Matter of scientific honour

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 11 Jan 2018 11:00:49



Vijay Phanshikar,

It was another town almost -- away from Nagpur -- in those days in the early 1960s. Very few people dared to go that far. And those who did had either compulsion of residence -- or of law. Of law?!

Yes. For, Nagpur’s Central Prison was located there. And those who were sent in for temporary residence of
punishment went that far. And others who lived in places beyond -- like Khamla or extended parts of Ajni or some nearby slums -- had no option but trudge their weary way home each evening. Of course, those who travelled by air -- which was a rarity then -- also had to use the road to the Sonegaon Airport.

But one morning, people saw a board being put up across the street from the Main Gate of Nagpur’s Central Prison. People stopped in curiosity and took a look. The board with blue colour in background had a long name painted in white letters: ‘Central Public Health Engineering Research Institute (CPHERI), An Undertaking of Council of Scientific Research (CSIR)’.

For the city more than fifty years ago, the board was an absolute novelty because of the name inscribed on it. CPHERI was soon to become one of the city’s critical landmarks. Even as the board was being put up, work, too, was in progress to construct a fencing around the huge campus spread over several acres. It was almost a jungle there in those days, of a mixed vegetation, though dominated by babool and tamarind and neem trees in addition to a miscellaneous undergrowth including grass. And then started construction of what would soon be the headquarter building of one of India’s leading research facilities under the CSIR.

What dominated the sight was the majestic overhang of the huge porch of the new building in whose halls and rooms and labs would work some of the world’s leading experts in environmental sciences. Naturally, CPHERI was to work on environmental sciences impacting public health.

In those days, CPHERI was a great novelty for Nagpur and its people. Before they realised, CPHERI had become the pride of place. Men of the eminence of Prof. Arsiwala as Director became household names in the city though people actually got to see them only rarely if they opted to appear in public programmes. Their presence assured the common people that the city was on a growth trajectory. In those days, that was such a cool feeling! Now, nobody knows CPHERI.

Where has it gone? Nowhere!
It is very much there -- but with another name which we know as NEERI (National Environmental Engineering Research Institute).
Over time, the NEERI has grown tremendously in stature and status. Yet, it has continued to operate out of the same premises that accommodate laboratories, auditoria of varying sizes, libraries as well as some part dedicated to the living quarters of senior scientists. Other NEERI manpower lives in a separate colony across the street along the western boundary of the huge estate still full of rich vegetation, as if acting as a signature of the great research work being done there. The message the common people read from the NEERI premises is simple and powerful: If you want to live in clean environs, have vegetation around you.

But NEERI is not just a huge conglomeration of labs. It is a veritable treasure-house of knowledge of environmental sciences and their application in public health sector. For the past several decades, NEERI is an international centre supported by various global bodies such as World Health Organisations (WHO).

Of course, very few know the details. Yet, the Nagpurians are least bothered about those. All they know is that NEERI is a great place that has drawn to Nagpur countless scientists of world repute to do some research that is
hugely beneficial to human kind in general across the globe.
What a cool feeling that is!

Of course, NEERI, like any other organisation, saw its own ups and downs over time. Some of its Directors were men of great strength and made signal contribution to environmental sciences, but some of them were men of straw with their feet made of clay. They messed up things. They made mistakes. Yet, on the whole, NEERI has continued to enjoy a pride of place in Nagpurians’ hearts.
The reason is simple: NEERI stems from CPHERI that came to the city at a critical point in its history when its
people were beginning to look for marks of respect and landmarks of greatness to boast of.

Even today, NEERI, like any other research entity of its kind (which the city now has many) is engulfed in enigma, beyond the reach of common people. It has provided the city one of its early scientific landmarks. Once outside the city’s emotional limits, NEERI is almost at its centre today. The city has expanded beyond anybody’s imagination. Literally lakhs of people pass by the NEERI gates on either side every day. However, among the younger generations, few actually notice those gates. The reason is simple: They do not know much about NEERI, and they also do not know how the institute came up in those days. For the people older generations, however, each time they pass by, they do slow down unknowingly and take at least a quick look at the shining steel letters announcing NEERI on the arch of the main gate on the Wardha Road.

For them those five letters mean a matter of honour.
It is also a matter of being part of family. For, in those haloed premises, many Nagpurians have worked and are working. One of them also rose to become the institute’s Director. Ask him -- Dr. Satish Vate -- what the honour means, and his eyes will shine in pride which he carries in his heart!