The Determination to Succeed

Arvind Picture

Arvind Phukan

Interview by Aiyshman Dutta



First published in melange, The Sentinel (www.sentinelassam,com) on January 21, 2018

Is it luck that shapes a person’s destiny or is it hard work, dedication and perseverance that ultimately count? While luck and divine grace all have their roles to play, the fact remains that success comes to only those who believe in themselves and their dreams. And who proves this better than eminent Assamese engineer Arvind Phukan? An unassuming visionary person, he has travelled across the seven seas to today be counted as an authority in frozen ground engineering.

Arvind Phukan is an author and co-author of five Engineering books in the field of Geotechnical Engineering in Cold Regions, including the first text book of its kind, ‘Frozen Ground Engineering’, published by Prentice Hall Inc. in 1985. He had published 60+ technical publications and 100+ presentations at International and National Engineering Society’s meetings. He was consultant to many countries including USA, Canada, Norway, Japan, Russia, Lithuania and India.

Phukan was one of the main design engineers hired by Woodward Clyde Consultant, California (USA) to design the Alyeska 800 miles-long Oil pipe line in Alaska, which was the largest privately owned project (7 Billion Dollars) in the world. A legend in the field of frozen engineering, Phukan has also developed a portable machine for soil drilling and sampling that helps engineers create cost effective specific design for arctic foundations and water and sewer system etc.

The recipient of many awards and recognitions, Phukan was a member of the US Delegation to Leningrad, USSR for the joint USA/USSR seminar, “Building under Cold Climate” (1979)”, Scientific Fellow Scholarship, Norwegian Geotechnical Institute (1981), Fulbright Scholarship to India (1988-89), amongst others. He received the title of Doctor of Science and Technology, D.Sc (Honorary) by Down Town University, Guwahati in September, 2015. A dedicated Rotarian, he received its highest honour, the Service Above Self Award, in 2015.

DSC_2194Receiving the title of Doctor of Science and Technology, D.Sc (Honorary) by Down Town University, Guwahati in September, 2015 from the Governor of Assam

I recently entered into a conversation with him. Following are excerpts.

Q. Please tell us about your childhood and education.

Ans: I was born in Gauhati but after one year of my birth, my father late Hari Prasanna Tamuly Phukan was transferred to Jorhat where we lived for two years. He was well known educationist at that time, having authored nine books on different subjects. After Jorhat, we moved to Dhubri where I went to both elementary and high schools (up to 7th grade) as we lived there for five years. We moved to Tezpur City when I was in eighth grade in the Dhubri High School. As dad was promoted as Inspector of Schools, Upper Assam, we moved to Jorhat after a year stay at Tezpur. So, I did my ninth and tenth grades at Jorhat high school.

All my classmates and teachers expected that I would achieve a high position, “Rank” (Top Ten), at the matriculation examination in 1954. The most disappointing result came as I didn’t get the expected position. I got the first division with letters and missed the rank by a few marks. My father was not happy with my result and he allowed me to study further in Cotton College only on the condition that I give up playing both cricket and football games.

I was admitted to the Cotton College and second Mess hostel in 1954. I completed my college life from Cotton College in 1956 and passed the I.Sc. with distinctions which helped me to get the admission for the Bachelor of Civil Engineering degree at Banaras Engineering College (BENCO), Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Banaras (UP).

Q. Do you remember your life at BENCO?

Ans: Life in BENCO was very busy from the beginning, as I had to study hard for the freshman year to get acquainted with various subjects. I was told that most of the past Assamese students (90%) failed in the freshman year. After a successful freshman year, I took “table tennis” and tennis as my prime sports for the second year.  I played for the BENCO tennis team and did participate in tournaments with various colleges. In April, 1960, I successfully completed the Bachelor of Science (B.Sc) in Civil Engineering at BENCO.

Q. You are a legend when it comes to engineering. How did you get interested in frozen or geotechnical engineering given the fact that you hail from Assam where there is no snowfall?

