Dr. K.S. Babai: Technical Education Leader, Humanitarian Par Excellence, and Lifelong Learner

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Dr. K.S. Babai, who graduated in 1966 from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), Chennai, India has dedicated her life to serving others, educating and uplifting them.  Her life journey has been shaped by the principles of her father and today she serves in the same position her father and her older sister held at Madras (Chennai) Lions Clubs International Foundation, District 324 A1.  She is the 34th Governor of this district, leading the efforts in several areas including education, empowerment of youth, and affordable cancer treatment. She is a cancer survivor herself. After thirty-six years of service in the Dr. Dharmambal Government Polytechnic College for Women, she continues in the field of technical education by leading the Meenakshi Sundararajan Engineering College, Anna University, Chennai as its Principal. Her lifetime accomplishments are too numerous to fit into this short article.  She personifies leadership in technical education, quality, and service to the downtrodden.  Her life story is awe inspiring to all who strive for excellence.

Early Life

Babai was born on 14th October 1943, in a traditional South Indian family devoted to God and the Guru (teacher).  Her father Prof. K. R. Sundararajan, was a great mathematician, a brilliant educator, an intellectual and a philanthropist. Her mother Meenakshi was a housewife.  Babai remembers her mother as beautiful and a great cook and singer. Babai’s family is deeply spiritual and devoted to education and humanitarian endeavors. Babai is one of five children in the family, four girls and one boy.

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Babai studied in Sri Ramakrishna Mission Sarada Vidyalaya in T.Nagar, Chennai, and completed her SSLC (Secondary School Leaving Certificate) in 1959 with first class. She completed the Pre-University Course (PUC) and attended the undergraduate program at Stella Maris College, Chennai.  She graduated in 1963 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics with distinction.

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At CEG

In 1963, CEG introduced a three-year intensive undergraduate program in engineering for those with a bachelor’s degree. Babai was one of three women who joined CEG in in this program. She chose to specialize in civil engineering. The other two were Indira in electrical engineering and A. Prabavathi (Praba) in electronics and telecommunications engineering.  Indira remembers the friendly competition between the girls on who secured the highest grades and how driven Babai was to be the best. The three women forged a deep bond that exists even today.

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Babai went through her share of ragging (hazing) by the boys when she entered CEG.  She remembers a question from a senior even today, after almost fifty-five years: What is the word where the first and the last two letters are same and you are in the middle (answer: CHURCH).

Career in Education

Babai’s career in education spans Diploma, post-Diploma, Undergraduate and Post Graduate levels of technical education. Soon after graduating in 1966, Babai joined the Madras Government Polytechnic for Women, now known as Dr.Dharmambal Women’s Polytechnic (WPT), in Madras (Chennai) as Assistant Lecturer in Civil Engineering; and progressed in her career to the Principal of the institution.

Babai’s one consistent goal early in her life was to be a good teacher.  To her credit, all her students graded her as the best teacher irrespective of the level of class she taught. She has had excellent relationships with students, faculty, and staff.  As she progressed in her career at WPT to become the Principal, she also shined in her administrative role, known for being strict, but also kind-hearted.

Babai credits her excellence in leadership to her training in Japan in the field of Computer Software & Quality Management. Babai calls this a turning point in her life, as this training increased her self-confidence and created a strong foundation to cope with challenges. It made it easy for her to work as a team leader; she was able to manage her department and at the same time have a cordial relationship with colleagues and external contacts.

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During the 1990’s, and until she completed her WPT tenure in 2002, Babai visited Canada multiple times.  Under the Canada India Institutional Cooperation Project (CIICP) she participated in several collaborative activities such as the Canadian Colleges Partnership Program (CCPP) and attended Association of Canadian Community Colleges (ACCC) Conference twice. In 2002 she presented a paper on collaboration at Georgian College in Barrie, Ontario.  These visits opened her eyes to see new possibilities in educational management such as continuing and non-formal education, industry-institute interaction; and developments in faculty skills, environment, and women. Babai encouraged faculty participation in the CIICP activities and, as a result, thirty- eight faculty also traveled to Canada. Babai introduced the Post-Diploma Environment Management program in WPT in collaboration with Georgian College, Canada; conducted an international seminar on Women in Environment Management; and organized several environment programs under CIICP.

