Due to the timing of two events, I will be on the road for two weeks on a journey that has great meaning for me, personally and professionally. Because so many people have played a role in making this possible, I want to share this journey and some of the circumstances and milestones of my life, personal and professional, that have led to this opportunity. Too many to name, I also want to express my gratitude to those who have contributed to this story. I am traveling alone, but there is a full orchestra and many behind-the-scenes whose great performances truly accompany me. - Sanjay

On Fulbright Study in Russia - Blog from Dr. Sanjay Rai


I have just boarded a flight to St. Petersburg, Russia. I am honored and excited to be participating in the 2019 Fulbright Russia Community College Administrator Seminar (CCAS), but for me, this trip is a very special journey.

My father worked in a steel plant in Bhilai, India, from 1962-1993. He did not have an opportunity to finish high school. After passing grade 10 in a village in India, he moved to the eastern part of the country and worked in a coal mine for a few years before coming to Bhilai, which is in the central part of India. India became independent in 1947 after a long freedom struggle – led by Mahatma Gandhi. This was the first successful non-violent freedom movement against a major world power. The power of similar non-violent civil movements played a crucial role in the ending of apartheid in South Africa and in the civil rights movement in the United States.

When the British came to India, India accounted for 24 percent of the world economy, but when the British left, India’s share of the world economy was only 4 percent. India produced some of the best cotton in the world, and the British took the cotton to textile mills in Manchester, England, and then imported those textiles back to India. So at the dawn of freedom, while the country celebrated being free from British rule and several hundred years of Mogul Rule prior to that, it also faced challenges in all areas. The country was in a very difficult situation and needed rapid development. Among other priorities, infrastructure development was critically necessary. India needed steel. India was rich in natural resources, and the British generally exported raw materials to England and imported goods back, making profit and generating employment in England while India paid and suffered. The steel industry became critical to the development of the region.

The first Indian government, led by Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, decided to grow indigenous industries in several key areas, including steel, to lay the foundation for a strong and independent economy for free India. The areas of the country that had rich iron ore reserves Bhilai, Bokoro, Rourkela, and Durgapur were chosen as sites for steel plants. While the Rourkela and Durgapur steel plants were set up with German and British assistance, Bhilai and Bokoro steel plants were built with Russian collaboration.

Prime Minister Nehru signed a historic agreement during a visit to Magnitka in 1955. The city of Magnitka was the Russian center for steel industries. As part of this agreement, hundreds of Russians came and worked in Bhilai for more than 20 years. The agreement provided an integrated operational model where Indian and Russian workers, including engineers, worked side-by-side to make the collaboration successful.
  A whole new city, Bhilai, was designed and constructed in the middle of nowhere in India. On the map, Central Avenue vertically divided the city into two halves and horizontal avenues, labeled Avenue A, Avenue B, etc., created rectangular blocks comprising Sectors 1-11. For most of my life in Bhilai, we stayed in Sector 6. Russians lived in the Russian sector at the edge of Sector 6, facing Central Avenue. Each sector had a small shopping center, a hospital, an elementary and middle school, and some sectors had higher secondary schools. Most of the houses in all of the sectors were modest and assigned to employees based on their position and seniority. The employee group was generally divided between worker and officer classes; this pretty much determined in which sector one would live, and the type of school one would attend.
Bhilai Steel Plant
My father joined Bhilai Steel Plant after grade 10 and for most of his tenure at the plant, he was in the worker class. In spite of the system, all employees were given opportunities to move up the ladder to earn higher pay and other benefits. The apartments for the Russians were almost exactly the same as our small-town efficiency apartment built for workers. The only difference was that their apartments had a small window air conditioning unit. It was fair, as they came from a very cold environment and temps in Bhilai went up to 47 degrees Celsius (116 degrees Fahrenheit).

My father went through a rigorous training and was posted in the Rail Mill. This part of the plant made rails for Indian Railways. The rail tracks made in Bhilai played a huge role in creating 71,000 miles of rail track in India. Twenty-one million people travel daily on India trains – that is the population of Australia. When I travel on Indian trains, I always think of the contribution of Bhilai and my father in building that rail network.

The new steel plants were described by Prime Minister Nehru as new pilgrimages and temples of modern India, and the city of Bhilai as a model of a secular society. Since Bhilai was built in the middle of nowhere, large numbers of people from other parts of India, of all religions, languages, and cultures, came together to earn a living and contribute to the development of independent India. Most of these people were unskilled and went through well-structured training and supervisory programs. Bhilai became a miniature of India, our neighbors spoke different languages, my classmates spoke different languages, and everyone came from all parts of India.

