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Alumni Profiles - Ashok Jhunjhunwala

When Ashok Jhunjhunwala ’77G, ’79 Ph.D. returned to the University of Maine in May to be honored by the alumni association, it would be logical to think it was for his outstanding career achievements in engineering.

After all, Ashok, who serves as head of the department of electrical engineering at the Indian Institute for Technology, Chennai, has received the most prestigious science award given in India, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award. He also was honored with the highly coveted Padma Shri Award for distinguished service in science and technology. In addition, Ashok has incubated numerous new telecommunications products, and has founded no less than seven companies centering around emerging technologies. He’s served on the Scientific Advisory Committee for the Indian prime minister and in 2009 was chosen by Bloomberg as one of India’s 50 most powerful people.

An impressive career to say the least. But even more impressive may be what Ashok has dedicated that outstanding career to—a better life for millions of poor, rural Indians.

And it was in recognition of that dedication to helping others that the alumni association presented Ashok with the 2010 Bernard Lown ’42 Alumni Humanitarian Award. The next day, at University of Maine graduation ceremonies, he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from his alma mater.

Following his return to India after earning his master’s and Ph.D. degrees from UMaine, Ashok has been a leading force in the effort to make telecommunications accessible to all Indians with the ultimate goal of improving education, health care, and livelihoods.

“Sometime in the mid-’80s, a group of us decided to see what we could do to help bring telecommunications to rural India,” Ashok explains. “We had the expertise and India had a great need. We did all kinds of analysis—economics, technology, policy—and we saw that a lot could be done.”

One problem was that, unlike countries in the West, there was little communications infrastructure outside of urban areas. And bringing that infrastructure through the use of expensive copper wiring was not realistic.

“Our affordability point is very different from that in the West,” Ashok says. “So we started looking into how mobile systems could do the same thing that copper wires do. That is the direction we went—wireless loop technology. We set a goal of increasing telephone connections in India from seven million to 100 million.”

In a 1997 interview, Ashok explained how the new technology worked.

“Wireless, in loop technology, is basically replacing the wires or copper in the local loop with a wireless system,” he explained. “We have our own exchange, a compact base station which can be mounted either on the rooftop of a building or poles in the street. Each of these base stations transmits on a wireless medium to offices and houses.”

While the cost of the wireless system was substantially less, there was another challenge that Ashok and his colleagues faced—the national telephone monopoly.

“We professors took it upon ourselves to lobby the government to allow competition in local telecommunications,” he says.  “And we succeeded in doing that.”

The group then offered their expertise to the industrialists in the country to help make it all happen.

“So as a group, we did everything—research, technology development, policy development, lobbying, and consulting.”

As a result, they did indeed achieve the goal of bringing 100 million telephones to India, with service in all of the country’s 700,000 villages.

In recent years Ashok and his group moved on to a second focus—bringing Internet and other telecommunication services to rural India.

“We know it will improve things such as health care and education and also the livelihoods of rural people,” Ashok says.

And Ashok’s approach to delivering these new technologies would have pleased Mahatma Gandhi. It’s very decentralized, utilizing an army of local entrepreneurs. These local businessmen will be 50 percent partners in the enterprise, which will help keep profits in local economies.

“We’re adopting two key elements,” Ashok explained. “Affordability, since everything is low cost, and involving a local person providing the solutions.”

Thus far the project has been implemented in four areas, with encouraging results.

Ashok’s commitment to helping others is central to his work.

“We scientists have many answers, and most of them are wrong,” he has said. “What matters is that you keep trying until you succeed and contribute to the well-being of society.”

Part of Ashok’s compassionate, caring approach to science stems from cultural and family influences, especially from his grandfather, who was a dedicated follower of Gandhi. But he was also very influenced by his experiences at UMaine.

“There were two important things that happened to me when I came to UMaine,” he notes. “The first was working with my engineering professor, John Vetelino. I developed self confidence and came to realize that Indians can excel in science—that we were not far behind everyone else.”

During his return visit to campus, Ashok reunited with his old professor for the first time in 30 years. He showed his respect by bending and touching Vetelino’s feet and calling him his “guru.”

“In India great teachers are revered like gods,” he said at the Humanitarian Award presentation dinner at Buchanan Alumni House. Later he related an Indian saying.

“If a student meets God and his teacher at the same time, who should he greet first? The teacher, as he is the path to God.”

The second very important thing that Ashok says he gained at UMaine was a much deeper sense of social justice.

“This came from being exposed to the women’s movement, the civil-rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the gay-rights movement, which I knew nothing about in India,” Ashok explains. “I became involved and I brought those influences back to India.”

According to UMaine philosophy professor Doug Allen, who worked with Ashok on social justice issues and remains a very close friend, Ashok’s UMaine experiences broadened his views and made a change in his life.

“He was challenged to develop his analysis of issues of war, violence, and imperialism,” Allen noted. He was also exposed for the first time to gender oppression and feminism. And while in Maine he became aware of environmental issues.

That concern for the environment plays a major part in his approach to his vision for development of rural India.

“What if India developed in the same manner as the West?” he asks. “Right now, we consume 1/20 of the resources that the West consumes on a per capita basis. If rural India (and China) developed in a way that approached even 1/2 the level of consumption of the West, we would be in trouble. That level of resource consumption would ruin the earth. I don’t want us to follow the West’s pattern. We want to develop, but we want responsible, sustainable development.”

Perhaps Doug Allen said it best when he referred to Ashok’s work as a two-way process that involves humility, tolerance, interaction, and mutual learning and development.

“He is a brilliant, innovative scientist with a deep conscience,” Allen stated. “Those of us in Maine can feel pride in the fact that our university played such an important part in the development of such an exceptional scientist and human being.”

Image Description: Ashok Jhunjhunwala

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