Amazing Veena Sahajwalla!

Veena Sahajwalla (2nd from left) ”“ winner of India’s highest award for diaspora ”“ the Pravasi Bhartiya Samman. Seen here with daughters Mira and Tara and husband Rama Mahapatra

By Neena Badhwar

I was in Mumbai when I read about Veena Sahajwalla that she had been honoured by the President of India with Pravasi  Bharitya Divas Samman ”“ a highest honour given to a person living overseas. Immediately the thought was ”˜how nice! our own Sydney’s well known scientist’ who we sometimes see on the judging  panel  on ABC’s ”˜The New Inventors’ conducted byJames O’Loghlin.  

Now the spotlight is on Australia and Australian diaspora thanks to Professor Veena Sahajwalla, I thought. Due to certain personal commitments and then trying to chase Veena was not as easy as I thought it to be. Well I caught her at the Gandhi Jayanthi ”“ Martyr’s Day at Sydney University. Veena was busy having been invited to read what Pandit Nehru had said at the time of Gandhi’s death in 1948  as the whole nation mourned a great loss.

Veena Sahajwalla ”“ is yes ”˜Sahaj’ such an easy person to be with, no airs of a Pravasi Bhartiya Samman awardee ”“ she simply handed me her card and surprisingly asked me how Vijay my husband is. And here I was thinking how I will approach this person ”“ Veena made it so easy for me to connect to her. An interview? I asked ”¦no problem just call me, said she.

Wel l it became difficult for me after that. It took some calls here and there, an email, talked to her secretary and left message. Veena is so busy and no wonder she is tizzying all over the place like a top ”“ ”˜lattoo’ they say in India which little children play with a string and the wooden toy just goes round and round. It moves in fast circling as kids are mesmerized by it.

Veena is like that ”“ she has this charge around her which makes her go round and round ”“ she’s here, there and everywhere. Finally we are able to catch each other on phone ”“ such an easy, beautiful person Veena is though she has achieved great things ”“ in lab I mean, Veena is as-a-matter-of-factly. Simple, vibrant ”“ her voice has that upswing to it ”“ sounds as if she has been brought to this world for a purpose. A purpose to change the world that is.

Armed with a Material Science doctorate from US Veena came to Australia and has been able to bring about a change ”“ a change for the better for this world ”“ in the name of environment which is an issue for all of us who live and love this planet. And we are worried.

Says Veena, “The basic idea of my research was simple and logical ”“ to find a way to utilize resources like the waste which is normally discarded. Nobody gives a thought to it yet it can also be a resource as they say ”“ ”˜One man’s waste is a treasure for the other’ – as she laughs on the other end of the phone.

“So I implemented a simple science to it to made this idea practical something that works. As a society we are all consumerists and waste seems to be growing.”

Says Veena, “Solutions must go hand in hand. Waste creates problems but I was looking for answers in that waste. Only it had to be practical and possible with a proper scientific data so that it becomes a practical reality.”

“We worked in the lab using plastic and tyre waste and partially replacing it with coal in the furnace to achieve a practical outcome of making steel  through a process that was more efficient hence saving costs by saving energy. It was an answer to my original curiosity why waste the waste ”“ why not use it effectively.”

When I tell Veena about the incident a couple of decades ago of a fire lit in the big stockpile of used tyres in America or Canada somewhere which did not go off for months causing a huge pall of smoke for months, says she, “See what I mean how toxic these things can be. We don’t want to be rubbishing our planet.”

Veena approached Steel companies in Asutralia and showed them what I had achieved ”“ her idea made sense. “We had sound results from the lab and it took some convincing,” Said Veena.

Talking of family and home, “At home I do not let anything go waste. My daughters say ”˜Why’ still I insist that they must eat all the food on the plate and not waste it.”

Veena is a mother of twins Mira and Tara in year eleven they are ”“ but they are quite independent thinking free spirits. “When they talk of Commerce and Law I only listen to them with curiosity as I know nothing about those subjects.”

Says Veena, “They should do what they like and feel the passion for. Then only they will do things with heart. They must learn from their own experience and their own mistakes”¦”

And how was it to bring them up while doing what Veena has been doing in her career,  that is studying a Ph.D. and then working long hours, says she, “Oh you just learn as you go. When they were little I gave them time by picking them up from school and then I brought them to my office”¦they played with my things while I tried to finish work. Children adapt so well. They knew I was there. I didn’t need to be watching over them, so to speak. “

So how was at IIT when she did her engineering degree at Kanpur, “It was difficult in the sense that to be only girl in the whole group. Once the majority takes over and then me a minority ”“ a girl ”“ sometimes no one wanted to pair with me for lab experiments. Yet it was challenging. There were benefit s too of being a girl,” she says with a giggle.

Veena did her Masters in Engineering  in Canada where she met her engineer husband Rama Mahapatra. “I am the only Sahajwalla in the family as my daughters have taken his name. But Rama supports me in my pursuits and lets me be my free spirit. We all are like that in our family. I couldn’t have done what I have done without his support. My husband, my daughters they all give me confidence and the freedom. They are an absolute rock.” says Veena.

And what about the PBD award, she quips, “Oh it was a proud moment ”“ to be shaking hands with the Prime Minister one day and President of India the next. No I did not have my family with me as we had just come back from India. My parent from Mumbai came and my mum she is so spunky with the technology and before I realized she had already put me on the facebook for all to see around the world,” laughs Veena.

Veena Sahajwalla is a Sindhi and her husband hails from Orissa and they love spicy food but still she reminisces the ”˜Sindhi Kadi’ ”“ says Veena, “I’d love a good Sindhi Kadi ”¦reminds me of my childhood”¦ or may be it is all in the head.” Surely Sindhi Kadi is easier than what Professor Sahajwalla cooks in her furnace in the lab ”“ a process of making steel that uses tyres and plastics waste as paartial fuel along with coal to form a slug around the hot boiling steel to increase efficiency and a better product result than what is normally done. Amazing really!

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