Dheeraj Ahuja, a 33-year-old PhD scholar from UICET, Panjab University, received an award from the university recently after his research paper was published in an international journal. Afflicted with polio in both legs, he shares with Oindrila Mukherjee his journey so far
You have been awarded by Panjab University for your research work and have submitted your PhD thesis. Only viva voce remains. Being a differently abled student, the journey has been more about resilience and battling the odds. Is the sense of accomplishment different for you than your peers?
Accomplishing this was never easy and not really different from other researchers. I have always strived to push my limits. It was tough and time- consuming for me due to my disability, but I have been able to succeed through constant motivation and support from my parents, mentor and friends. Soon, I will be finishing my PhD and I would like to say my work is no less than those who are physically sound. My confidence and zeal have enabled me to take up challenges.
Tell us a little about your research.
The title of the paper for which I got an award is ‘Fractionation and physicochemical characterization of lignin from waste jute bags: Effect of process parameters on yield and thermal degradation’. It has been published in the International Journal of Biological Macromolecules. This work was carried out under the supervision of Prof Anupama Sharma. We extracted lignin from waste jute bags using soda cooking followed by acid precipitation. The effect of the process parameters on yield and purity were also studied. The lignin obtained was 94 per cent pure and yield was 58 per cent. Lignin is the second most abundant biopolymer obtained for biomass and has various industrial applications. It can be used as adhesive or dispersant. It can also be used as absorbent for waste water treatment.
What are the personal and professional challenges you faced while completing your studies?
It was not a personal challenge for me as my parents and family have always supported me in everything that I have wanted to do. But some issues such as staying in a hostel that was inaccessible was tough. One of the biggest challenges I faced in the professional sphere was that people did not accept me as their equal and never treated me as a part of the system. But my supervisor, Prof Anupama Sharma, showed full faith in me and gave me the opportunity to do a PhD under her guidance. Also, she always gave me an equal opportunity to accomplish my research and never showed any pity or symphathy. In fact, she enabled me to perform my duties. Another major problem I faced was that my laboratory was on the first floor and there was no lift or ramp to access it. We did not even have a lab assistant so I spent more time in the lab for completing the assignments. Other challenges that I have faced are the non-inclusive environment at all levels of education.
You’ve been an advocate for the rights of differently abled students on the Panjab University campus and were instrumental in the establishing the equal opportunity cell for PWD students of which you are a student executive member. Tell us a little about your journey on the PU campus in this sphere.
When I joined PU in 2008 in UICET, the class I was assigned to us was on the second floor and it was tiring for me to reach the class. I then requested the class to be shifted on the ground floor. But when I joined PhD, my lab was on the first floor and could not be shifted to the ground floor. I met some visually impaired students in the hostel and they also told me they were facing the same issue in their respective departments. That day, I decided to do something in this regard and started researching on the Internet. From there, I came to know that every university should have an equal opportunity cell as per UGC guidelines and prepared a memorandum and gave it to the authorities. But that was all in vain. Then one day, Rimpi, who is another PhD scholar researching on disability, approached me, and we decided to form the cell. A law student, Jitender, and political science student, Shubam, also joined us. We started by submitting another memorandum to the DSW for establishing the EOC in 2016 and after two years, we were able to convince the authorities to establish it formally. So, it was teamwork.
What needs to be done on the Panjab University campus to make it more accessible to PWD students and for making education inclusive?
This university is 90 per cent non-friendly for the disabled. A lot of work needs to be done on the campus for making it accessible to PWD students. Accessible departments, classrooms, laboratories, disabled-friendly hostels and barrier-free environment are among those requirements. Also, the university should provide audio recording rooms, scribes and readers to the blind students along with accessible computer and laptops with screen reading software, sports and other cultural activities for the disabled. Another major issue is sensitisation of university employees so that they do not look at us with sympathy, but treat us as equals.
Why are we, as a country, still averse to making spaces more accessible to the differently abled? Governments have come and gone, but the issues remain the same. Are scholarships the only solution to the problem?
As a country, we are still not able to make it accessible due to attitude of the government. Another thing is that we live in a country where we don’t have enough to feed the poor. Since we make up just 3 to 4 per cent of the population, we are not a priority. I think scholarships and fee concession is not the solution to our problems. Instead, we should be treated as equals; we are not inferior to non-disabled persons and can be equally efficient if given an equal opportunity.
Where do you see yourself in the future and what are your plans now? What message would you like to give your fellow students and scholars?
My future plan is to make an anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and sweat-absorbing material for calipers/limbs used by orthopaedically-disabled and other devices that could be of use to person with disabilities. Along with my career, I shall also be working to change the perception and presumption of people about the differently abled and make PWD students aware of their rights. I want to say that in the modern era, we should not assume disability as a negative term. We can call it a diversity of our society. I’m a person, then comes my disability. So as an informed citizen of the society, I always strive to achieve excellence in life. For me, disability is not a barrier but it motivates me to do better. I urge parents of the disabled to provide them opportunities in education or in other fields so that they can live a fulfilling life and give back to society. We need empathy, not sympathy.