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Mr Majumdar goes to Washington

india Updated: Sep 26, 2009 23:25 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya

His friends describe him as a “fiend for cricket”. Not only does Arunava Majumdar, recently nominated director of the US department of energy’s newly-created Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, avidly follow international matches like the Ashes series between England and Australia. He also plays the game on the greens around his house.

That’s a rather solitary pursuit in a country not known for its love for the ‘gentleman’s game’ — and it’s likely to get even more solitary. If the US Senate confirms his appointment by the Obama administration, this Kolkata-born cricket fanatic is unlikely to get much time on the greens.

Professor Arunava Majumdar, better known as Arun, has been on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley since 1997 where he is currently director of Berkeley Lab’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division.

Majumdar lives in the Orinda suburb of California’s bay area with his wife Aruna Joshi and their two children. Given that government nominees have to mind the usual gag order, the articulate Majumdar is not speaking to the media until his appointment is formalised. However, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL) did issue a statement from him: “I came to this country as an immigrant and am deeply appreciative and indebted to this nation for opening the doors and
welcoming me with open arms. I have received so much. This is my way of stepping up and paying back.”

The 46-year-old’s nomination hasn’t come as a surprise to those who know him well. His boss at the university, dean of engineering Shankar Sastry, has known him for several years. Sastry says of Majumdar’s appointment, “He brings both an element of scholarship as well as a strategic view of the energy agenda for the nation, combining it with a deep understanding of the international view.” Majumdar is considered that rare breed, a pure scientist who is also policy-oriented.

Majumdar has a basic mantra that he often repeats during presentations. Referring to the “us and them” disparity in energy consumption between the US on the one hand, and India and China on the other, he says, “The big challenge today is, how do we turn off the lights in the right way without changing the lifestyle too much? How do we enable them to turn on the right lights?”

Otherwise, he warns metaphorically, if countries like India and China turn on all the lights wrong, “we’re toast”.

Majumdar’s selection is even less surprising since the secretary of the US department of energy, Nobel laureate Steven Chu, has been a former professor at Berkeley and former director of LBL. He tried to hire Majumdar in the past. In 2007, Chu was trying to recruit a new associate director for LBL and establishing a search committee when a colleague of Majumdar suggested his name to chair that committee. Chu later told Majumdar’s friend that he had done a “disservice” to Majumdar since he had actually wanted Majumdar himself for that particular post.

Majumdar’s friend Purnendu Chatterjee says Majumdar “maintains close ties with India”. The ties are professional as well as personal. Chatterjee, who heads the New York-based The Chatterjee Group, helped cement the professional linkages by endowing the Research Institute in Sustainable Energy Technologies (RISE) in Gurgaon, which will be established soon.

RISE is part of the framework of the Berkeley-India Joint Leadership on Energy and Environment (BIJLEE). Majumdar has played a “leadership role” in this initiative, his colleagues say. BIJLEE’s mandate is “to assist both countries to adopt pathways and approaches for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases while pursuing sustainable economic development”.

Sastry describes Majumdar, who completed his B.Tech from IIT Mumbai in 1985, as a “research star” who brings to the table expertise in material science and mechanical engineering. Washington will be Majumdar’s first job outside the US West, but he may not feel particularly out of place in the Obama administration, since at least 27 other Indian-Americans work there in various capacities.