Professor MM Sharma: A rare interview to MoneyLIFE
August 12, 2008
I made a living doing what I wanted to do and I am willing do it all over again
Professor MM Sharma is a guru to many top businessmen, academics and professional managers. He spurned dozens of lucrative offers from the industry and chose to teach and research. Sharma became a professor at 27 and was only the second engineer to become president of IndianNationalScienceAcademy (followed by RA Mashelkar). Fiercely upright and patriotic, he was awarded the Padma Vibhusan in 2001, the second highest civilian honour award in India. In a conversation with MoneyLIFE editors Sucheta Dalal and Debashis Basu, Prof. Sharma recalled his half a century of eventful career, his many achievements, awards, his battles with the petty babus of the BombayUniversity and his numerous illustrious students. Excerpts from the interview
ML: Professor Sharma, you spent most of your life in the University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT), Mumbai. Where were you born, what did you see?
Prof. Sharma: I was born at home in 1937, on the outskirts of Jodhpur. One of the rooms in the house used to become a maternity home, where a dai ma used to help women of the house deliver. My grandfather worked for Bikaner State Railway and my father worked for Jodhpur State Railway. Jodhpur used to have extraordinary train connections. I first studied in a Maheshwari school, most of the schools at that time were community schools. Strangely, in the second standard, I was told to go upstairs, to the third standard. Formalism was absent at that time and I had been promoted. After I left school, I joined a college called JaswantCollege. Rajasthan, then called Rajputana, was very backward at that time. The whole state had just one university. In 1954, when I did Inter Science, there were just about 1700 students.
ML: Did you top the exams?
Prof. Sharma: I did not top the university but was a rank holder. I chose to join a newly started engineering college called MungiramBangurMemorialCollege. Civil engineering was the most popular discipline but I did not like it. I noted that these guys did not do any work and suddenly became very rich. In fact, later, when I was slogging for my PhD, all my contemporaries in engineering college owned bungalows in Jodhpur. I had made a conscious decision of not joining civil engineering. The financial situation of my family was not very good. They could not afford to fund my education out of town. I told my parents that if it is unaffordable, I will do physics or chemistry but I won’t do civil engineering. I had a great fancy for chemistry and mathematics. I wanted to do chemical engineering. I cannot give you a clear reason why, but I developed a fancy for it. Mind you, in 1954, there was no chemicals industry. I asked several people where one could do chemical engineering but nobody could give me a clear direction. Interestingly, chemical engineering was the only subject, which was started as a part of the university curriculum. It was always available post BSc., never offered as a diploma course and so it became a natural part of a university. All other engineering courses started as a diploma course.
ML: But how did you land up in Bombay?
Prof. Sharma: It is a strange story. The chief minister of Rajasthan, Mohan Lal Sukhadia, was a diploma-holder in engineering from VJTI (Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute), the well-known engineering college in Mumbai. So, many people in Rajasthan were familiar with VJTI. A lot of people knew about BenarasHinduUniversity too. I wrote a postcard to VJTI telling them that I would like to study chemical engineering there. They passed it on to UDCT (University Department of Chemical Technology). UDCT sent me a form. Mumbai admissions were the earliest and before I knew, I got a telegram stating, ‘admitted, given seat in hostel’. So, I forgot all about Benaras and landed up in Mumbai, as a young boy of 17. Little did I know that I would spend the rest of my life here.
ML: How did you fund your education?
Prof. Sharma: We had a neighbour, a prosperous businessman who offered to help. My father also got some money from Railway Welfare Fund.
ML: What were your early experiences in Mumbai?
Prof. Sharma:Bombay was a wonderland for a boy from the desert and I will never forget two incidents. One was the very first day. I opened the water tap and found water gushing out. I had never seen tap water and that too flowing out with such force. The second was the monsoon, about which I did not have the foggiest idea, and I am not ashamed to admit it. The admissions were in June when the monsoon begins. On the first day of heavy rains, I and two other boys from the desert area stayed back in our rooms because it was raining like mad. During lunch time, our friends came from the hostel and asked us ‘are you sick? How come you did not turn up for the classes?’ We said, ‘we are fine. Look at how it is raining. Who can go out in such rains?’ Call us buffoons or whatever, we did not know that normal life could go on when it was raining like that. The other was direct exposure to top film personalities, just a few minutes away from the UDCT gate. I used see Prithiviraj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor and others. I could brag back home that I saw Shammi Kapoor romancing Geeta Bali in the convertible used in Barsaat. The cars used to bring Raj Kapoor’s kids to Don Bosco school. The other early experience was how good the Bombay guys were in English. My language was poor and I had to teach myself English.