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John Bobbette of Georgian College said this of Babai:

“…wonderful lady who has been a true champion of post-secondary educational reform in India.  You have achieved so much, Babai, and touched the hearts and minds of hundreds of people around the world…”

Saroja Sundaramurthy, a former member of WPT faculty, knew Babai as a student, colleague, and boss.  She has this to say:

“Babai was my mathematics student in Stella Maris where she did her undergraduate. She showed a keen interest in the subject.  Later she and I were colleagues at WPT and she was very helpful and friendly. Then she became the Principal of WPT and my boss, and she was still the same person I knew all along.  This does not mean she was lenient or partial to me.  She brought the clean and green environment to the polytechnic.  Her enthusiasm for the CIICP project brought so much benefit to WPT.”

Under Babai’s leadership, Dr.Dharmambal Women’s Polytechnic achieved autonomous status. It was awarded the distinction of being the best-maintained environment and received ISO 9000 certification.  Babai introduced many professional chapters, continuing-education initiatives, quality circles in education, environment, a women empowerment cell, and a jewelry technology center among many other initiatives.  The Canadian International Development Authority (CIDA) recognized and appreciated the Polytechnic as the best among the state-owned polytechnics.

In 2002, after completing thirty-six years of service in WPT, Babai could have retired.  But she continued her service to technical education by becoming the Principal of Meenakshi Sundararajan Engineering College in Chennai, one of the several educational institutes founded by her father.  This college has been rated as one among the top five engineering colleges affiliated to the Anna University.  It has received several awards and has been written about as an excellent institute in Indian newspapers such as the Hindu and Times of India. To promote Japanese Language proficiency amongst students, Babai introduced Japanese Language training to all the students of Meenakshi Sundararajan Engineering College.  Babai continues to lead this college today.

Throughout her career, she never missed the opportunity to continue her learning.  It came from books, technical and management training courses, and participation in conferences. She underwent training in Structural Engineering Research Center in Chennai, strengthening her knowledge in structural engineering. Her training at Technical Teachers Training Institute gave her the exposure to modern teaching methodology and classroom management. Her Master of Science (Computer Science) by Research degree in 1980 from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Madras helped her develop an interest in research. Babai completed her Doctorate in Environmental Engineering from Annamalai University in Chidambaram when she was in her sixties.

Professional Activities

Babai has been an active member of many professional institutions including Indian Society for Technical Education (ISTE), Institution of Engineers (India), Computer Society of India, Quality Circle Forum of India (Chennai chapter) and National Institute of Quality and Reliability.  In many of these institutions, she held executive committee positions.

Babai conducted ISTE summer schools and organized a number of summer courses on industrial applications.  At the Meenakshi Sundararajan Engineering College, Babai organized several International conferences and national seminars on civil engineering, computer science, electronics and communication engineering, electrical engineering and information technology.

She is the director of Sri Sringeri Sharadambal Meenakshi Sundararajan Hospital Trust.  At Meenakshi College for Women, she is a member of the Academic Council (Autonomous) Management Committee, and also a member of the Governing Council. At the Indian Institute of Engineering Technology, she is a Management Committee Member and the Secretary.

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Babai has published numerous articles and has presented at many international, national and local conferences on topics of technical education, quality and philanthropy.

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CEG Alumni Activities

Babai is a past president of the Alumni Association of CEG (AACEG). She was honored for her contributions during 2002- 2004 by the association.

In 2011, her donation made it possible for the alumni association to establish annual lectures in memory of her father.

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Babai was one of the founders and was the first chairperson of the 1966 alumni association G66.

In 1994, Babai, along with her 1966 classmates M. R. Ranganathan, N.V. Ramakrishnan, Trevor Beale and U. Prakasham took on the project to document the 200-year-old history of CEG, titled Survey School to Tech Temple. The book was published by the first batch of CEG’s Printing Technology division.

Humanitarian Activities

Babai is a member of All India Harijan Sevak Sangh (a non-profit organization founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1932 to eradicate untouchability in India) and served as the Vice President of the Tamil Nadu Branch. In that role, she helped streamline the operations of hostels and training centers associated with the organization. She was also an honorary member of the central board of this organization.   Every year Babai has been contributing education fees and living expenses of a needy Harijan (untouchables as characterized in India) girls, many of them orphans.

Like her father and her older sister Lakshmi, Babai became a member of Lions Clubs International (LCI).

