The field of rock & geotechnical engineering, although at its infancy in India when compared to the west, has tremendous potential in driving India’s infrastructural transformation !

Amit Gautam, our next pathbreaker, Rock Engineer at WAPCOS Ltd., works on design of structures for heavy infrastructure projects like hydro-power plants, dams, pumped storages, nuclear repositories, defense projects, and tunnels for metros, railways & highways.

Amit talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his work which involves numerical modelling, a combination of a large number of mathematical equations that run on computers to find an approximate solution to the underlying physical problem.

For students, choices are always “yours”. If you have done your homework well, i.e., if you know ‘what you want’ or ‘what you lack’, then you will always land in the right place, no matter what the circumstances are!

Amit, Your background?

I was born in a region where numerous industries existed and industrialization was under way, a place called Vindhyanagar, near the UP-MP border. My father owned a small construction firm then, and my mother was a house maker. Most part of my childhood was spent in Renukoot, which happened to be yet another industrial area in UP before we as a family finally settled in Lucknow. I think because my father worked in the construction sector and the areas where I initially grew up and lived, had a lot to do with my future inclinations, which happened to be towards civil engineering. We would visit a few of our family friends in Vindhyanagar a couple of times in a year after being relocated to Renukoot. That 80 Km distance would have been a pure treat for a civil engineering enthusiast, with a large dam, large reservoir, tunnels, a coal mine, a thermal power station, tedious mountainous roads and what not! Often, I would accompany my dad to these construction sites. I don’t know why, but I had always been intrigued by construction works/sites. 

As a child, what always excited me was the underground structures like parking, tunnels, culverts, the mining works, bunkers (shown in movies) and even the winding hilly roads that existed where I was raised. Though, like most of the Indian teenagers, my first wish was to become a cricketer (Haha!). I had always been interested in cricket and spent a lot of time playing cricket whether it was on our residential colony roads, public parks, school or college grounds. I still play cricket on the weekends and have been fortunate to represent my high school and college. It would have been a difficult question to answer, if I was given to choose between cricket and rock engineering, then.

The time we relocated to Lucknow, I was in 9th grade. I decided to go for engineering, in particular, civil engineering, but apparently, the decision was made way earlier in my childhood when I guess I had not realized it. Eventually, I joined Civil engineering and got placed in one of the decent companies that visited our college. Although I was never a bright student, I have always been a sincere one. Finally, during the final year project, I got a chance to explore what I always would have aspired to learn about i.e., the underground world (in Civil engineering, it is commonly known as rock engineering). I had to convince my HOD to go for a project which was not on the list. As a result, I worked on a subway tunnel connecting two malls and a metro station in Noida, UP. It was at this very time when I met a number of authorities and professors with expertise in this area which assisted my decision to pursue this field for my master’s. In fact, when the Delhi metro was being built, I visited numerous work sites before I could finish my degree.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I am a Civil engineer and I have a post-graduate degree in Rock Engineering and Underground Structures from IIT Delhi. I work for WAPCOS, which is a Public Sector Unit under the aegis of the Ministry of Jal Shakti in their design wing. While working for various national and international projects based on Himalayan geology, I was primed with numerous rock/ geotechnical engineering challenges which pushed me to hustle more. Currently, I am also pursuing my part time PhD in which I am researching and trying to find a solution to the issue of building gravity structures like dams on weak rock foundations. 

The term rock engineering refers to the process of engineering with rock, especially creating structures on or in rock masses, such as slopes alongside roads and railways, dam foundations, shafts, tunnels, caverns, mines, and petroleum wellbores.

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

In search for answers to my childhood questions & thrills, as to how a man with an average height of 5.8 feet could build structures that are 100 times his height, both over and under the ground, I became a Civil Engineer. Well, I think I was destined to be one. The only question left was to decide which sub stream I would be opting for. 

Definitely, I can say my father has been the key influencer of my life, he has been a constant inspiration and my role model. I believe those childhood recollections of traveling 80 Kms with my family between Renukoot and Vindhyanagar, along with the initial challenges in my professional career were major factors in my decision to choose a career in rock engineering. 