ML: Did it give you a complex?
Prof. Sharma: No. At the risk of sounding immodest, I was very good in studies. In fact, on the very first day, I contradicted one of the teachers, DN Ghosh. It was funny. I was about 5’ 3” and had not grown to my full height. I got up and told the teacher ‘what you are saying is wrong’. Back in the hostel, my seniors told me, I should pack my bags and go home, I would never pass in Ghosh’s subjects. But I stood first in every paper of his and he became very fond of me.
Hostel life was very enjoyable. I still have friends from the hostel days, for the past fifty years. Kishore Mariwala, from the family which owns Marico, was one of my classmates and we are still friends. Another friend was PR Mulchandani from the family which sold the Bush radio. His family was in electronics but he wanted to study chemical engineering! He also married one of the two girls studying engineering in VJTI. Bombay was also a unique experience because you could travel through entire Bombay in a tram for just one anna.
ML: You continued with your post-graduate course in UDCT and did not go for a job. Why?
Prof. Sharma: The job situation was extraordinarily good. There were 20 students in the class; about 13 of them passed out in the first flush. We had multiple offers before we graduated. Companies like National Rayon and Century were willing to hire the entire class if they could. But I did not appear for a single interview. I did not want a job. I was the only one from the batch who stayed back to do full-time post-graduate research. So, I did my masters in UDCT and would have done a PhD too but there was no one to guide me. I became a temporary lecturer in late 1959, when I was 22, and so I had a little more money. My department very generously allowed me to go to the UK for research and the airfare was about Rs1300. One philanthropist offered to give me the money. But I was a Cambridge scholar, and the scholarship was really sumptuous. It not only paid for my fare and all my expenses but I could even save some money and send it back home. I went to the UK in September 1961 by boat. It was a great experience.
ML: What was your experience at Cambridge?
Prof. Sharma:Cambridge has a fascinating system. You do not register for PhD. You come to know whether you are in or out later. Within the first five months I had my papers published in the renowned journals. My quality of work was good enough to fetch me a PhD in one year. The person who guided me was from a very aristocratic background and used to write extremely well. I picked up English and many other finer things in life from him, apart from teaching myself by reading classics and newspapers like Manchester Guardian and The London Times. I joined the doctoral programme in October and, by next May, I requested him to refer me to some industry for summer training. He had superb connections. I did eight weeks in ICI plc, one of the most extraordinary chemical companies in the world. I also wrote a monograph with my guide on a concept that was unique at that time - how we can go from fundamentals of chemistry to final industrial design. It became a benchmark in the world literature of chemical engineering. Nothing like this existed at that time. Another major milestone was a patent in my own name that I got in 1964, when I was 27, financed by Shell through Cambridge.
ML:What was the patent about?
Prof. Sharma: To put it simply, it is a better way of acid gas removal using cheaper and better reagents. It was an idea. The scientific paper was in my name. You don’t publish a paper till you have a preliminary patent. Cambridge got a patent attorney and told me to first protect myself. My guide wrote to one of top guys in Shell saying that he should look at my work. I took a Fokker Friendship flight to Amsterdam. The man next to me got into a conversation with me. He asked me ‘where are you going’. I said ‘I am going to Amsterdam’. ‘Oh, you are Sharma? I am going to see you tomorrow.’ What I had done with that patent is a part of Cambridge folklore because no one had sold an idea to a large company. I had the patent in my own name. Shell had paid me a thousand pounds which was a lot of money in those days. It was much more than my annual salary in Bombay later. I had an offer to join Shell anywhere in the world I wanted, including in NOCIL, which was coming up in India.
ML:You came back to India immediately after completing your PhD, right?
Prof. Sharma: Yes. I wanted to research and teach in a university and not take a job in an industry. There were plenty of job offers including one from ICI.
ML:You could have researched at Cambridge.
Prof. Sharma: I could have. I had offers from the US universities too. But I did not want to go. Performing there is different from performing in India, in my own school. IIT Delhi was coming up with British collaboration and I was invited to go there. I refused. I had to go back to my school because I had some moral commitment. When I needed a job, they had given me the job of a lecturer and then allowed me to go to Cambridge. When I came back, I was asked to put in an application for a professor of chemical engineering. I refused. I said, I do not deserve to be a professor. I am too young. Give me readership with good increments so that I can keep my body and soul together. BombayUniversity created history by making me a professor at 27. They gave me that position on promise. After all, I had no record as a professor. People thought I was lucky. It was the biggest risk of my life. I had great jobs in industries where it is easy to perform. In academics, we had to compete globally by publishing papers in the best journals of the world. If you fail as a professor at 28, you are doomed for the rest of your life. Interestingly, the only interview I ever appeared for in my life, was for that job as a professor.
