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The Smart Techie was renamed Siliconindia India Edition starting Feb 2012 to continue the nearly two decade track record of excellence of our US edition.

Technology & Entrepreneurship: India’s Roadway to Development

Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
 Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala
Often, I’m asked about the state of ‘research’ in India. In spite of having one of the best educational institutes in the world, IIT, not much has come from India that can impact the world. Academic research has been the key driving force behind the innovations in the west. So why is it different in India? How can the academia contribute to the country’s growth? The first step can be taking lab research out to the market as a fully functional product. But what is developed in the labs is a prototype and cannot be mass manufactured; though it works for a few hours and suits academic observation but not the industry. The academicians need to work in collaboration with the industry and redesign the product to suit market needs. Though there are cadres of people here and there who have started implementing this, this academia-industry collaboration amounts to hardly one percent of faculty.

There also needs to be an increased academia-industry interface so that technology can be used more effectively to solve every day problems. When I had come back to India in 1981 after completing my masters from the U.S., I remember applying for a telephone connection for my home and I was told that it would take at least 8 years to get one. When I came across a similar response when I wanted to apply for an LPG gas connection, I thought, “If it took 8 years for the upper middle class to get a telephone then what about the middle class and those from the lower middle class and others. Being a part of one of the best institutes in the world and with the amount of funds that the institute has access to, we should fundamentally transform India.”

We at IIT-M started focusing on ways to get into the industry and see what their needs were and what we, as academicians, could contribute. During one such brainstorming sessions we came up with an idea called the ‘paanwala telephone’ to solve the telephone problems.

Almost every street in the country had, as it still has, a ‘paan’ shop and it was unique because it was open for almost 16 hours a day, 365 days a year. Why not put a telephone next to every such shop, which would be accessible within 50 meters of every house? When people make calls, the shopkeeper could have a part of the money charged. This is how the STD/PCO booths we have today at every street corner came into existence.

This initiative was launched within two years without much investment and we saw almost 700,000 STD/PCOs set up all across the country. This single-handedly revolutionized the telecom revenue. What is more, all of a sudden connecting to people within or across the cities became an affordable reality for ordinary middle class people.

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