We are using more water than what we are able to recycle, which is putting tremendous strain not only on our current water consumption needs but also future water resources.

Harshit Thakker, our next pathbreaker, Associate-Wastewater Engineering Projects at Econ Pollution Control Consultants, is responsible for management and implementation of global design projects with respect to sustainability, environmental remediation, water & wastewater across multiple sectors and categories.

Harshit talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being from a family of civil engineers which cemented his desire to pursue a career in environmental engineering with a focus on wastewater and sewage treatment.

For students, wastewater engineering which is a branch of environmental engineering, will help in solving a greater water crisis problem which will be very beneficial for the future generations.

Harshit, tell us about yourself

I was fortunate to be born in a family where most of my family members were professionals, be it in the engineering field or in the Chartered Accountancy field. My Grandfather was a Civil Engineer, my father is a Civil & Environmental Engineer whereas my Uncle is a Chartered Accountant. So my first interaction with the subject of wastewater engineering was when I was three years old. My grandfather and my father, had gifted me a book called “How things work”. That book had an entire two page article on sewage treatment plants. That was something which basically piqued my interest in this line for the first time. While attending school, I used to follow sports, especially football, but I wasn’t really good at it. The only thing that I was good at was debates and I love debating on national and international issues. Now, obviously, when you debate on national or international issues, especially at school level, one of the first topics which comes up is the environment. So the more and more I studied or I read about the environment while preparing for those debates, my interest soared in that particular field. My father did his environmental engineering after civil engineering and until date, runs a wastewater engineering consultancy. So every day my father would come home and discuss his work, and I kept absorbing all the information that he gave me over the years. This made me extremely interested in this field. And after completing my 10th, I took the science stream thinking that someday I would be a wastewater Engineer.

What did you study?

So after clearing Class 12, I moved to Pune to study Civil Engineering at Sinhgad College of Engineering. During the course of my civil engineering, my interest was always towards environmental engineering, which is a branch of civil engineering. It was not that I was always 100% inclined towards wastewater treatment. I also explored certain other avenues in Environmental Engineering. For example, I had presented multiple papers on plasma gasification. I presented them in forums like College of Engineering Pune, Sinhgad Academy of Engineering Kondhwa & Bharatiya Vidyapeeth College of Engineering for Women in Pune.

I had won many prizes there as well. I’d also presented a seminar on the use of tunnel boring machines in the field of sewerage. But when I was doing my dissertation or thesis, I had a deal with my Dad, where he said that he would let me shadow him on a live project, which would basically be my thesis. His condition was that I should be able to do this alone without taking any help from any friends or partners. So, that was something that really got my attention, and I completely enjoyed my dissertation. I designed the plant right from scratch, and looked into all aspects which included the basic drawings, the specifications, the costing, how to operate the plant, how to commission the plant. It was a really nice hands on experience, where I actually learned a lot about effluent treatment. Subsequently, after completing my engineering, I appeared for an entrance exam at Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute (VJTI). I did well and though I had all the options in civil engineering available to me, I chose environmental engineering. During my masters in environmental engineering, all the papers I had presented or whatever seminars I participated in, were all related to wastewater engineering. I had presented a seminar on BNR (biological nutrient removal). I also worked on a dissertation for my thesis, wherein I had compared a technology called membrane bioreactors, which is a very niche and modern technology, versus other conventional technologies, with respect to all aspects right from the technology to the lifecycle cost . So while working on that thesis, I was helped a lot by my professor, Professor JS Main and I read a lot of papers, and books. I also had to bring out ideas about technology which were not very often used in India. But that is something which helped me a lot as far as my career is concerned. And one more important thing was, I appeared for the ICBC International Green Building Council’s associate professional exam, and was able to clear it in the first attempt. 

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

As mentioned earlier, I was always obsessed with being a wastewater engineer. However, a concern for all those around me was that I was possibly saying no to something better just because of this obsession. So in order to quell these doubts, my family & friends suggested that I actually take up an internship at our own company, as well as take an internship outside before signing up for civil engineering. So, just after completing my HSC and before joining engineering, in the summer break, I did like a one month internship in my own company. I also worked for around two to three weeks with somebody dealing in electronics. 