ML:As a researcher, what was your strategy?
Prof. Sharma: We showed what matters most in research was ideas. Not mere affluence of facilities. One of our greatest breakthroughs came on a Sunday afternoon in a beaker. The first 10-15 years, we did great work because we did idea-centric research.
ML: Did you have a free hand at UDCT?
Prof. Sharma: As long as you did not ask for money, the bureaucrats at BombayUniversity usually left you alone. Also, UDCT had a great tradition in research. By the time I retired, I had guided 71 PhDs; I could even have had 80. It was unheard of in engineering; even today, nobody has 71. My successor JB Joshi already has 40. Teachers have to be measured not by what they did but by what their students and collaborators did. I made that an important criteria. Another daring thing I did, that no one had done before, was making sure that my students are able to get their papers published in highly reputed international journals under their own name, where hardly any one from India were able to get published. UDCT had built such a reputation that every year we could send dozens of students with full scholarships to MIT, Wisconsin and Minnesota. We were the only institution that gave the IITs a run for their money even though we were very badly off in terms of staff and funds.
ML: How bad was the constraint of funds?
Prof. Sharma: IIT, Kanpur had American funding whereas we could not import goods worth even five dollars. So, any time one of us went abroad, we would bring back small items, which were required in the lab. Plus there was this maddening bureaucracy. I can tell you innumerable jokes about the Directorate General for Technical Development (DGTD). If we wanted to import glass pipes, they would promptly ask, ‘please tell us whether it is seamless or welded’. If we wanted to import silicone rubber tubes, they would say that import cannot be allowed because rubber tubes are made in India. On the other hand, IIT Kanpur had no shortage of money. Today, money is not a constraint for good ideas.
got many fabulous offers from the industry including one right when I was being interviewed for the professor’s job, but I told them nothing will lure me. I am happy to do what I am doing, despite all the constraints. When I got married, I told my wife that ‘we will stay as paying guests for the first six months. Then we will stay for a year in one of my friend’s place until a university flat is made available’. I used to get paid just a thousand rupees a month. Of course, there was some money coming in from consultancy. One third would go to the university and two thirds to the professor. But then the tax rates were so high on incremental income that very little was left. I was the one who changed the rules of consultancy for the whole country by setting new benchmarks.
ML: How did you do that?
Prof. Sharma: I hiked the consultancy fees sharply. The University said how can you raise consultancy fees and how can it be higher than the salary? I said look at your neighbours (the Bombay High Court is next to the University). The lawyers charge by the minute. Why shouldn’t we do that especially when all we are getting just about 40% of two-thirds of the fees, after taxes? Why do you want to drive us to be dishonest by not reporting our income? And, after a few years, the constraints of money went away. Long before I left, consultancy income was much more than my salary. And UDCT has no match in consultancy in the country. The present director, JB Joshi, is not only a brilliant teacher and a researcher but commands the highest consulting fee in the country. There are several teachers making good amount of consultancy money. That is an indicator of our success because the industry will not pay unless it really benefits.
ML: You worked closely with the industry and have seen many businessmen from close quarters. Some of them were your students. Tell us about the business environment at that time and some of your experiences.
Prof. Sharma: I used to have a lot of run-ins with the bureaucrats especially on issues of licensing. One of the companies I knew was planning a capacity of 500 tonnes per annum of isobutyl benzene. The government turned it down twice, saying we do not need such large capacity. At one of the DGTD meetings, I asked the officials, who among you has any idea of the market? How are you pontificating? I could talk in those terms because they often used to take our help. Today, India is a leading producer of isobutyl benzene. We make 9000 tonnes. But in those days, there was licensing which created monopolies. To buy half a tonne of polyethylene, you had to queue up at Union Carbide. For one tonne of polychem you had to give so many salaams. NOCIL used to take money in advance for ethylene oxide. I told a manager at ICI in 1973 that the company will be on its knees because it is bringing the wrong products and is taking a laid-back approach. New companies with newer technologies came and ICI was in trouble. They finally sold out to Reliance. It is not just the foreign companies. I told Tanil Kilachand of Polychem the same thing. I said, ‘you will shamelessly close down your plant. You have no future’. He asked me ‘are you serious?’ I said, ‘of course, I am serious. Can’t you see the writing on the wall?’ Sarabhais were making PVC from calcium carbide, which was power-intensive. I said, ‘there is no future for this process.’ One day, I heard one of the Sarabhais saying “all of a sudden we were caught in a jam.” I said, ‘what do you mean by all of a sudden. Anybody could see that this thing was not going to work over the long term”.
