Uttarakhand village boy’s journey from being a porter to PhD scholar
The life of Virendra Rana (35), who belongs to a tiny hamlet Lata in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, has come full circle.
At 18, he had worked as a part-time porter and guide for six scientists, who were involved in a field project in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve that proved to be a turning point in his impoverished existence.
The fleeting experience stood him in good stead as he ended up pursuing a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D) degree on the Himalayan glaciers under one of the six scientists in Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna(HNB) Garhwal Central University, Srinagar, in Uttarakhand’s Pauri Garhwal district, followed by post-doctoral researches in the country’s premier institutes such as Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)- Kharagpur and the Banaras Hindu University (BHU).
The field researchers had fired Ram’s imagination to attain the academic goal of a Ph.D on Nanda Devi glaciers. At present, he is doing a post-doctoral research from BHU.
Rana, who belongs to a humble background, is the second among five siblings and his father is a retired havildar of the Indo-Tibet Border Police (ITBP).
Rana grew up in the lap of Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve as his native village Lata is located there. The reserve is also the natural habitat for the famous Valley of Flowers.
The summer of 2003 changed the course of Rana’s life, who as a teenager used to work as a part-time porter and guide to tide over the family’s financial hardships.
“I was in the first year of my undergraduate course that summer (in 2003). I was only 18. During summer vacations, I used to work as a part-time porter and guide to earn my pocket expenses and to support the family. I had joined a team of six scientists who needed porters to carry their luggage up the mountains in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. The expedition changed my life forever,” said Rana while speaking over the phone from Varanasi.
Rana recalled that he was particularly attached to one of the scientists from the group -- MPS Bisht, who is currently the director of Uttarakhand Space Application Centre.
“I curiously watched Bisht sir picking up some stones on the way and explaining to his two students, who were accompanying him. Though I had enrolled for a Bachelor in Science (B.Sc) degree in geology, I had no clue what he was talking about. However, his actions caught my attention. I used to listen to him attentively whenever he used to explain anything to his two students,” Rana reminisced.
He said while trekking they took a halt during which Bisht asked him about his education and family background after spotting his keen interest.
“I told him during our brief conversation that I belong to a family with limited financial means. I was pursuing my undergraduate studies in geology from a government degree college in Gopeshwar. Soon, our interactions became more frequent and we kept in constant touch,” he said.
He got a call from Bisht about his future academic plans following his completion of the B.Sc degree in geology in 2005.
“In 2005, Bisht sir was a professor of geology in HNB Garhwal Central University. He got me enrolled in the university, from where I completed my postgraduate degree in 2007. I was fortunate that he helped a poor village lad like me to realise my dreams,” Rana said.
During his postgraduate course, Bisht would ask Rana to accompany him on trips to the Himalayas, especially in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. On one such trips, where Bisht was working on a project on the Valley of Flowers approved by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), he adviced Rana to pursue his Ph.D on the Nanda Devi glaciers.
“I readily agreed to his proposal, as I had gained the basic knowledge under him on the subject during those field trips. I did my Ph.D. under his able guidance from HNB Garhwal Central University and was awarded the degree in 2014. Then, I went to IIT-Kharagpur the same year for a four-year post-doctoral research programme on Dharwar Craton in Karnataka as a research associate,,” said Rana.
“Currently, I am pursuing another research under a fellowship programme of the University Grants Commission (UGC) in BHU, Varanasi,” he said.
In retrospect, Rana said his life is full of struggles as he has to take care on all fronts, including farming at his native village because he is the eldest son of the family.
“It has been a long and hard struggle. I had to work in fields in my village and help my mother in other household chores,” said Rana, who has been a farm hand since his school days as his father was serving in the ITBP.
“Even now, I collect fodder for the cattle and livestock during my annual visit every year to my native place during October-November for a month. The fodder needs to be stocked up ahead of the harsh winter in the hills,” he said.
He said his family’s financial conditions have considerably improved since he finished his Ph.D.
‘I am thankful to Bisht sir for nurturing my talent and helping me realise my cherished dream,” he added.
Bisht recounted how he spotted Rana.
“Whenever I used to explain anything to my two students on various geological aspects, he used to listen very attentively, which was unusual for any part-time porter. On that trip, at times, when I would get confused about the spot from where I picked any sample, he would promptly correct me by saying that ‘sir you picked it from there’. That attitude is what got me interested in him,” said Bisht.
“Today, I am proud of what he has achieved through his hard work and dedication. I consider him like my eldest son, such is our affinity,” he said.
Rana’s hard work and dedication has struck a chord with his mentors in IIT-Kharagpur and BHU.
Professor MA Mamtani from IIT-Kharagpur, under whom Rana pursued a four-year research project as a research associate on Dharwar Craton of Karnataka, said, “He was one of the most sincere and hard-working researchers under me in that project.”
He added: “He brought an invaluable experience of working in the Himalayas in the project as the terrain is very difficult, as compared to the plains.”
Professor Mamtani said that Rana executed every task in a systematic and organised manner with hardly any error.
“He had taken the responsibility of managing my laboratory for the project. He didn’t need many instructions. It has been two years since he left the institute, but I still miss such sincerity and dedication in my team,” said Mamtani.
His mentor at BHU, Professor HB Srivastava, under whom he is currently pursuing another research project, also lavished praises on him.
“I have worked for a significant time in the Himalayas of Uttarakhand. I know how the people from that area. When I came to know that Rana has applied for the research here, I was very happy to welcome him,” said Srivastava.
“Also, when I came to know that he hails from a poor family, I decided to support him as much as I can. He is a very nice person and he never shies away from hard work,” he added.