Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala received his B. Tech degree in Electrical Engineering from IIT Kanpur and his MS/PhD from the University of Maine. He joined the Department of Electrical Engineering in IIT Madras in 1981 and has since been at the forefront of multiple technical advancements in India, the most prominent of these being in the Telecom Industry. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Padma Shri, and T5E correspondent Sachin Nayak catches up with him on the occasion of his receiving IITM’s Lifetime Achievement Research and Development Award, the Institute’s highest form of faculty recognition.
How would you view your contribution here at IIT in general?
I’ve been here for 33 years now. If I look at everything I’ve done, where I have tried to make a difference is that I have looked at IIT as a premium technology institute. A premium technology institute has to contribute with technology to the nation– firstly, in strengthening local industry and making the Indian industry stronger; secondly, in coming up with socially relevant technology which will fulfill the needs of the people of the country (Prof. Jhunjhunwala played a major role in creating the Aakash Tablet, which T5E has reported on in the past.) and finally, in contributing in terms of the technological policy of the country. These are three broad things one needs to do besides what we have traditionally been doing: carrying out science and technology development activities, academic R&D with good publications and at the same time, teaching, mentoring and guiding students.
I think one of my biggest contributions has been in terms of improving industry-academia interaction within the country. How do you work with the industry? Of course, the first reaction to this move was people saying that the industries are only interested in importing technology. Industrial collaboration meant a number of things — working with them on various problems they face, developing confidence and getting them to invest in R&D and to work with IITs. I think the pinnacle of this is the IIT Madras Research Park, which I conceived with the vision of bringing industry to campus. Today, we house 65 companies and as we expand, we should get another 100. At the same time, we realized that we should encourage students to start up their own ventures too, because established industries are often not interested in totally new technologies. I was among the first people who helped set up a technology company way back in 1984. Since then, I’ve contributed to over a hundred companies which were set up in IITM over the years.
Does any other IIT have something like our Research Park?
They don’t, but they all want to set one up in the future. While they’ve only begun, we are currently ahead — we have incubation, and have incubated more companies than anybody else.
Can you tell us more about your work with the telecom industry? In what other national projects have you been involved?
Professor Bhaskar (Director, IIT Madras) and I took wireless internet and telephony to rural areas, where it was thought to be virtually impossible to do so. We didn’t stop with that — we worked on using the internet to solve problems in rural areas related to education, health care, income generation and financial inclusion. We are continuing our efforts even today.
In more recent times, we saw that one of the biggest problems India wasn’t able to solve is power. This was not our area, but we decided to get into it. Two and a half years ago, we started working with solar power, and today we have some major technologies, such as GOA (Green Offices and Apartments).I spend almost half my time on energy and power today — on bringing uninterrupted power to every home in every village.
What other technologies are you and others at IITM currently contributing to?
Apart from working with power, we realised that as educators, we had to make an impact on education. We developed various projects aimed at this– for example, I designed a fibre optics educational kit way back in 1985, which is used today in 1500 colleges, despite being 30 years old. Then, I developed a local area network kit along with Timothy Gonsalves, and a communication educator kit with Bhaskar Ramamurthi.
Water is another area where there is a major problem in the country. Future wars will be fought for water — the Water Wars. I am not involved in that area, but I saw that we could make a difference in water. To that end, I became the chairman of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. We submitted a report on water, and are working on a lot of water-related projects — both drinking water and water for industries. There are other people who are working on it, many from IITM, such as Dr. Pradeep, and a whole lot of people in the Civil Engineering department. We are seeing how we can strengthen work in this area.
Additionally, while I have not personally contributed to housing, I know that in IITM, an immense amount of work is going on in low-cost housing.
Gradually, we are pushing IITM to play a role in water, energy, electricity, housing and health. We have recently set up a centre for policy studies. We’re identifying youngsters and giving them opportunities to do work. For example, we’ve helped out a company at Research Park called HTIC — Healthcare Technology Innovation Centre — where a young professor, Dr. Mohana Shankar, is doing some fantastic work.
On the whole, we have encouraged and supported people wherever possible. Anybody who has the energy can make a difference and that is what I have been doing all the while.
How have you been involved in shaping national policy?
In the MHRD, I was in the Kakodkar committee for IIT. Additionally, I am on the Kakodkar committee for the NITs and the chairman for Quality Enhancement in Engineering Education. I was the chairman of the committee that drafted the National Telecom Policy draft in 2012. Even in the department of biotechnology, I am on the board of BIRAC (Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council), which is an organisation which promotes Indian industries in that field.
You have been at the helm of many technological innovations that have taken place in IITM — the Aakash tablet, the 48 V DC power grid, the Wireless in Local Loop, the ATM and the solar power desalination plant, to mention a few. Of these innovations, which do you think is the best and the most instrumental to your winning the Lifetime Achievement Award?
The best and the biggest is the Wireless in Local Loop. That is the biggest, and ATM was the second biggest.
Best because it reaches out to more people?
Yes, I think. The most recent one is also very big — UDC (Universal DC).