After a 64-year commitment to water conservation and waste management that will continue into the future, Professor Emeritus Prakasam Tata (pronounced Tha-tha), a resident of Chicagoland, has been awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor that recognizes the contributions and good works of immigrants.
Tata, a vigorous 83 years old originally from Andhra Pradesh, can regale you with fascinating stories about how he developed his passion for water and waste management, traveled to the most “rural, rural” areas of West Bengal and Maharashtra, became a fluent Bengali speaker loved by locals who named him Prakash Chatterjee embracing him in their community.
He arrived in the United States in 1962, for a Ph.D. at Rutgers, and from there to Cornell, finally landing up in Chicago drawn by the water management practices adopted following the 1887 Lake Michigan pollution disaster that resulted in numerous deaths, he says.
He recalls he was just 19 when he began his Ph.D. at Nagpur University, only to be interrupted by an invitation to apply for a research assistant position at the All India Institute of Hygiene & Public Health in 1951 in what was then called Calcutta.
Professor Frederick Erickson, an American who interviewed Tata at that time, advised him to gain expertise in water and waste management rather than his planned Ph.D. at Nagpur, predicting that it would be the major challenge of the future not just for India but for the world. (The AIIHPH was founded in 1932, the first such institute in all of Southeast Asia).
“I didn’t know anything about it, but I wanted to change the world,” Prof. Tata told Desi Talk in a phone interview. “Lo and behold, I got the job!” he exclaims.
“And when I told my Nagpur mentor, Professor M.C. Nath, he encouraged me saying it was a fantastic opportunity pointing to how people are dying from diseases as a result of water pollution,” Tata recalls.
During his 7 years of working in remote areas in India, Tata lived for long periods of time in a home without electricity or running water, sleeping on the floor, in a village near Singur, West Bengal.
After reaching the U.S. in 1962, and getting his Ph.D. from Rutgers, teaching at Cornell University, Tata got an invitation from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRDGC) to work in its Research and Development Department and another invitation to teach at the Department of Environmental Engineering Illinois Institute of Technology the subjects of Water and Wastewater Treatment, Biochemical Engineering., etc. He coauthored four books and published more than 150 reports and papers related to Environmental Engineering and Science.
In 2002 he retired as the Head of the R & D division and Assistant Director of the R& D Department at MWRDGC, with the intention of doing humanitarian and philanthropic work.
During his telephone interview, Prof. Tata, president of a non-profit named Bharathi Theertha, though an Andhra-ite, breaks into fluent Bengali, speaking like a native at a fast pace, describing his years of dedication with colorful stories about his experiences.
Now on May 10th, he will be accompanied by his wife of more than 60 years, to receive his Medal of Honor in a ceremony on Ellis Island, New York, on March 11, along with the likes of another Indian-American, Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN fame. In a letter from the chairman of Ellis Island Medals of Honor, Nasser J. Kazeminy, says, “… your achievements truly inspire and touch the lives of people worldwide….”
Every year since he retired 16 years ago, Prof. Tata, visits India in a volunteer capacity as an expert on water and waste management. He recently took a delegation of 25 experts from U.S. to India for the International Conference on Water & Waste Management. And since 1974, he has been making annual visits, for both family and work reasons.
He told Desi Talk part of his youthful 83, can be attributed to his daily morning exercise, and his commitment. Professor Tata is the executive director, Center for the Transformation of Waste Technology, in Naperville, Illinois. Among his many engagements, he has organized the World Water Day Celebration to be held March 23, at Naperville.