Gone too soon

His alma mater and a large part of the world will miss Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya’s wisdom, able guidance and enduring friendship.

There are not too many who can act as a bridge across peoples, cultures, disciplines, institutions and vocations  – all at the same time. Lord Sushanta Kumar Bhattacharyya was one of them. Renowned academic, successful entrepreneur, manufacturing expert and leading consultant to industry and government across geographies, this eminent alumnus of IIT Kharagpur donned many caps and influenced many lives. Not surprisingly, his demise on March 1, 2019, has come as a rude shock not only to the people of Britain, where he lived and worked, but also to multitudes of individuals and institutions who gained from his genius; our institution being one.

Lord Bhattacharyya was Professor at the University of Warwick and Founder Chairman of the Warwick Manufacturing Group, UK’s leading research and innovation centre that conducts its education programmes in many countries around the world. His connection with IIT Kharagpur goes back to the early 1950s, when he came to reside in the campus as his father joined the Chemistry Department of the then newly established Institute. Lord Bhattacharyya did his BTech in 1960 in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Kharagpur and began his career as a graduate apprentice at Lucas, an engineering firm in UK. He subsequently gained an MSc in Engineering Production and Management, and PhD in Engineering Production at the University of Birmingham.

Lord Bhattacharyya showed promise right from the beginning of his career. In 1980, he became Britain’s first ever Professor of Manufacturing Systems at the University of Warwick. The next few years saw him struggling to set up the Warwick Manufacturing Group, his dream project as he was convinced that the key to improve the competitiveness of industry lay through innovative collaborative research, educational and knowledge transfer programmes. During those initial years, it was hard convincing manufacturing industries that they would gain by partnering with university professors doing R&D. Britain then, with its robust automotive industry, could hardly foresee the pitfalls of staying away from investing in automation and upgradation. Lord Bhattacharyya, however, having witnessed the strides made by Japan and Germany, could see what lay ahead.

It is said that “a leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.” That is what Lord Bhattacharyya did. WMG began training managers, even changing the way they thought. Assumptions were put to rigorous examination and practical solutions attempted. WMG today educates thousands of post-graduates and managers every year through its worldwide network of operations. Lord Bhattacharyya has also played a key role in creating the National Automotive Innovation Centre on the Warwick campus, bringing international researchers to Coventry and giving them the equipment and facilities to develop new designs and technological breakthrough. He was also the reason why Coventry won the right to build an £80m UK Battery Industrialisation Centre to serve the entire UK automotive industry. “He has helped preserve and create jobs and transform companies, economies, and individual lives, above all in our region,” said Warwick’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stuart Croft.

Lord Bhattacharyya found little trouble working with either Labour or Conservative governments in Britain, and outside Britain, his “passion and advocacy of the importance of manufacturing technology, research teaching and training” has helped guide business leaders and policy makers whether in China, South Africa or India. It was Lord Bhattacharyya who facilitated the talks that led to the Tata Group acquiring Jaguar Land Rover. He was also instrumental in setting up the Tata Motors European Technical Centre (TMETC) in 2005, Tata Motors’ UK-based centre of excellence for automotive design and engineering.

His efforts have won worldwide acclaim and recognition. Lord Bhattacharyya was a Fellow of The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, and a Regius Professor of Manufacturing conferred by the Queen of England. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the President of India in 2002, in 2017 the Great Wall Friendship Award by the Mayor of Beijing, and Chinese Government Friendship Award, the premier national award, by Vice-Premier Ma Kai. In 1997, he was appointed a CBE, knighted in 2003 for services to education and industry, and made a life peer in 2004. Proud of his achievements, Lord Bhattacharyya’s alma mater, awarded him the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2004 and the DSc (Honoris Causa) in 2008.

Lord Bhattacharyya made sure IIT Kharagpur gained from his transformative influence. He brought his brainchild and his alma mater together under a collaborative framework in 2008, whereby WMG and the Institute collaborates in a number of research areas including design and manufacturing, composites and sustainable materials, sound quality engineering, medical technology and healthcare, hybrid vehicles and steel technology. Every year, postgraduate students from IIT Kharagpur make their way to WMG for internship, some of which lead to doctoral work. Professor Pallab Dasgupta, Dean SRIC, said, “IIT Kharagpur students have the privilege of being guided by industry trained experts at WMG.”

WMG has been a major advisor for IIT Kharagpur in the development of intelligent, safe, green, cyber-physical next-gen transportation technologies. Professor Siddhartha Mukhopadhyay , who has been leading the development of the electrical vehicle said, “WMG has given us valuable insight on the design of the vehicle. On Lord Bhattacharyya’s encouragement, a delegation from IIT Kharagpur had visited the WMG office last June, and had extensive discussion on the various vehicle subsystems with various group of WMG. Lord SKB not only treated us as guests during our stay, he found time to meet us despite his typically extremely busy schedule but alsoand also ensured that we were comfortable.” Prof. Mukhopadhyay also pointed out how Lord Bhattacharyya came forward to encourage research collaborations among the two institutions, as well as towards providing support to the bright students of IIT Kharagpur, be it technical support before international auto racing competitions or research fellowships for their higher study.

WMG is the international partner of IIT Kharagpur’s Centre of Excellence in Advanced Manufacturing Technology since 2015. This again was facilitated by Lord Bhattacharyya, who willingly took upon himself the responsibility of serving on the advisory board. Prof. Surjya Kanta Pal, Professor in charge of the Centre and Associate Dean, Alumni Affairs, said, “Lord Bhattacharyya’s demise means a tremendous loss to the Institute and the DHI Centre of Excellence which would have gained from his insight and advice. The advisory board was to have its first meeting in a few days’ time.”

Prof. Subrata Chattopadhyay, Dean, Alumni Affairs, said, “The best way to honour a luminary and visionary like Lord Bhattacharyya would be to continue on the path that he has shown us. He had emphasized on the importance of applied research to the health and wellbeing of the economy and society. Let us not forget that.”

Prof. Partha Pratim Chakrabarti, Director, IIT Kharagpur, stated, “Lord Bhattacharyya has been a driving force behind the Institute’s international programme and a constant source of support. Let us build on the wonderful legacy he has left us. Our heartfelt condolences go out to his bereaved family.”