Ans: After graduation, I joined the Assam State Electricity Board (ASEB), Shillong as Assistant Engineer position to work on the Dam Construction project located in Barapani, about 30 miles from Shillong). I did the feasibility study to build a concrete gravity dam in three different sites with topographic survey as well as drilling and sampling of soils and rocks. Based on this study, the most suitable site was selected and a preliminary design was produced which was approved by the Central Water Power Commission. In January, 1962, I was selected by the Chief Engineer of ASEB to join a team of 22 experienced Engineers selected from other States for the training in Bhakra Dam, Punjab and Nagarjunsagar Dam, Hyderabad for two months. This training and knowledge helped me to place consolidation grouting of the Barapani dam foundation through a contractor. The dam was completed on time in January 1964.

I got interested in the foundation engineering or Geotechnical Engineering after my design and construction experience on the Barapani dam for about 4 years. After the dam was completed, I was selected by the Chief Engineer, ASEB to do my Post-graduate study in Hydro-Power and River Structure in U.K with one-year scholarship (Full pay as SDO). I applied to the Imperial College of Science and Technology after I was selected for the scholarship in August, 1964.

Q. When did you go to London?

Ans: I traveled to London in September, 1964 to study the Hydro-power and River Structure course to obtain a Diploma of Imperial College (D.I.C), Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London, U.K. After six months of classes, I was part of a group of 20 post-graduate students sent to Scotland under Prof. Charles Jaeger to study various low head hydro-electric projects. We had three months to submit our report/thesis on the project site’s visit to get our D,I.C Degree. Prof. Charles Jaeger reviewed all our theses after one month of our submission and called me to say that I wrote the best theses. Then, he offered me an Imperial College scholarship for three years to go for Ph.D in Rock Mechanics. That was a major turning point in my life.

After a long discussion regarding my research works related to the behavior of rock under stress (Rock Mechanics/Geotechnical Engineering which was a new field of Civil Engineering at that time) with Prof. Jaeger, I started my laboratory testing of rock samples received from the Kapilly Project, ASEB and the London consulting firm for a period of six months. Suddenly, I had to stop my laboratory work as Prof. Jaeger became very sick and he died of heart attack. That was one of my greatest sadness in my life. Immediately, the Head of the Civil Engineering Department of Imperial College appointed Prof. Norman Morgenstern to replace Prof. Jaeger as my supervisor.

After a long meeting, Prof Morgenstern changed my research program to numerical analysis in place of laboratory study so that I could complete the Degree within three years period of my scholarship. On June 5, 1967, he asked me to prepare the thesis and we decided the title of my thesis would be “Non-linear Deformation of Rocks”. After two drafts reviewed by Prof. Morgenstern, I submitted my thesis on Dec. 15, 1967. Then, I successfully defended my thesis to receive approval from the external examiner as well as the internal examiner on December 22, 1967.

I was fortunate to receive an offer for the Post-Doctorate fellowship from the School of Engineering, Laval University Quebec (Canada) through my Professor. That was another big decision for me. I moved to Quebec City on January 3, 1968 to work on the Post-doctorate research for one year which was further extension of my Ph.D work on the application of the numerical analysis on the study of slope stability of natural slopes for various soil conditions. After completion of the post-doctorate research, I had published two papers at the Geotechnical Conferences held in Berkly, CA (USA) and Montreal, Canada in 1969.

I met Dr. Golder, Owner and Principal of Golder & Associates, Toronto at the Montreal conference in January1969 and he was very pleased with my presentation. He verbally offered me a Consulting Engineering position with his Company in Toronto. I replied that I could accept his offer provided he allows me to join them in the month of February after my visit to Assam to see my parents. He agreed and I end up working directly with Dr. Golder on various projects involving design of foundations of structures, slope Stability analysis, water and sewer pipeline etc. on unfrozen and frozen soils (Permafrost) conditions. Prof. Morgenstern also moved back to Canada as Professor of Civil Engineering, University of Edingburg, Alberta. We formed a team of experts with Dr.Golder, Prof. Morgenstern and myself in the field of Geotechnical Engineering on cold regions and Permafrost Engineering and we worked together on various projects located in the northern regions of Canada. This Canadian experience (for about six years) made me an expert in the field of Permafrost Engineering (Frozen) as well as unfrozen sub-soil conditions. I never thought that a guy coming from Assam where there is no frozen soils and snow fall will become an expert in the field of Cold Regions Engineering,

Q. What do you feel is needed for the development of scientific temperament amongst the young people of Assam?

Ans: We have a major problem in terms of “Theory to Practice” in the field of science and Engineering educational system in Assam. All educational Institutions are geared for mainly “teaching” for teaching sake. There are hardly any practical research initiated by the Professors or the Colleges which will bring new dimensions in the student’s mind for new innovations in their field of learning or better design and construction of infrastructures. In addition, all young people need to concentrate on their “strength” on a particular knowledge or field and they should not waste time with their weakness.