After working in both these companies. I decided that civil engineering and subsequently environmental engineering would be the right fields for me. During my engineering days, I had a chance to be tutored by the very famous Structural Consultant & Founder of Prysoms, Professor HM Somayya. He is somebody who has guided me, tutored me and mentored me to get my thoughts right and my approach correct with respect to engineering. I also had a chance to prepare for multiple exams, like GRE and TOEFL, in which I scored decently . While I was in the process of securing admits, my mind was at crossroads, and I sought the guidance of Professor Dr. Sandeep Shiyekhar, a professor in our college, and currently the dean of academics at DY Patil. I had the opportunity to work with NASA during his stint in the US, when I met Professor Shiyekar and sat down with him to discuss in detail. He told me something which kind of shocked me, he said that there are more opportunities in the public health and the wastewater sector in a developing country like India than in a developed country like the US. He advised me that it is better if I pursue my masters in India and start working immediately, rather than going to the US and waiting for two to three years before working. So I took his advice, it was the best advice I’ve ever received. I immediately knew what he said made a lot of sense to me. I immediately started applying to colleges in Mumbai, and was lucky to secure admission for a masters in environmental engineering at VJTI. Yeah, so I started studying at VJTI as well as working simultaneously. It was some of the best advice I’ve ever received. And this is what set me on the right path.

Tell us about your career path

I was very clear that I wanted to pursue wastewater engineering to take our company forward. By the way, the name of our company is Econ Pollution Control Consultants. So, initially, I had decided that I would complete my masters degree and then start working. But since I had some time on hand, my father insisted that I should come to the office every day after college, sit till late and work. I used to follow this pattern religiously. I started working in our office in the engineering department. So my role back then was to help whoever is leading a project, by understanding the process design, getting it drafted from the drafting team, checking what the drafting team has prepared, and also coordinating with the clients to ensure successful commissioning of the project. I continued in this role from 2011 to 2014. During this particular period, I was also blessed to not only work with MNC clients but also with many top engineering consultants as their wastewater associate. I have worked with top companies like L&T technology services, but one of my best experiences in life, for which I’m thoroughly grateful for, was the opportunity to work with the company called Knexir Consultants Private Limited or KCPL. 

When I started working with Knexir as their wastewater engineering associate, I understood that there is a huge gap or a huge gulf between what we are doing versus what the consultancy industry is demanding. It wasn’t that we were short on process knowledge, but what was happening was, a typical consultant had now become an engineering service provider, clients were becoming more knowledgeable, more demanding, and they were insisting on more details to be put both in drawings, and in terms of documents. So Knexir consultants was a company which imbibed this particular culture. And through a lot of mentors from that company, I picked up the skills over the years, and that was something I brought in, I brought into our company as well. This skill did help me and our company in terms of the many of the  projects which we executed, or the clients that we acquired post 2012. I am particularly grateful to Mr. Jagdish Pathak who always takes the pains to help me improve my presentation & ways of working, and to Mr. Mehul Shah for ironing out each & every chink in my armour & pushing me each & every day to do better. It would be difficult to list out every member who has helped me, but I am forever grateful to this organization. In 2016, I had an opportunity to visit and take a study tour of Holland to understand what smart cities are, although I have not been really able to work on smart cities. But my experience in Holland, wherein we lived for 15 days across different cities, to study how typical European engineering is, or European culture is, has also helped me a great deal in my career. 

One more experience which I would like to share was in 2017 when I was leading a slightly bigger team. I realised that it’s not all about providing engineering services alone, but also about catering to a huge demand for environmental assessments, audits or even capability development. At the age of 28, I had a chance to assess wastewater facilities for a major food and beverage manufacturer. I assessed their wastewater facilities in ANZ, multiple locations across Australia, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia and so on. I continued in this particular role at Econ Pollution Control Consultants till about 2019 after which I took up a leadership role. Now, in my current role, what I basically do is I am not only responsible for engineering & end to end delivery of projects, but also getting new clients, building relationships and developing the organisation. So this has been my experience so far.

How did you get the 1st break?

