“While growing up in a conservative Marwadi joint family in Kolkata, I often experienced frequent tussles between my family members over financial matters. Therefore, my first ambition as a child was to open a factory when I grew up so that I could provide for my family and live together with them happily. However, when I was a teenager, I was told that engineering would be a better option to pursue because it would give me more options to explore, as opposed to simply opening a factory.
I initially wanted to go to IIT Kharagpur or Jadavpur University because they were close to home but my parents advised me not to. Their hesitation was mostly attributed to the rising Naxalite movement around the Kharagpur area in those days. So I went to IIT Kanpur instead, which was being newly set up back then. The kind of exposure I got there made me the person I am today! I was taught by some of the greatest teachers, namely Prof. CNR Rao and Prof. Deshpande. Additionally, I stayed in a culturally diverse environment which allowed me to learn and appreciate the different cultures that India has. But everything wasn’t a smooth ride for me, especially when I had just joined. I had difficulty understanding English. We had a few American professors whose accent was hard to decipher. In order to overcome the language barrier, I therefore, started focusing more on what was written on the board. It actually helped me grasp my concepts better over time.
This was also that period when the Indo-China war had just ended and we were all deeply impacted by the aftermath of it. It motivated a lot of us to contribute to the development of this country in our own small ways. I took conscious little steps to work towards that motivation, be it taking vows not to take dowry during weddings which was quite prevalent during those times, or refusing to support a friend in a general body meeting of the hostel who was at fault for misbehaving with a mess worker.
I probably would have continued working towards India’s development had Emergency not been declared at that time and my older friends, doing PhD at IIT Kanpur, suggesting I go abroad for higher studies. So I went to the US for my Master’s and a PhD, with the hope that I would return to change my country for the better. I was initially more interested to join politics because I felt that was the best possible mode of bringing a change. But I couldn’t be more wrong! Politics was dirty and didn’t match my moral values. I felt quite lost in terms of choosing a career path. Luckily, I had a faculty position at IIT Madras, so I opted to teach. Honestly though, I didn’t envision myself staying in the institute for long and rather spent more time understanding Indian politics and reading about Gandhiji.
At the same time, since I was an engineer-turned-professor, I also started looking for collaborations with industries which were non-existent back then. Most industries imported technologies from abroad and sold the manufactured products at a premium cost. There weren’t any efforts taken to build indigenous technologies. I was young and brash and I remember giving a statement to the media that I would develop a certain technology in-house which was being imported, if given a nominal amount of money. I might have overestimated myself but listening to that statement, a company chairman contacted me and handed me one lakh rupees to develop that technology. With the help of some of my Bachelor’s students, we managed to build the working prototype. But it was nowhere close to a production-ready model. To my surprise, the chairman was impressed and even went on to announce to his Canadian providers of the original technology that he was ending the partnership with them. This allowed the company to bring down the production cost from 65,000 to 35,000 INR and the volume of production tripled. In the end, even though that prototype of ours never made it to the market, it helped India become more technologically self-reliant.
Eventually, as opposed to what I had thought of, I actually stayed back at IIT Madras and continued teaching. When I became a PhD supervisor, I ensured that my students worked on different areas and topics which personally allowed me to broaden my research and knowledge base. I encouraged my Master’s students to build products and transfer the technology effectively to the industry. This practice, over the years, formed the foundation for setting up the Research Park and Incubation Center at IIT Madras which promote a synergistic interaction between academia and industry.
In my fifty years of teaching at IIT, I can say that engineering students, no matter which college they belong to, have a lot of potential; it is our education system that lets them down. Those coming from tier-2 and tier-3 colleges to do a Master’s at IIT often do exceptionally well and transform industries. So I think it is our job as teachers and this system that we do not let our students’ energy and passion die down.
IITs usually put more emphasis on mathematical and analytical skills which do not help build strong theoretical foundations, but I strongly believe that as PhD students, one must focus more on the theoretical aspect of research. That value has somewhat diminished in recent times because of our competitive nature to publish papers and generate patents at an exponential rate. Papers and grants do help a student get their PhD degree but it is not a sustainable model; such practices do not enable researchers to build products at low costs, take them to the market and improve our manufacturing skills as well as minimizing overall production costs.
When IITs came up, the focus was more on producing the best undergraduates of the country but now our focus has shifted to the PhDs as well. The onus is therefore on us, the supervisors, to guide them to do good research and not merely chase university rankings or just aim to publish papers. Only then, we will truly pursue quality research and realize Nehru’s vision of IITs being built as the cornerstone of industrial, scientific and technological edifice of the nation.
My grandfather was in a meeting with Vinobha Bhave and others when IITs were first announced. Based on detailed discussions on how the Indian society benefited from the great universities of the past like Nalanda and Takshshila, it was agreed that IITs would prove to be good for the country and its people. But at the same time, in order to make them great, we need the best of teachers, students and resources to make the next wave of leaders. IITs were built as the reflection of the progress that society made. If the society does well, it means IITs have done their job.”
-Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala, PhD in Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, University of Maine
Editor’s Note: Prof. Jhunjhunwala is currently a Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering at IIT Madras. He is also the Principal Advisor to the Minister of Power, MNRE and Railways, Govt. of India. He has been a pioneer in establishing academia-industry collaboration in India and built India’s first university affiliated business park (IITM Research Park). He is a recipient of the highest civilian honor, Padma Shri in India and has received many other awards like Shanti-Swarup Bhatnagar award and the like.
Interviewed, written and curated by Mahathi Bhargavapuri, Soumyadeep Datta and Vaishnavi Bhope