Breaking the barriers | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 04, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:12 AM, March 04, 2017

Breaking the barriers

Once a rural boy from Rangamati, Amit Chakma has gone on to become an engineering professor, president of a top Canada university

Amit Chakma was only three when the construction of Kaptai dam ended in 1962. The dam, meant to generate hydroelectric power, eventually caused flood in nearby areas, submerging a large swath of his family land. Like them, many other families in Rangamati lost farmland, the main source of their income.

With the land gone and livelihood disrupted, Amit's father realised that only education could turn things around for the ethnic minority people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The journey since has been long and difficult, but Amit has translated his father's dream into reality. At 58, he is now president and vice-chancellor of University of Western Ontario, one of the oldest and prominent universities in Canada.

Now in Dhaka to attend the 50th convocation of Dhaka University as the convocation speaker, he spoke to The Daily Star yesterday about his pursuit of education and his thoughts about his homeland and his community.

"Behind every success, there needs to have a motivation ... Why did I pursue education? Our lands went under water; there was no other means to earn a living. There was no alternative but education."


Eldest among four siblings, he considers himself lucky to have parents with certain level of education who understood the value of education.

His father, Prabhat Chakma, went to study in a university in Calcutta at a time when very few from his community even thought of leaving home for education. But as the World War-II broke, Prabhat returned home without completing his studies and joined government services.

Amit's mother, Alo Chakma, was a primary schoolteacher. She often visits him in Canada.

"Right from our childhood, they instilled the value for education in us," said Amit, who authored more than 100 articles and is an expert in areas related to petroleum research and energy management.

After the construction of the dam, many families resettled in remote areas of the district, but his father chose to live in the town so he could send his children to school.

When Amit was in class five, his father sent him to Ispahani School in Comilla and his sister to Tangail's Bharateswari Homes for better education.

However, in the wake of the 1969 mass uprising, Amit returned home and completed his secondary education from Rangamati Government High School.

He passed his higher secondary exam from Dhaka College in 1976, when unrest was brewing up in the hills. Uncertain if he could return home, he started to look for a scholarship abroad.

"If the situation in the hills were stable and peaceful, my natural tendency would be that I would go back home," he said.


But he soon got a scholarship from the Algerian government in 1977 to study chemical engineering at Algerian Petroleum Institute. He graduated at the top of his class in 1982.

He then moved to Canada and earned his master's in applied science and PhD in chemical engineering from the University of British Columbia in 1984 and 1987 respectively. He began his academic career as a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Calgary where he taught from 1988 to 1996.

Subsequently, he joined the University of Regina as dean of engineering and later served as its vice-president (research) from 1999 to 2001. During this time, he made it to Canada's Top 40 Under 40 list. He then became vice-president (academic and provost) at the University of Waterloo in 2001.

In 2009, he joined the University of Western Ontario as its 10th president and VC.

Amit said he had been able to overcome all odds and disadvantages of being someone from an ethnic minority community only because of education. "Education is the best tool to ensure social justice."

No country is perfect, he says, but the nations that value merits over social status and uphold the rule of law will see progress. "We are now living in a situation where knowledge is more important than anything else. The nations that put priority on knowledge have developed themselves."


About the education system in Canada and Bangladesh, he said the overall quality of Canadian education system was good as the standard of educational institutions was more or less the same.

"But the education system in Bangladesh has vulcanised. Here the quality of one school to another varies greatly," he said.

He added that teachers in the past used to treat teaching as their vocation, not a mere profession. "Now I have come to know that the level of dedication and devotion in many of the teachers has dropped."

Also, corruption in teachers' recruitment process is another big problem.

"Corruption in education sector is extremely dangerous.

"For example, if a bridge breaks apart, it can be repaired with money. But if a generation is imparted substandard education, it takes several generations to fix it."

There are many good educational institutions Bangladesh but there should be an effort to build many more. "Many Bangladeshi students are studying in universities abroad, including in my university, and doing well."

He suggested striving for overall quality. "If you believe that a country's economic prosperity depends on knowledge, you will have to try to be very good at what you do. Quality of education and quality of research should be world class. It may be hard to do but you have to keep trying."


About his community in the CHT, Amit said despite some progress, the hill people still live in miseries.

Unfortunately, successive governments have had many outsiders settled in the hills out of political motivation, which creates problems there, he said.

He said he saw many youths from the region working in Chittagong and other areas.

"They are going for economic reasons. Similarly, if people go to hill areas for economic purposes, I don't see any problem. But if people go there for political reasons, then there would be problem.

"Instead of sending settlers, send tourists there. Develop infrastructure and other facilities for promoting tourism," he said, adding that the CHT, Cox's Bazar and the Sundarbans are the country's natural assets where tourism should be promoted.

He suggested making good use of the country's natural resources and human resources as well as ensuring rule of law.


His university job apart, Amit sometimes plays the role of an "unofficial ambassador" of Bangladesh in Canada.

"Many are curious about Bangladesh and when they ask me about the country with a negative impression, I tell them that despite many problems this country has made huge progress on all counts.

"I tell them about the rise in literacy rate and the MDGs [which the country has achieved] and other achievements. Then they get to know about us.

“I'm happy to play this role," Amit added, with a smile.

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