I had been working at Econ Pollution Control Consultants for some time where I was assisting on various projects. But I never had a chance to lead a project by myself. At one point I had an opportunity in a global pharmaceutical company based in Israel, and my father suggested I should take up this opportunity and should be leading this particular project. It was a very challenging project because there was a wastewater treatment plant, a reverse osmosis system as well as a zero liquid discharge plant in the same project. There were multiple stakeholders, both from India and Israel, at the client side and different stakeholders from the consultant side, and different vendors involved in all three systems in the project. It was definitely a very challenging project, and I was actually learning on the go. But through experience, hard work, and the guidance from my father and the seniors at the consultant site, we were able to deliver on the project. I hope I was able to deliver the project to the client’s satisfaction. It was a very tough experience and a very challenging project that I had to take up at the tender age of 23. But I think that particular project and this particular experience shaped my mind and my thought process for doing many such complex engineering consultancy projects in the wastewater field in the near future.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

The biggest challenge that I faced in my professional career was people not believing in me, because I started working at the age of 22. People would always think that I am too young to actually guide somebody. So they would always ensure that my father was always around, and would always insist on speaking to my father instead of me. So my suggestion to all my dear young friends is that even when somebody keeps rejecting you, don’t take the rejection personally, keep working hard, keep believing in yourself, and never ever give up. So, inspite of being rejected, you should still work with the same enthusiasm, and keep delivering solutions, until people start believing in you. That is something that will take you forward. 

The second challenge that I faced was in terms of delivering drawings. Now, what happened was, we were transitioning from the consultancy field to being an engineering service provider. And many of the drawings that our office was producing were not in line with the global standard which is what global clients were expecting. So what I did was I took help from people working in consultancies across the globe, took standard drawings from different disciplines, and tried to convert it into a template for wastewater for our company. I met with a lot of resistance, both internally as well as externally. But then gradually, with effort and hard work, we made this into a template, since our projects are being executed all across the globe, including the US. So this step was necessary to get these things in order. 

The third challenge was, when we moved into this domain of being an engineering service provider from a consultancy, there were a lot of challenges with regards to documents, and documents had to be sent quickly. Now, in order to deliver quickly, we realised that the only solution was to increase manpower. But the problem when we recruit manpower from outside was that they were not tuned to working in the Econ way. So, with the help of some of my colleagues, we decided to develop a system or a process instead of hiring individuals. We created an entire template or a system or a process for engineering deliverables, in terms of document lists, and asked people to follow the process. When people go on leave, people quit, new people join or the company expands, as it is continuously happening till the present day, any new employee or a new engineer who joins can just refer to a master document list and start working from there. So this is something which helped us greatly, especially during the pandemic when we were not working from the office. So this is one piece of advice I would give everybody. Let’s start creating standard documents and templates. You must develop a system or a process instead of relying on a particular individual.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I still work with Econ Pollution Control Consultants. My current role is very different compared to what it was when I actually started out. Now my role mainly involves getting new projects, handling client relationships, looking after the entire P&L, and also assisting the team or helping the team in whatever problems that they might face. I am also involved in bidding for a project or speaking to clients, acquiring a business, or solving issues in existing projects. That’s what I basically do.

What are the skills needed in your role?

The skills needed are, having knowledge on wastewater treatment, and the second being simple common sense. For wastewater treatment, what I would advise is that even after completing your masters, there is so much in the field as it is always evolving continuously. So make it a point to read online or view simple videos on different technologies on YouTube and try understanding as to how you can incorporate them in your work. The other thing is common sense which is something that you pick up on the job. 

What’s a typical day like?

There are two types of typical days I have when I am in office and when I’m not in the office. So when I am in the office, I have a meeting in the morning with my team. So I always ask them about their task list, like what are the tasks that they have completed, what is it that they have on hand and what are they planning for the day, and most importantly, where is it that they are stuck and if they need my help. After that, I always make it a point to write down my own tasks and add them to my calendar within the constraints of pre-scheduled meetings. I sit back in the evening or in the night or over the weekend to ensure that the task is completed. One advice I would always share with everybody is, put in that extra effort and deliver a good quality output. 

When I am not in office, my day starts a little earlier in the morning when I speak to my senior team members and ask them about any constraints or challenges that they’re facing. When I’m at the site, I just sit with the client and I outline what our objectives are for the day and we go about our work onsite. Towards the end of the day, I always sit back and discuss if there is anything which is pending or something which needs more clarification. So this ensures that the client as well as the client’s team is completely satisfied. 

What do you love about your job?

