proposal for a 3-year funding, Rukshana introduced us to Prof. Siddharta Roy, who is the Director of the Institute. A strong profile of the Institute is research on poor people’s diseases like leishmaniasis (called kalasar, black fever), which is a lethal and common disease among poor people in Bihar, Jharkand and Orissa. They try to develop both a curative drug for this, as well as a vaccine. Another strong interest is in arsenic poisoning, which also affects poor people mostly. Finally, there is also a great deal of research on various cancer forms. A particular form called pancreas cancer has a high incidence in India.A ‘David’s fight?’

Visit to the School of Environmental Studies at Jadavpur University

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The last visit for the day was the most interesting and engaging: The School of Environmental Studies at Jadavpur University and meeting with Prof. Dipankar Chakraborti (photo to the right), Director and Head of the School. It is located within the premises of the Dept. of Chemical Engineering at Jadavpur University (dating back to 1921, thereby being one of the oldest departments in Chemical Engineering in the World).
The building we entered was the usual rather shabby institution building, but as we walked up the stairs and inside an atrium like building we saw warm lights and flowers on the other side. Here Dipankar and his 20 co-workers had created a small oasis – a pleasant working place with nice offices and laboratories.

The research work at the School is focused on Arsenic Contamination in the Ganga-Meghna-Brahmaputra Plain (more information about this). They are carrying out field research in Bangladesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Assam and Uttar Pradesh. They started this work in 1988 and it has been an uphill struggle most of the time. When the first case of arsenic poisoning was discovered in UP in 1974, there was denial on part of the state government, a pattern that repeated itself well into the 1980s when more cases of poisoning were discovered all over the Northeast. As a result partners in this work are not always the government health institutions, in Bangladesh, for example, the partner is the Dhaka Community Hospital, run by an NGO.

Since 1998 they are collaborating with GARG, the Groundwater Arsenic Research Group at the Royal Institute of Technology, KTH (in the Department of Land and Water Resources Engineering, contact person: Prof. Prosun Bhattacharya).
After a brief discussion, Dipankar showed us the film ‘Slow Poison – III’, which they had made on the Arsenic problem and the practical solutions they worked with.
Arsenic in the bore well water is the result of percolation of Himalayan sediments which are found inside the ground all over the plains here. When the tube reaches these layers, the arsenic is released into the water. Use of bored tube wells are of recent origin in this region, since they traditionally had access to abundant surface water. But this was a way of avoiding the often severely polluted surface water as a source of drinking water supply. Since arsenic poisoning has an incubation time of about 25 years, it took time for nature to hit back. So as regards water supply, the villagers are now back on square one!
Meanwhile the current poisoning and continued use of arsenic contaminated water is a ‘Goliath’ this team has made its cause of fighting. There is also the question of the human ‘host’ – poor underfed villagers are more susceptible to the effects of arsenic water. There is the question of immediate care of these patients, who have developed various skin ailments and open wounds.

Another thing is to use treatment plants to purify surface water, but the state governments are of no help and the small plants, maybe costing around Rs. 15-20 000 are mostly laying idle in the villages. There are also other ways of overcoming the problem: digging of wells and rainwater harvesting. Even tube wells can be used, if they are bored to reach thick clay soil below 300 feet.
The Arsenic group has built a model village in West Bengal where they demonstrate safe ways of solving the drinking and irrigation water problem. They are studying the effects of arsenic water on various crops like paddy and vegetables. Earlier indications that paddy is not affected may not be true, in fact. They also study the effects on cattle when eating straw grown on land irrigated with arsenic water.

At the entrance to Prof. Chakraborti’s laboratory there is board with the following words:

Nothing is easy – if you don’ want to do it
Nothing is difficult – if you want to do it
You have the power within you – you can do it

It is hard not to admire this charismatic researcher and activist. Dipankar had earlier spent 16 years as a researcher in Belgium and Texas, but felt a strong urge to return back home and take up this work. Moreover, he is not relying on outside funding for what they are doing. They take on consultancy work in the field wherever it is possible to charge a fee for the work they do. They save on laboratory equipment by finding and building their own cheap substitutes. One apparatus to measure arsenic content was a home made imitation of a 26 lakh foreign make, which had cost them only 6 lakh! We left rather shocked about the arsenic problem, but somehow also inspired.

Lars on a revisit to Jadavpur University, Kolkata, 5 January 2006

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When we visited Jadavpur University in Kolkata in mid-December we were accompanied by the Swedish researcher Ferdinando Sardella (photo to the right), PhD candidate at the Dept. of Religious Studies, Göteborg University. He is working on project exploring the ethics and social theory of Hindu mysticism, focusing on Vaishnavism in Bengal during the early 20th century, carrying out fieldwork in Kolkata. Therefore he was keen to become affiliated to a department at Jadavpur University.
Our request about this got a positive response from the Dept. of Sociology, and Dr. Asoke Bhattacharya (our host during the December meeting) had again called for a meeting with faculty members of the university on 5 January, in order for Mr. Sardella to present himself and his project more in detail. At the same time Dr. Bhattacharya requested Lars, still in Kolkata with his family, to participate.

So after taking the beautiful Kolkata Metro underground railway from Belgachia in the northern part of the city, getting off at Kalighat station and from there proceed by taxi to Jadavpur, we reached the university campus. Dr. Bhattacharya met us and this time brought us the university guesthouse, where the meeting was to be held.

As it turned out the meeting turned out to be a continuation of the previous SASNET information meeting, and less about Mr. Sardella’s affiliation. The latter was left to a separate meeting afterwards between him and Dr. Ruby Sain (photo to the left) at the Dept. of Sociology. Instead it became a rewarding interactive discussion on possibilities for individual researchers from various departments at Jadavpur to find research partners at Swedish universities.

Dr. Parimal Karmakar and Prof. Subrata Pal, both from the Dept. of Biotechnology

The faculty members invited to the meeting, representing different departments, presented their research interests and Lars gave advice regarding possible Swedish colleagues and/or departments to contact. A few of them we met already in December, but others had taken the opportunity to meet me this time. My last information folders about SASNET, brought from Sweden, were distributed.

Participants in the meeting:
• Dr. Asoke Bhattacharya, Adult and Continuing Education and Extension Centre.
• Prof. Subrata Pal, Dept. of Biotechnology. Dean of the Faculty of Science. Working on biodiversity and gene replication.
• Dr. Parimal Karmakar, Dept. of Biotechnology. Working on herbal drugs.
• Dr. Mridul Bose, Reader, Dept. of Physics. Working on plasmaphysics, once planning for a joint research project with Prof. Stenflo, Umeå University.
• Dr Ruby Sain, Dept. of Sociology. Working on social and medical health, involved in a research project on food habits among different ethnic groups in India.
• Prof. R Bandyopadhyay. Head of department, Dept. of Mathematics.
• Prof. Tridib Chakraborty, Dept. of International Relations. Working on studies of South East Asia.