In the world of engineering and disaster prevention, few names resonate as profoundly as Dr. Debi Prasanna Kanungo. With a career spanning over three decades, Dr. Kanungo has left an indelible mark on the field of engineering geology and landslide disaster mitigation. His recent triumph in safely demolishing the Supertech twin towers in Noida and tackling the Joshimath Land Subsidence has earned him widespread recognition and accolades.
In an exclusive interview with Interview Times, we sat down with Dr. Kanungo to delve into the inspiring journey that shaped him into the trailblazing scientist he is today. The story unfolds as we explore the challenges he faced, the innovation he brought to the table, and the unwavering support of his family throughout his illustrious career.
A Humble Beginning
Born and raised in Odisha, Dr. Kanungo’s fascination with the earth’s geology began at an early age. His innate curiosity drove him to pursue a Master’s and PhD in Engineering Geology from the prestigious IIT Roorkee, laying the foundation for a remarkable career. His deep-rooted connection with the Indian Himalayas ignited his passion for landslide disaster mitigation.
Speaking about choosing this unconventional career path, he shared, “I did my M. Tech. in Applied Geology with specialization in Engineering Geology from the University of Roorkee (now IIT Roorkee) during 1987-1990 when I got exposure to Uttarakhand Himalayan terrain for fieldwork. Then, I could witness some natural disasters like landslides, earthquakes, flash floods, etc. and the devastations in the hill habitat thereby. This social cause made me think to choose the career path of disaster prevention and mitigation to uplift the living conditions of common people of hills.”
Dr Kanungo’s work often took him to treacherous terrains in the Indian Himalayas, where he had to navigate through rugged landscapes to understand the intricacies of landslides. Facing the formidable forces of nature, he developed a deep sense of respect for the environment and a determination to find solutions to mitigate the impact of natural disasters.
He has been actively involved in many interesting and risky events. From trekking across the rugged Himalayan landscapes to understanding the landsliding process to many life-saving, daunting events, he has done it all. “In my initial career way back in 1994, I still remember the day I was trekking uphill across the famous furious Kaliasaur landslide. While coming downhill in the late afternoon, somehow I got imbalanced midway through the landslide and luckily controlled myself and sat down on the hill slope. I couldn’t gather the courage to stand up and walk down to the road level. It was about to be dark towards the evening and then I decided to just sit and slide down to the road level. Fortunately, apart from a few scratches on my both hands and legs, I could safely land at the road level. However, that was a scary day of my life and I came back strongly and trekked across the mighty Himalayan terrain to date,” he shared.
He shared another interesting and satisfying event that was way back on 23rd September 2003- the Varunavat Parvat landslide in Uttarkashi township of Uttarakhand. He narrated, “As a part of the Central team, we could identify the prevailing risk of breaching of accumulated huge debris on the network of broken trees just above a residential colony at the base of that hill slope. Immediately, with the help of local administration we could evacuate those people to a safer place and a few hours later the whole debris mass came down and damaged the residential colony. This was an incredible and fulfilling moment of saving many lives.”
The Supertech Twin Tower Demolition
The project that brought him to the forefront was the controlled demolition of the Supertech Twin Towers in Noida. The immense significance of this project lies in addressing serious building code violations while ensuring the safety of the surrounding area. Dr. Kanungo’s leadership, along with a team of experts from CBRI, orchestrated a meticulous plan that involved advanced instrumentation, data collection, and innovative techniques to control dust and debris. The successful execution of the project showcased his exceptional engineering expertise and commitment to safety.
On gaining immense recognition from national media, he warmly admitted, “It’s a feeling of satisfaction. It’s a satisfaction of perfect execution of safe demolition including the safety of surrounding structures and people and the safety of environment. Above all, it’s a satisfaction towards withstanding the faith and confidence of our people in Indian science, engineering and technology. The recognition is for my team, for my Institute CSIR-CBRI and recognition of my Nation. As CSIR-CBRI, we have expertise in building construction and with this, we showcased our expertise in safe demolition too.”
The Joshimath Land Subsidence
In the aftermath of a tragic land subsidence incident in Joshimath, Dr. Kanungo was once again called upon to lend his expertise. He led the safe demolition of hotels and residential buildings in the affected area, employing innovative strategies and local resources. His contributions extended to post-disaster assessments and risk reduction measures, highlighting his commitment to not just demolition but also recovery and rehabilitation.
Speaking about the project, he shared, “This was a challenging task to safeguard the lives and infrastructures surrounding the distressed buildings posing risk to them. The safe demolition of hotels and other residential houses was the need of emergency and safely executed through dismantling using available local tools and resources in the worst ground and climatic conditions. Post-disaster need assessment was an immediate need to assess the prevailing risk on the ground, rehabilitation of people to safer locations and to assess the short-term and long-term disaster risk reduction measures. Even the huge loose boulders hanging on the Joshimath hill slopes were posing a risk to downhill habitats and were arrested onto the ground with anchoring support of steel pipes. Still, we have to go a long way to stabilize the Joshimath land subsidence area and many such hill townships in the country vulnerable to such disasters.”
A Hero’s Welcome
Dr. Kanungo’s efforts did not go unnoticed, as he received the prestigious A.S. Arya Disaster Prevention Award from IIT Roorkee. This recognition not only celebrated his professional achievements but also inspired young minds to pursue careers in disaster prevention and safety engineering.
“Though I have achieved many, the personal awards in research endeavour hardly matter to me. I put the rewards in terms of love, faith and confidence of our own people above all personal awards. I dedicate myself and my team to the service of our society in terms of disaster prevention, mitigation, resiliency and risk reduction,” he added.
A Family’s Pillar of Support
Behind every great person is a supportive family, and Dr. Kanungo’s journey was no different. He shared the challenges of managing work in hazardous conditions while balancing family responsibilities. Despite the risks involved, his family stood beside him, understanding the importance of his mission to protect lives and property from natural disasters.
“Though my family is always worried and concerned about my involvement in such challenging tasks, they are my pillars of strength and support in every circumstance. Their concern, prayers and blessings drive me forward in achieving the goals of societal relevance,” he said.
The Future Ahead
As he looks ahead, Dr. Kanungo envisions a world where advanced technology and scientific expertise combine to create resilient infrastructures. His work on landslide early warning systems and drone-based monitoring continues to push the boundaries of innovation. His ultimate goal remains to safeguard lives and property from the wrath of natural disasters.
Sharing insight on his future plans, he said, “I have a daunting task ahead to make our hill community resilient towards such extreme events and natural disasters in terms of their resilient infrastructures, safety towards their lives and livelihoods. This is only possible with active participation of the people and the community being affected by such disasters. We have to look for the vulnerability and risk assessment of hill townships across the country to provide indigenous cost-effective sustainable technological solutions to decrease the intensity of such disasters, to predict such disasters and simultaneously increase the resiliency of our built habitat through repair, retrofitting and strengthening techniques. The techno-legal regime needs to be seriously looked into in terms of framing and adopting region-specific building bylaws and regulations with the active involvement of the local community. Ground-based and space-based landslide early warning systems are ultimate pre-requisites for real-time monitoring and early warning to safeguard the lives of common people living in hill towns/villages and we are in the advanced stages of such innovations. Ground-based landslide early warning system has already been developed under the mission Atmanirbhar Bharat.”
Dr. Debi Prasanna Kanungo’s journey exemplifies the transformative power of science and engineering in safeguarding human lives and the environment. His dedication to disaster prevention and mitigation has set a shining example for the scientific community and beyond. As we bid farewell to this extraordinary scientist, we are left inspired by his unwavering commitment to creating a safer world for generations to come.
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