The best part about my job is I get to travel a lot. So I get a chance to go to different countries because of my work in different cities, different geographies. I get to experience different languages, cultures. When you try solving a different problem every day, it is something that definitely keeps you motivated. For example, the challenge in a wastewater treatment plant for a food and beverage plant would be very different as compared to a wastewater treatment plant for an API (Active Pharma Ingredients ) manufacturer in the Pharma Domain. Similarly, dealing with a plant in the northeast in India would have very different geographical complexities to how we deal with the wastewater plant down south in India. But this variety is what is what is something that I really enjoy and it is something that definitely keeps me going

Tell us about the benefit of your work to society?

Econ pollution control consultancy is a professional wastewater consultancy through which we address wastewater problems. The problem of negative water abstract is a problem which will, in future, affect each and every country across the globe. What I mean by negative water abstract is, we are using more water than what we are able to recycle, which is putting tremendous strain on our water resources. At Econ, what we do is through our designs, we not only meet compliance standards of wastewater treatment at the outlet but also recycle the water. We also treat the water in such a way that it can be recycled and reused for different applications such as horticulture or gardening, toilet flush makeup, cooling towers, air conditioning, makeup, boiler makeup etc. So, what we are doing is we are reducing the stress on water resources and are moving towards a positive water balance. Thus, if we start ensuring compliance in all our wastewater treatment plants and pushing every plant towards a positive water balance, this will help in solving a greater water crisis problem which will be very beneficial for the future generations.

Memorable work?

As mentioned earlier, we work with multiple project consultants wherein the project is done by a particular consultancy and we handle only the wastewater part of the work. So, during one such experience, one of the companies we were working with had a particular inquiry from a multinational corporation, the MNC client was headquartered in the US and had a branch office in Singapore. They were interested in setting up a pharmaceutical treatment facility in India, and the most important part of this pharmaceutical industry as per them was the wastewater treatment plant. They were extremely clear that the wastewater consultant to be working on the project had to be interviewed by their panel of wastewater treatment experts. So an entire delegation of experts both from the US and Singapore, flew down to Mumbai to have a discussion or have a discussion with the entire team. After the first round of discussion, the particular wastewater expert from the team requested another one-on-one interview with me. We had a second round of interviews again in Mumbai. We had a chance to discuss wastewater treatment, and our plans for the design and engineering/project cycle for the next three to four months. I was pretty nervous, since I was interviewed by a person who was so knowledgeable and so much senior to me. However, I would say we were lucky to get the project. After winning the project, they had a huge kickoff meeting, in which they addressed all the members of the team. The same gentleman, while making his welcome address, concluded his speech by stating the reasons the project was awarded to this particular consortium. And when he made his speech, he listed out the most important reason being my knowledge of wastewater treatment (at the age of 27). It was a very, very touching moment for me, and I was humbled, although I have had a chance to work on many bigger and complex projects. But this is one incident or one memory which will always stay close to my heart.

Your advice to students?

My only advice to young students and my young friends would be to follow your dream, there is no dream which is impossible to achieve. Though dreams are nice to have, there has to be a clear path on how we convert it into a reality. My advice here would be to break down the goal into smaller sub goals or smaller sub parts. And now with the internet, look up for information with regards to those sub-parts, or speak to people who can help you reach those sub parts. The more you speak to people and the more information you absorb like a sponge, the clearer your goal. And once you’ve done sufficient research and once you have a clear idea as to what your goal is, all you need to do is work hard and follow your dreams. And once you work hard, there is no dream which is impossible to achieve. So all the best

Future Plans?

In terms of future plans, I have short term plans and a long term plan. I would say the short term plan would be that I would want to work on wastewater treatment projects along with zero liquid discharge for different categories or different verticals, across different geographies. It could mean many different countries across the globe. I also want to increase our outreach with risk with respect to audits, whether it could be in the form of assessments or providing operational maintenance advisory, wherein we could advise how to run the operation, how to operate the plant and achieve better results. I would also like to focus on the capability development wherein we would like to develop the capability of the people who are operating the plant or who are managing the plant at different levels. Although these are short term goals, my long term goal would be to make our company Econ pollution control consultants, one of the most well known and reputed wastewater engineering companies throughout the world, and also help solve this water crisis across the globe to a great extent