As a result, I have a basic understanding of several Indian languages including Bengali, Punjabi, and Marathi. We visited temples in Diwali, mosques on Eid, churches on Christmas, and Gurdwaras (Sikh Temples) on Nanak Jayanti. It was truly a model of secular society exhibiting unity in diversity. The township was a catalyst in India’s growth and kids who grew up there went on to prestigious universities in India, including India Institutes of Technology, more commonly known as IITs. They have contributed to the growth and betterment of India, and also to other parts of the world, including the USA.

My father and his colleagues were trained and worked side-by-side with their Russian counterparts. They became admirers of Russian technology and their problem-solving abilities. We heard many stories of Russian’s ability to solve problems in the plant and increase production. There was a time when the blast furnace would not work because cast iron had solidified in the furnace. Experts were invited from England, Germany, the United States, and Russia to solve the problem. Experts from England and Germany had advised that the furnace needed to be opened completely to remove the iron and then it would be reassembled. This would have required almost a year, which would have stopped production – severely impacting the livelihood of thousands of people. A small group of engineers came from Magnitogorsk (Russia) and solved the problem in a matter of days. These types of experiences formed the thinking of my father and his colleagues on Russian technological superiority. This was in the 1960s at the height of the Cold War.

But, just as we were directly benefiting from Russian collaboration, we also benefited during that era from America’s generosity and innovation. In the 1960s, a surprise attack by China on the northern border, just after signing a peace treaty, left the still young and independent India worried that it would again be occupied by an invading nation. With a strong warning and intervention by President Kennedy, China’s aggression was stopped. To this day, people of India admire and revere John F. Kennedy. People, including my parents, wept when they learned of President Kennedy’s assassination. India mourned.

The 1960s also delivered a catastrophic drought to India. The United States sent shiploads of wheat to a country that had sided with the USSR at the start of the Cold War, ignoring politics and saving millions from starvation. Norman Borlaug, an American scientist at Texas A&M University, developed a new variety of wheat that brought a green revolution in India. Independent India, with a growing population, would be a self-dependent nation on food production.

So, at the peak of the Cold War, growing up in Bhilai, my family – my parents, my sister, and I benefited from the generosity and innovation of both superpowers. My father began working at the plant in 1962 at a very low level. Every year, a group of employees was selected to travel to Russia for advanced training. This was the ultimate reward – a sought-after prize for any employee. The very competitive process usually resulted in officer-level employees being chosen to attend training in Russia. People went for 3-6 months and returned with Russian items: a black and white camera was one of the most common items, a prized possession in the 1960s in the middle-of-nowhere India. People generously shared these cameras with others for special occasions.

My father hoped to be selected for this training, and we often heard that his name was on the list, but after several stages of the review, he would not make it to the final list of selected candidates. This went on for decades. In the beginning, my father delighted in the anticipation and hope that the process bore, but in the end, his disappointment at not being selected weighed heavily on him. He wanted to visit Russia. This was one of the reasons I applied for the Fulbright Seminar in Russia. When I land in Russia, I will carry his dream and his memory with me throughout the trip.
In 1990, I came to the University of Arkansas Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics. Initially in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I lived in a private apartment building on North Leverett Street. This was a good 20-minute walk to the mathematics department. I enjoyed my stay in beautiful Ozark country very much. On my daily walks to the campus, I would pass through the Fulbright Institute for International Relations; I learned about Senator Fulbright, who was also a past president of the university and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He was a senator from the state of Arkansas who wrote the legislation that created the Fulbright Program. 

I was intrigued and fascinated by the Senator’s work in building peace in the world. As an international student at the University of Arkansas, I admired Fulbright's work and had a very deep and personal connection to the Institute's mission. I feel fortunate and privileged to be afforded the Fulbright Seminar in Russia opportunity. It illustrates the 21 st century world, where a kid whose father did not finish high school and worked in a steel plant built with Russian technology and collaboration, came to the United States for advanced studies and became a senior administrator at a major institution of higher education, is now traveling to Russia as a U.S. higher education expert to learn and collaborate on skill development, technology training, and higher education in general.

It is with these emotions and feelings that I will land in St. Petersburg. I look forward to the visit, the collaboration, and the learning in the true spirit of Senator Fulbright’s vision with memories of my father and his dream to visit Russia.

I will keep you all posted and engaged throughout the visit with regular brief blogs.