While doing my B.Tech project, I met a few professionals and professors; during that phase, I realized there is a need for more professionals with rock engineering backgrounds, concerning the massive amount of work that is primed to come to India. I realized that the gap between demand and supply would arise soon. The Delhi metro project was about to complete, and knowing the public transportation condition of our country, at least all the state capitals would be developing their metros. Delhi itself needed multiple lines to cover the entire area. With my heart already inclined toward rock engineering, I took a calculated risk by choosing rock engineering as a career; backward integration was really easy for me. Today, I see the market is full of opportunities, with the Indian Government’s plan to switch to renewable energy sources- hydro and pumped storage projects have gained demand. We are planning our roads and railways via challenging terrains, all thanks to the advancements in know-how and technologies of rock engineering in India. We are on a long way, and it will only improve from here on.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I think I can relate to the quote by Samuel Beckett that “For me there have always been two fools, among others, one asking nothing better than to stay where he is and the other imagining that life might be slightly less horrible a little further on”. I have always tried to do “that” a little extra than required. 

By my second year of college, I had clarity to some extent as to what exactly I desired. My plan was to get a campus placement and get some work experience before going for the masters. Civil Engineering is a field where one’s work experience matters a lot. You cannot be a good designer if you don’t understand the ground problems of the site engineers and the workers. I did my undergrad’s internship in Delhi Metro, got a campus placement in Lanco Infratech limited, where I was working in “tall structures” teams responsible for design and building chimneys and natural draft cooling towers for their thermal stations. I worked exactly for a year in Lanco. Simultaneously, I qualified the GATE entrance exam and joined IIT Delhi for my Masters in Rock Engineering & Underground Structures. After finishing my studies, I once more met the GATE requirements to join WAPCOS, my current organization.

In WAPCOS, which is a Government of India Enterprise, under the Ministry of Jal Shakti, I work on various national and international, hydro-electric and pumped storage projects. My role here is of a designer, where I have expertise in numerical modelling and geotechnical design inputs for tunnels, rock/ soil slopes and underground works. My present posting is in the Central Water Commission, an apex central Government agency, where I am working on an inter-governmental project. 

How did you get your first break?

My first break was through a campus placement. Then for my second break, I qualified GATE, a written exam, a GD round and an interview.

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

One of the toughest times in my career so far has been to prepare for GATE while I was working at site. Site jobs are tiring, and one hardly gets any time, sometimes you have to work on Sundays as well. When the exam was approaching, I used to work for 24 hour shifts in a row, so that I could get the entire next day for preparation. Qualifying GATE and getting into the IIT was such a wonderful feeling.

Solving technical problems which have never been tackled worldwide before, can really give you countless disturbing nights. I dealt with such a problem in one of my classified projects which we did for another associate country (cannot name). I would say my research background helped me address that problem and it took us almost a year to address the same. After that, I had changed as a person & a designer, and my confidence had skyrocketed. I believe it is very important to make it count, if you are getting a challenging project, early on in your career.

Now, I guess, I secretly get excited by new challenges when it concerns rock engineering. When I know I have something intriguing on my desk, I become as enthusiastic as a child going to the playground. What bores me is the monotonous task of everyday life. When you are working in a field which is nascent, I feel it is very important to have rational opinions. I always tried to work towards developing my perspective to be like that.

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

As said earlier, I am currently working in WAPCOS Ltd., which is a public sector unit under the aegis of ministry of Jal Shakti in the design and engineering vertical. As a rock engineer, my application areas are dams, caverns, tunnels, rock foundations and rock slopes. These all are heavy infrastructure projects like- hydro power plants, pumped storages, nuclear repositories, defense projects, tunnels for- metros, railways & highways, etc. As a design engineer, my work is to design these structures and help the clients to implement it successfully for commissioning. I try to address these problems via numerical modelling, which is a combination of a large number of mathematical equations that depend upon the computers to find an approximate solution to the underlying physical problem. 

What skills are needed for job? How did you acquire the skills?

