By Reshmi S
On the 50th anniversary of IIT Madras, former director, Prof. Ananth and the Rector of RWTH Aachen, Prof. Schmachtenberg came up with the idea to collaborate on water-related issues. That was the beginning of the Indo-German Centre for Sustainability (IGCS), an initiative to promote interdisciplinary research and bilateral relations between India and Germany. It was in December 2010 that the centre was formally inaugurated, initiating cooperation in the fields of water, land, air and waste management.
Since its inauguration, IGCS has launched numerous projects in and around Chennai. Effects of soil organic carbon redistribution upon green house gas fluxes from terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in a small agricultural catchment in South-East India is one of the projects carried out in the Thimmapuram catchment. Soil samples, resampled lake sediment and water and in-situ measurements were taken and analysed in the Biotechnology and Chemical Engineering Departments of IIT Madras and also in Berlin. A second water-related project focuses on climate and land use change effects on the water resources in the upper Penniyar catchment.
Perhaps the most pragmatic of the tasks undertaken so far is the Adyar River project, a multi layered project aimed to confront all the environmental and socio-economic issues pertaining to the river. Data has been collected on the lack of sanitation facilities in the local community and its negative impact on the river’s pollution levels, effects of waste disposal by industrial plants and other related issues having a direct or indirect effect on the climatic conditions of the region. The centre plans to tackle the problems by analysis of the causes. Improvement of the sanitation facilities of the community, desilting of the river, monitoring the pollution levels, bringing about policy reforms to keep industrial pollution under control etc are some of the proposed steps. If successful, this will have a tangible long-term impact and will change the socio-economic as well as ecological outlook of the region, says Prof. Sudhir Chella Rajan, HoD, Humanities and Social Sciences.
Student involvement in projects and research is restricted to the summer and winter schools and the DAAD scholarships for graduates. The schools, aimed to foster interdisciplinary and intercultural research exchange, are conducted in July and February, taking place in IIT Madras and Berlin alternately. Ten Indian and ten German students (Masters or PhD) are selected and trained on various sustainability issues- water, land, air and waste management. Selection process involves careful screening of the applications by an expert team on the basis of the research potential projected by the aspiring participant. In addition to the schools, DAAD provides scholarships to three Master and PhD students each from Germany and one Master and one PhD student from India, to work at the centre.
One of the projects undertaken during the winter school involved the calculation of the CFP of IIT Madras. CFP, or Carbon Foot Print, is the measure of the total carbon dioxide emissions caused directly or indirectly by an activity or is accumulated over the life stages of a product. From data collected from various sources including surveys, literature research and databases, the CFP was estimated to be about 50000 t CO2 per year, with electricity contributing a whopping 92% of the total. A similar project estimated the per person waste generated in the campus to be 30 g per day. The survey concluded that this value, being considerably less than those elsewhere in India, is a reflection of the elaborate and sustainable waste management system in the campus.
Despite expansion plans, there is a narrow scope for undergraduate involvement. The visiting faculty at IGCS teaches several courses for undergraduates, including Sustainability in Environmental Biotechnology (by Kristin Steger), Sustainability in River Basin Management (by Peter Fiener) and Environmental and Resource Economics, Environment and Society (by Sibylle Petrak). Lectures and seminars are organised on a monthly basis in IIT Madras. “It’s difficult to bring German and Indian undergrad students together for a camp, since the vacations of colleges in the two countries don’t overlap. And the course load doesn’t allow them to take time off their class hours”, Dr. Peter Fiener (Professor at IGCS) responded, when asked about the lack of BTech involvement in the activities. He added that they are very keen to have more motivated students involve in research and are willing to sort out the administrative issues and provide full cooperation, if anyone comes up with a feasible proposal.
There have been efforts to get government support from both countries, particularly for funds. As of now, the German Ministry of Education and Research covers the travel expenses of professors and scientists involved in the exchange. German Academic Exchange Service plays a pivotal role by providing scholarships and other support for the program. Although the Indian Government has no direct involvement, IIT Madras is a major support pillar for the centre. Apart from IIT Madras faculty being part of the initiative, IGCS has an office in the campus, and many of the faculty members are guest lecturers, particularly in the HS department. There might be future collaborations with the Department of Science and Technology (DST) as well.
Powered by their success in the first two years, IGCS plans to reach out to more colleges, institutions, students and scientists in the future, widening the network and thereby intensifying bilateral relations between the two countries. Introduction of an interdisciplinary Masters program on sustainability, focusing on the fields of water, waste, energy and land use, is one of the proposed ideas and would ideally be implemented in a year or two, says Dr. Peter Fiener. By having the best minds from both countries collaborate on the common issues, IGCS hopes to encourage interdisciplinary research and application of theoretical knowledge in practical situations, a crucial aspect for the sustainable development of any country.