Telephony, business ventures and now, the Aakash tablet. Dr Ashok Jhunjhunwala has been working on reducing India’s digital divide for decades. Lakshmi Krupa meets him

It is a quiet weekend morning and the lanes of IIT Madras are nearly empty. There’s only the call of a cuckoo and the rustling of leaves as a small herd of deer strolls bout. The perfect sort of day to sit indoors and watch the rain. But inside Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala’s office, in the Electrical Sciences Block, a group of people are hard at work spearheading a revolution of sorts. Professor Jhunjhunwala, a Padmashri awardee (for the year 2002), who teaches at the electrical engineering department, is helming the ambitious Aakash tablet’s third version (Aakash 3) that seeks to take the power of a computer to the hands of every student in the country.

“Denying access to technology, is denying power to people and it is to overcome this digital divide that the government is involved in producing cheap tablet computers (priced tentatively at around Rs. 2000 to Rs. 2,500). For a long time now, the government has wanted to create a computer that everyone can afford. Last year, at the PM’s Scientific Advisory Committee’s meeting a presentation was made. The government wanted to re-look this project and that’s when work on Aakash began,” says Dr Jhunjhujwala who, over the last 15 years has been working towards bringing technology to the hands of rural India through various initiatives.

Born in West Bengal to Marwari parents, in a family of business, Ashok Jhunjhunwala comes from a long line of reformists. His grandfather, a Gandhian, worked extensively with Vinobha Bhave as well as Gandhi and even sheltered Muslims, risking the safety of his own family members during Hindu Muslim clashes in Calcutta. “I led a pretty sheltered life until I joined IIT Kanpur,” he says. That’s where he first met people from different walks of life. “I remember this one time when I had gone back home, I saw the struggle of a relative who was marrying off his daughter but was unable to meet the demands of the boy’s parents. It opened my eyes to the real problems of our country,” he says.

After living and teaching in the US between 1979 and 1981, he returned to India with the intention of doing something for the country, taking up a job at IIT Madras. “I wrote to five IITs but the response I got from IIT Madras’ director was astounding and I decided to move here,” he smiles. At IIT Madras, where he has been working since 1981, he, along with a few others, started the Patriotic & People Oriented Science and Technology (PPST). In a sense, it is nationalism and an eagerness to see technology benefit the common man that led to Jhunjhunwala’s interest in rural India. “Technology has to have societal benefits. Close to 70% of our country is rural India and if we don’t take technology to them then how can we claim to be empowered?” he asks.

Fifteen years ago, he embarked on a journey to take telephony to rural India through Tenet (The Telecommunications and Computer Networking Group). Tenet has been working with the same mission that now, Aakash, hopes to fulfil – ‘World-class technology at an affordable price’. “Today, who doesn’t have a cell phone? If technology has uses, empowers and helps people with their vocation and is affordable, people in rural India are willing to spend on it,” Jhunjhunwala adds. But the professor hasn’t stop with telephony. Now through the RTBI (Rural Business Incubation Centre) in the IIT, which he chairs, he not only identifies entrepreneurs who are developing products to benefit rural India but also incubates their businesses. With Desi Crew helmed by Saloni Malhotra, he has helped take the power of BPOs to rural India. With Sreejith N.N’s ROPE that was also incubated at the RTBI, Indian weavers’ products have now reached global brands such as Ikea. “Earlier, I would have to identify youngsters with promise and spirit but now they come looking for us,” he adds, with a sense of satisfaction. If he had chosen to pursue his family business, Professor Jhunjhunwala might have seen success, but thanks to his interest in Science and Technology, rural India now has a handful of dedicated entrepreneurs genuinely interested in making their lives and livelihood better.

“With Aakash, a lot of changes will take place not just in terms of access to digital technology but also the quality of education in our country over the next ten years,” he promises. Over 5,000 IIT students are involved in the development of the tablets currently. “The seven inch device comes with USB port, is wifi enabled and works on Android, which is an open operating system,” he says talking about the current version of Aakash and adds, “We are building applications for the tablet and also talking to vendors who will develop content for the same,” Jhunjhunwala says.

The aim, for everyone involved in the project, is to see how to make this device rugged, useful and affordable to college and school students. “We are also working towards building connectivity as well as an education system that can leverage the technology,” he explains. Video lectures from top teachers in different fields, stored lectures, interactive e-books, multimedia capabilities, animation as well as platforms for students to connect with each other through this tablet… These are some of the features the developers are focusing on. While objective questions and answers can be easily computerised, these developers are working on even computerising long answers. “Subjective responses do need human evaluation, so we are introducing peer reviews for these. This is being tested in my own class currently,” he adds. If this first-of-its-kind initiative works out students will help evaluate each other’s performance. To those sceptic about the feasibility of the project, he says, “I am not putting any date on it but I am very confident that it will be a success and it can happen. We have had not one or two but multiple vendors willing to work with us.”