Basic civil engineering and rock engineering knowledge is a must. These days Numerical Modelling is largely used in geotechnical engineering to understand the response of infrastructures in civil and mining engineering. Many commercialized numerical codes are available to handle different geotechnical problems.

In regard to this, I try to keep myself updated, and learn new software and techniques at every possible moment. I also try to attend interesting conferences at National and International levels. I feel they are one of the under-recognized sources of knowledge and information.

Rock engineering is a specialized field that one usually does not learn in his/her undergrad. During our times, if I am not mistaken, only IIT Delhi and IISC Bangalore used to offer masters in this field. Now, there are a bunch of reputable colleges and universities offering the same.

What is a typical day like?

Mine is a traditional desk job with occasional site visits, which are crucial to understanding the problem that I am hoping to resolve. A typical day starts at around 9:30 am and concludes around 6:30 pm. Often, it breaches my evening time and subsequently, I reach home late. I am fond of new age technologies to solve problems along with the conventional methods. 

As a blanket statement, honestly, it won’t be ironical to say that the field of rock & geotechnical engineering is at its infancy in India when compared to the west. We are now integrating advanced software in our daily calculations and problems which are of specialized nature. These modern age software  are very helpful in simplifying visualization for a difficult problem. You must know why the job of a Rock/ Geotechnical engineer is challenging? It is because we cannot see what is beneath the ground, we use numerous tools and techniques to interpret the conditions and integrate them in our design. I enjoy this type of work which involves explorations and interpretation. It is quite gratifying to watch your creations taking shape, coming alive and behaving in the way you anticipated.

How does your work benefit society? 

I am working in the fields of clean energy and rapid transit systems, where my work involves building hydropower & pumped storage projects and tunnels for metros, railways and highways. In developing hydroelectric projects, we provide food, water and energy to the society and also secure them for the future by building dams and reservoirs. This is done not only for India, but for our neighboring and other associated developing countries as well.

In addition, I am actively involved with the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), where I represent India in the prestigious ICOLD Board of Young professionals forum, among 104 ICOLD countries. Thankfully, I am the first Indian, young professional to do so. The board has 6 members (India, France, Sweden, Russia, Uganda, Italy) and one chair (Slovenia). At ICOLD, we have a global vision & mission of building safe dams and keeping our existing dams healthy. I am also Chair of the Indian National Committee of large dams, Young professional forum (INCOLD YPF) which provides all the young professionals a platform to interact with National & International professionals and learn from each other’s experiences.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

In my 9 years of experience, one of the major achievements has been the commissioning of a 91.0 m high dam, for our neighboring country, where I played an important role in its design and construction. Dams are simple looking structures, but are actually very complex and take a long time to complete. Humongous complicacies always lurk around; be it the foundation, seepage, or its seismic evaluation. In fact, the risk evaluation and safety checks standards are very high for any dam, they are designed to last for 100 years at least. You would hardly meet professionals who have completed one full dam project from concept to commissioning. I am working on a few more projects, which hopefully will come up soon. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Honestly, I don’t think I am qualified enough to advise anyone, so please take it with a pinch of salt. 

I have believed that choices are always “yours”. If you have done your homework well, i.e., if you know ‘what you want’ or ‘what you lack’, then you will always land in the right place, no matter what the circumstances are. Whatever you do, wherever you are, there would always be more than one option to pick from and trust me you would have no idea what to do and which way to go, which is absolutely normal. Just be confident in what you choose to do, and once you have passed that phase, you will realize that you have run your race well. The power of the subconscious mind is such that, since you have always trained yourself in a particular manner, you would be bound to choose what is best for you. 

“Life has to be lived forward but understood backward.”

We are all designed in a way to ‘live’ not merely ‘survive’ and at the end of the day, you are also going to live the life you have chosen, at its fullest. Only you can decide whether your struggle for survival will be worthwhile. So, take action and be on it.

Future Plans?

My near-term goal is to successfully complete my PhD and gracefully utilize the skills and techniques I have learnt to tackle challenges. I hope I continue to work on some interesting projects throughout my career. And it goes without saying that I want to continue to play cricket and stay healthy. That’s the plan.