Q: As an engineer, do you feel that the erosion problem of Majuli can be solved?

Ans: Being a civil engineer with 50+ years of experience, I strongly feel that the erosion problem of Majuli can be solved with the design and construction of appropriate sustainable measures that include best technology.


With his wife

Q. As a Rotarian, you have showed the importance of serving others. Please tell us about your journey through Rotary:

Ans: My journey with Rotary started in January, 1981 when I became a Rotarian at the Rotary Club of University of Alaska, Fairbanks. But I failed to keep my membership in the club as we went to Oslo. In August, 1982, we moved back to Anchorage when I joined as a Full Professor of Civil Engineering, University of Alaska, Anchorage. Due to new position and very teaching loads, I could not join any Rotary club in Anchorage. All clubs in Anchorage met during Breakfast and lunch time. To make it more convenient, we (20 of us with different professional jobs) started a new evening Rotary Club, named Anchorage Mid-Town Rotary Club in August, 1986. Initially, I was the Director of International services and Foundation chair. Then, I became President of the Club in 2093-94. Though our club was small (30 members), we were very active in various projects including construction of rams for the poor disable people and adopted a road to maintain clean etc.

In 2002, I became the District 5010 Governor. Our District included Alaska, USA; Yukon Territory, Canada and Siberia and far East, Russia with eleven time Zones. It was largest District in the Rotary World. It took me six months to visit all 73 clubs included in the District. I was very active in raising funds from each Rotary club and encouraging each club to do community as well as international project. During my term as a District Governor, I did a check dam project to supply water to 30,000 people in Jowai, Meghalaya State and an eye operation theater project at Gauhati Medical College. I was recognized for surpassing annual fundraising goals from the Rotary Foundation.

After completion of my term as District Governor (DG), I became Past District Governor (PDG) in 2003 and I was appointed by the President of Rotary International as Zone 22 water Resources Coordinator 2004-05. I helped various Rotary clubs to do water and sanitation projects in the rural poor communities in India, Thailand and Africa. I received the District award in 2004-05 for my services.

After retirement in 2007, we moved to Tacoma, Washington State and I joined the Rotary Club of Tacoma. I also became a chartered member of Water and Sanitation, Rotary action Group (Wasrag) in 2008 and I was elected from North America as Director for two terms from 2008 to 2014. I was instrumental in helping many Rotary clubs to do water and sanitation projects in schools in Africa and India, including Nalbari, Assam where arsenic free clean and safe water was supplied to 17 schools with a population of 17,000 students. I received many awards from various Districts and clubs including “Rotarian of the Year” in our Tacoma Club. In 2015, I received the “Service Above Self” award from the Rotary International Board of Directors.

Q. Do you feel that the present generation of Assamese is at par with their counterparts in other parts of the world?

Ans: The present generation of Assamese is slowly coming at par with their counterparts in other parts of the world in the field of Internet technology. As there are no major industries in Assam, the younger educated generation are living outside the State. So Assam has a brain drain of educated young generation. The only way you can stop the migration of the younger generation is improvements in the economic condition of Assam – be it through industry, foreign investment and opportunity to create business, etc. The Government of Assam does not have a blue print as to how they can generate sufficient electricity for major industries in Assam. Even chronic flood and erosion of the Brahmaputra are causing major disaster in the agricultural land and rural communities. The Government has to produce comprehensive plans phase-wise so that the young generation of Assam will not migrate to other place outside of Assam.

Q. What are you presently working on?

Ans: I am writing my autobiography which will be completed by July, 2018.

Posted on January 22, 2018, in 1, Day-to-Day, Personalities/ Interviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: