On November 2, 2019, Dr SK Dhawan, a 77-year-old former chief engineer with the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), became IIT-Delhi’s oldest PhD recipient this year.
However, this honour marks just another step in a life dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge.
Born on August 15, 1942, in a small village in the Punjab province of present-day Pakistan, his family migrated to India during Partition when he was just a five-year-old boy. The event and its subsequent consequences on his family played a crucial role in shaping his life.
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“My father left his property, belongings, and migrated to India along with my mother, myself and two siblings. It was a massive challenge for my parents, both emotionally and financially and due to the latter, it became imperative for me to take up a job right after matriculation. Strangely enough, instead of crushing my desire to study further, the experience only reinforced it. I went onto complete a vocational diploma course from the Industrial Training Institute in Pusa. By the age of 18 in 1961, I began work as a draughtsman in the CPWD. But I wanted to learn more and become an engineer,” says Dr Dhawan, speaking to The Better India.
While working full time, he also appeared for the Associate Member of The Institution of Engineers (AMIE), cleared it and became a graduate junior engineer at the age of 22.
In 1971, he passed the combined Engineering Services Examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission, and was selected as a Class I Officer with the Government of India. “My work took me all over the country from Maharashtra to the Northeast,” he says.
However, he wasn’t satisfied yet. In 1979, he joined IIT Delhi to do his Masters in Structural Engineering, while still pursuing a full-time government job at the CPWD.
“I did my MTech in structural engineering while fulfilling my professional obligations and looking after my family. This required extra work for six to seven hours, staying up late, getting up early in the morning and working seven days a week for my course. While working, I was also attending classes, working on assignments, taking minor tests and major tests for six semesters, including finishing a research project,” he mentions.
Calling the entire experience a small discomfort, he adds, “For the most part, I didn’t really feel the experience was burdensome because of my prior experience of doing the same (working and studying at the same time) and the fact that I had studied below streetlights as a child. I was awarded my degree in 1982, and it felt truly wonderful.”
He did not stop there. After securing a Commonwealth scholarship, he left for Birmingham University in the United Kingdom to obtain a Master’s degree in Management of Urban development sometime in 1988.
He would also go onto earn a Masters degree in Public Administration from the Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi, with distinction, besides an MPhil from Panjab University.
As an engineer with the CPWD, his work ranged from planning, construction and maintenance of colleges under Delhi University, roadways, inland waterway projects, and urban transport, among other areas.
He even wrote guidelines for the Ministry of Finance to help the Income Tax Department evaluate immovable properties of individual citizens. He retired from government service as Chief Engineer in 2002 and has lived in Delhi ever since.
“After my retirement, I was an advisor with RITES for two years (2002-04) and after that, an advisor with an MNC, where I prepared detailed reports for the construction of national highways (2004-06). The latter wasn’t a good experience because they weren’t doing their work properly. Soon, I went on to teach at the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi for six years, but somewhere along the line, I had a deep desire to study further. In 2013, I registered for the PhD programme at IIT Delhi. It has taken me six years, but the journey has been worth it,” he says. A bonus is that he became tech-savvy as well.
Dr SK Dhawan’s PhD thesis from IIT-Delhi titled ‘Expected Remaining Life of Existing Reinforced Concrete Building Structures’ deals with how long an existing building can stand safe or be retrofitted to improve its longevity.
“My research focussed on developing a computational methodology based on in situ tests and experimental investigations. It would help in making decisions related to repairs, rehabilitation, demolishing, retrofit and future extension of existing building structures. It would also help buyers and sellers to make informed decisions dealing with immovable properties,” he says.
How did Dr Dhawan’s work experience feed into his PhD thesis?
“During my service in the government, I was associated with planning, design and construction of roads, buildings and bridges. This experience helped me to understand the behaviour of structures under transient loading (winds or earthquakes) in addition to dead loads and imposed loads,” he says.
While Dr Dhawan’s decisions have been largely self-motivated, he is also immensely grateful to his family.
“My wife, Sashi, has always encouraged me to pursue my research work. Throughout my pursuit of knowledge, she has always given me moral and emotional support, besides always taking care of me. The same is true for my children,” he says.
Following his PhD, the plan for Dr Dhawan is to attend international conferences, write papers, and guide masters and PhD students.
“I will continue to share my knowledge. I always feel there is something more I can do. For me, every day is value addition, and that’s where my motivation lies. As someone who has worked 12+ hours a day, I just want to maintain my discipline, remain engaged, and most of all, useful,” he says.
There is no question Dr Dhawan’s life is a testament to the spirit of learning.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)