March 27, 2002


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The Rediff Interview/Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala

'We should make India a design house in technology'

Every day in the life of Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala, head of the department of electrical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, is a busy one. In his TeNet (Telecommunications and Computer Networks group) office -- which is an initiative of the professor -- Sandhya, a new entrant with a Master's from Boston, says, "You will be drawn to his idealism and optimism; they are contagious. That's why I am here now."

It is these qualities that make Prof Jhunjhunwala different from many others. For his ability to dream even when the going is tough.

One such dream was to connect rural India through 200 million telephone and Internet connections. Waging a tough battle when first met him in 1997, his efforts have finally paid off now. The WLL (wireless in local loop) technology and the corDECT model developed by him for a country like India has been accepted, and could lead to quick and cheap phones.

The meritorious achievement brought wide acclaim and in recognition of his groundbreaking work, the Indian government honoured him with a Padma Shree this year. In an interview to Shobha Warrier, he spoke about the bittersweet journey that fetched him this honour. Excerpts:

In 1997 it was difficult for you to find acceptance for the technology developed by you. You had started exporting the technology to Brazil, France, Malaysia, China, etc but in India, you had only one exchange with just 1,000 lines on a temporary basis. From that situation to the Padma Shree, are you satisfied?

(Laughs) Satisfied? No. Happy, yes.

As I always say, we have twin visions. One is to create 200 million telephone and Internet connections across the country. We want every village in India to be connected with not just telephones but Internet connections too. So from that point of view, we have achieved very little.

The second part of the vision is to make India a design house in technology. I would say, we have only taken the first few steps in this regard. Yes, things do definitely look very bright today because a significant amount of designs in the world are from India. Many companies are acknowledging that India can do very good design work.

But I feel this is only a beginning. The number of engineers involved in designing is only a couple of thousand, not more than that. We will not be satisfied till we see a couple of hundred thousand people in this field, probably more too.

So it makes you happy that we are going in the right direction. But satisfaction comes only when you see everything happening the way you want it to. There are a lot more things that need to be done.

We have a long way to go as far as telephone and Internet connections in the villages are concerned. We may have a thousand villages in India that already have these. So maybe after a couple of years, we will achieve more and I will be a bit more satisfied. I am happy because the process has begun.

Personally, these awards do not matter to you at all?

They do matter. It encourages you. Sometimes when you are down, these things do help you look up. But I feel the big awards are when you achieve your vision, the achievements themselves.

The change that has taken place is that earlier I had to fight at every step. Several times it almost looked as if everybody was against you. Today, by and large, the ideas have been accepted.

For example, affordability. Earlier, I had to sell the whole idea -- that we need to make things affordable. Today it has changed. I am not the only one who says this now. In fact, I don't say that anymore today. TRAI [Telecom Regulatory Authority of India] says that. DoT [Department of Telecommunications] says that. The operators have started saying that.

Yes, awards are a recognition that what I have been saying and wanting to do is right.

Did people call you a fool or a foolish idealist?

Yes, yes, very much. You know it used to happen. Now they clearly see that what I have been saying is in the right direction.

There is a general feeling that the path of a scientist in India is full of thorns. Is it true?

I would say the life of a scientist in India is also cushy and easy. The truth is, anybody anywhere with a large vision and a desire to achieve will find the path full of thorns. I think the thorns come when the vision is large. If my objectives were very limited, there would not have been any thorns in my path. I don't think anybody has achieved anything without going through a difficult path.

I think India has no more thorns than anywhere else. As far as I am concerned, I won't say the path was only full of thorns.

After your studies at IIT Kanpur, you went to the US. What made you come back to India?

It is an old story. A few days before I entered IIT Kanpur, I went to visit my grandfather who lives in a village called Lakhi Sarai in Bihar. He was a Gandhian and had worked for Sarvodaya. He mentioned something about IIT when I told him about my admission. At that time, I did not fully understand what he told me. After a few years, I asked him what he meant.

He said there was a debate in the Sarvodaya circles in the mid-fifties -- when IITs were being set up -- that the IITs were elitist institutions and the Sarvodaya circle was anti-elitist. Within the Sarvodaya circles, the debate was: Was it right to have such elitist institutions? Finally they decided it was right.

They felt India always had elite schools like Nalanda where students with the highest potential went [to study]. And, those students were expected to solve the problems of the country irrespective of what the problems were.

I understood what my grandfather was saying: to give back to the country that gave us the best. I think that has driven those of us who went abroad back to India.

Today, so many people are coming back because India is their country. There are more challenges here. One feels more satisfied when you achieve something small here. Today, we at TeNet have 12 faculty members and all of us are ex-IIT students. All of us had gone to the US and all of us have returned. All of us have shared this common vision. So it is the teamwork that is getting us somewhere.

Today, I have incubated 8-9 companies and I have 500 engineers working with us in all these companies. A quarter of these 500 men are my students. They have also been inspired by the same vision.

But a majority of students from the IITs leave the country. Do you persuade your students to stay back?

Yes, I agree that majority of them migrate. But as far as I am concerned, a large number stays back too. I give more importance to that. No, I don't ask them to stay back.

You faced a lot of impediments in the beginning. Did you resent coming back to India at any point?

No, absolutely not.

Do you feel Indians still have doubts about their own capabilities and look for approval from a Westerner before accepting a new idea?

Yes. It is due to lack of confidence. It is because we have done relatively very little in the last few years. But I see the confidence slowly building up now. One of our tasks is to see that this confidence returns to the country. The day we do that, we can beat anyone in the world.

The biggest gain from the IT revolution has been the regaining of confidence. Suddenly we feel we are inferior to none. I see the difference in youngsters. This was not there earlier. With one success, we have become confident, and we need more success. Then, this country will change.

The difference between China and India is in confidence.

You wrote a book on Vedic mathematics...

I wrote a book on Indian mathematics. Essentially, they were simple arithmetic techniques that I have learnt from my uncle when I was just four. I used these techniques throughout my life, and it has given me an edge vis-a-vis others in mathematics. It was much, much later that I realised that these techniques were not known to many. I assumed everybody knew it.

Those are very powerful techniques, but I do not know whether it was from the Vedic times. I do know that it came somewhere from the Indian tradition. I think they were from the 8th to 14th centuries. They came from a sound understanding of the place value system. So I decided to write a book about ten years ago so that it would help others.

Do you feel ideas like these, which are a part of the Indian tradition, have relevance in modern times too?

Yes, of course! Much of that is relevant in communication, and I use them. If you deny your past, if you look down on your past, you cannot be confident.

Our past must have had weaknesses and strengths, but there is nothing in our past for us to run down. I think it was during the British rule that we lost much of our confidence. We were one of the best countries in the world till the British came. Otherwise, they wouldn't have come here at all.

I feel we have a very strong tradition. Unfortunately, we have started denying everything about our past and us.

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