In recognition of her excellence in leadership and services, she was elected to be the 34th Governor of Lions Clubs International District 324-A1 in June 2017.  The national daily, The Hindu carried the announcement which said:

“The Lions Club District 324-A1 will have a woman as its 34th governor. K.S. Babai, the governor-designate, will be appointed on July 23 in Chicago by the international president of Lion’s Club.

The club is celebrating its centenary this year. Ms. Babai, also principal of Meenakshi Sundararajan Engineering College, says though she has chosen six areas, including education and empowerment of youth, the focus would be on providing affordable cancer treatment.

Ms. Babai said, ‘I am a cancer survivor who underwent treatment at the Cancer Institute. I want to repay the institute.’ The institute is looking to set up a modern blood bank and develop a nuclear medicine department, besides additional operation theatres and a modernized marrow transplantation facility.”

In addition to her services rendered through Lions Club for visually challenged patients, Babai has worked to improve the health of poor people through several local hospitals such as Voluntary Health Service, TB Sanatorium in Tambaram, and Cancer Hospital in Adyar.

Awards and Honors

The number of educational and humanitarian awards Babai received so far are far too many to list here.  But two awards are very special to Babai.  The first one is the Fellowship conferred by Indian Society for Technical Education (ISTE) for Excellence in Technical Education at the national level.  The second is the Harijan Bandhu Award for her work with the uplifting of the downtrodden from All India Harijan Sevak Sangh.

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Starting in 2000, Babai’s leadership in the Lions Clubs International brought her numerous awards for her work in District 324 A1.   She received the Humanitarian Service Award for extraordinary service in that district.  Other notable awards that she has received include Par Excellence District Chairperson Award (multiple times), Woman of the Year award, and The best Chairperson award from the Lions Clubs International Multiple District 324.  Several individual clubs also gave Babai The Best Teacher award.

Family Life

Babai’s life continues to revolve around the educational institutions founded by her father and nurtured by her family.  She is deeply spiritual and committed to upholding tradition, culture, and values.

Having dedicated her life to education and philanthropy, Babai has remained single. She looks upon the grandchildren of her sister Kamala (CEG 1969) as her own.  She enjoys spending time with them.

Babai’s social network is vast.  She makes it a point to engage with them in as many ways as possible. When I called her one night to talk about the article, she was on her way to attend a Golu celebration (doll and figurine display festival celebrated during the festival of Navratri in Southern India). This was after a full day of taking care of her duties as the engineering college principal, and Lion’s Club District Governor.

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Life dedicated to Technical Education Excellence and Philanthropy

Dr. Babai exemplifies what it is to be a leader singularly focused on service to humanity. Her excellence shines in multiple facets. Her service to bring quality technical education has immensely benefited the students who were and are lucky to learn in her institutes.  Her work in helping the poor and socially oppressed classes of people speaks to the enormous love she has for those less fortunate than herself. All through her life, she has continued to learn, earning her doctorate when she was not in the best of health and in her sixties, on a subject near to her heart – the environment.  Her work in the Lions Club International has helped many, and now as the Governor of District 324-A1, she can be expected to take the organization to higher heights. She does what her Lion’s club district motto says: “Keep serving benevolently”.  Here is to her continued service for many years to come!

Acknowledgements

Babai was kind enough to send me her detailed bio-data from which I gathered much of the input to this article.  In addition, her article in the class of ‘66 book “ Seventeen to Seventy” provided a good insight into what she considers are her lifetime learnings and achievements. I truly appreciate that she took time to send me the pictures that made this article come alive.

I am thankful to Ms. Saroja Sundaramurthy, who retired from Women’s Polytechnic as Mathematics Professor and has known Babai for most of her life for her input to this article.

Note

This is the 13th write-up in my ambitious journey of chronicling the life and work of the early CEG alumnae. If you like what you read, please “like” and share.

You can read the life stories of other CEG alumnae on LinkedIn (use #CEGalumnae in the search for posts/content) or my website Mathisarovar.

My goal is to encourage more girls to study engineering and science, enter the workforce and be equal partners with men in shaping the future of our world. Women face a lot of critical moments in their lives that make them want to leave the workforce. I am hoping the stories of the CEG women will inspire them to stay in it.

I will be writing more such posts here and then will be collecting them into a book for publishing.

If you have information about CEG alumnae from the 1940s to the 1960s, please contact me to help make these posts complete.

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