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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Dinesh Mohan: a visionary committed to real change

He leaves behind a team of inspired researchers both in India and abroad to carry forward the sustainable transport and liveable cities movement.

Written by Geetam Tiwari |
Updated: May 25, 2021 9:03:36 am
Dinesh Mohan. (Twitter/etiennekrug)

Professor Dinesh Mohan was often fondly addressed as DM by his colleagues and students at IIT Delhi. “DM, do you have a few minutes for a discussion on this project?” His prompt response was “sure”. A few minutes often would stretch into hours. The discussions were not just about data and theories, but anecdotes of Bill Haddon at the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) in Washington DC in the 1970s, to national politics and geopolitical discussions. The president of IIHS was shocked when DM resigned from the institute, declined a green card and returned to India to pursue his career.

My first interaction with DM was in January 1990 after I joined IIT, Delhi. He was completing a research project on agricultural injury and was busy making presentations at various national and international conferences. (A few years later, this work received the Haddon Memorial Award for best paper in safety research at the World Injury Conference in Australia.) He had already been on the national committee on road safety and had been working with the Delhi traffic police and Delhi Transport Corporation addressing safety concerns.

His insistence on spending time to understand the primary data and detailed observations at site visits continued with every fresh batch of students and researchers joining our team. DM often said that while scientific theories are universal, technology always has a social imprint, and, therefore, we must spend time understanding our own problems. Since “buses impacting pedestrians is our problem, we have to find our own solutions”. Scientific methods to promote an alternate bus front design, which is safer for pedestrians, safe roads for pedestrians and bicyclists, safe three-wheelers, must become our research priority. He inspired original research in testing helmets at IIT Delhi. Mechanical engineering colleagues worked on burn injuries and constructed an indigenous metal dummy to test the burn properties of different textiles.

In 1995, colleagues from mechanical engineering, applied mechanics, and civil engineering came together and worked on different chapters of the report “Delhi on the move 2005” — a road map for the Delhi transport system to acquire clean and safe transport for all in a decade. DM was the lead author and the inspiration for chapters on alternate fuel and technologies, pedestrian-friendly cities, platooning of buses, optimised taxi systems (a precursor of Uber), planning for non-motorised transport and applicability of metro systems in less motorised countries. The report was submitted to the Central Pollution Control Board and the transport department of Delhi government.

DM was a firm believer in working with the politicians to achieve real change. As researchers and academicians, we could get a job anywhere in the world, but a politician must always work for national interest because he/she cannot fight an election in any other country, he would say. We cannot accept “corruption” and “political interference” as an excuse for poor designs and poor infrastructure planning. We, as responsible academicians, must bring important road safety, transport issues into the public domain, and develop a consensus for implementing the right policies. This democratic process may be slow but is likely to be more permanent. Road safety and sustainable transport research requires stepping out of the classrooms and laboratories and interacting with the media, the bureaucracy and the politicians. The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system experiment in Delhi was an outcome of this vision. After the negative press coverage in 2008 and dismantling of the system in 2016, his conviction and strong support for a bus-based transport system did not change. We all agreed that the vision of sustainable transport and giving democratic rights to people in buses, people on bicycles and pedestrians was 20 years ahead of its time.

We must build a critical mass of young and researchers who can challenge the established norms, that is the only way to move the sustainable transport agenda forward. DM often started his technical presentations with a quote by M K Gandhi: “Action without knowledge is useless and knowledge without action is futile”.

Researchers at TRIPP (Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Program) fondly remember his love for street food and dance music. No international conference banquet was complete without his animated discussions with international colleagues. He leaves behind a team of inspired researchers both here and abroad to carry forward the sustainable transport and liveable cities movement forward.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 25, 2021 under the title ‘Champion of the liveable city’. The writer is professor, TRIPP/CE Department, IIT Delhi

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