ML: From being an academic, how did you get so closely aligned to industry’s needs and problems?
Prof. Sharma: I was involved in giving ideas about new projects in the pre-licensing, licensing and post-licensing periods. It was one of my specialities. The secret of research is to identify a relevant and a solvable problem. That approach worked well with industry too. When I talked to the managing director of a company what was he interested in? Not some complicated separation process. I had to talk to him about cash in and cash out. What can he save, where and how much more can he make. That is the language he understands. Later, when I talked to technical people, I would talk a different language. Fortunately, I knew the managing directors of all the major chemical companies and I cultivated them. I felt we needed to maintain excellent contacts with the industry. This is so because while the job opportunities were always good, I felt we should never relax. Besides, we had an item to sell and had to create a market for the PhD students. The only opportunity for them was the academia but I felt their normal habitat should be industry. So, I went to the MDs and told them to take PhDs. I said, ‘pay them only a little more than the graduate engineers and see the difference.’
If we are to be a knowledge-based economy and not do only second and third-grade IT work, we must create a pipeline of PhDs going into industry. The prosperity of any nation is dependent on the number of PhDs per million. Ask yourself, why are pharma companies set up by technocrat entrepreneurs doing so well, compared to business houses?
ML: Did you work systematically to create this industry interface?
Prof. Sharma: There is no other option in applied sciences. You have to deliver real results, as opposed to that in pure sciences. In applied sciences our first job was to teach well at the undergraduate and post-graduate level, the second job was to publish in renowned journals of the world and, finally, build bridges with the industry. That is the job in applied sciences. Now, apply this paradigm to management science. They do not do any meaningful Ph.D work at all. If I do not publish in world’s top three journals in chemical engineering, I will be considered a nobody. In how many top journals like Harvard Business Review has any Indian management researcher published, if at all - despite getting the best of engineers. If the IIMs were to be judged by the same yardstick as is applied to us, they won’t stand a chance. But they have extraordinary marketing skills.
ML: There are many industrialists who have passed out from UDCT. Tell us something about them as your students.
Prof. Sharma: I was involved in strategic thinking at Reliance. A lot of the planning of their refinery was done in a room at UDCT when I was the director, with meetings going on till 10.30-11 in the night. But I was never professionally involved. The other day, Mukesh told me, I now realise the importance of your lessons - that the money is in upgrading - the commercial importance of C4 and C5 fractions. Then there was Narotam Sekhsaria who always used to sit on the first bench. He used to tell his friend sitting next to him ‘my job is to follow the lecture. You take down the notes.’ Several of my students now have Rs1000 crore companies. For instance, Rajendra Gogri and Chandrakant Gogri, who control Aarti Industries and Aarti Drugs, were both my students. Then Madhukar Parekh and his brother Ajay Parekh (Mukesh Ambani’s classmate) and their uncle Mahendra Parekh of Pidilite Industries, were all my students. Anji Reddy of Dr. Reddy’s and Ashwin Dani of Asian Paints (he was not my direct student), Mahendra Chokshi (the other promoter of Asian Paints) were my direct students. My first Ph.D student became the president of a billion-dollar company in the US. Fortunately, most of my Ph.D students are still in India. We created an ambience of excellence. Teaching, research and consulting is all very demanding. During my entire professional life, I have never worked for less than 80 hours a week. But it was all worth it. During my felicitation, more than 2500 people were present. On the dais were people like Darbari Sheth, Mukesh Ambani and professors from Cambridge and Japan. They collected two crore (rupees) in my name on the condition that not even one rupee will come to me and that one crore will go to the library.
ML: Do you have any regrets about your career?
Prof. Sharma: I made a living doing what I wanted to do and I am willing do it all over again. The only regret I have is that I had to deal with the absolutely poor quality of human beings in the BombayUniversity and the successive mediocre vice-chancellors. Mediocrity breeds mediocrity and mediocre people cannot stand excellence. They would put up stupid roadblocks and I had to fight back. They would transfer all kinds of third rate people to UDCT and then they put spies on me to see if I have gone off somewhere without their permission or something petty like that so that they could chargesheet me. The standards of VCs went lower and lower until one of them ended up in jail. We had to work in that kind of atmosphere. UDCT had a certain amount of autonomy so we did not care a damn. But, in 1996, after persistent harassment, I fell ill with a dreadful disease called soft-tissue syndrome. I paid a price for the stand I took. But apart from having to deal with people like these, I have had a great life. I have no regrets.