Ashok Jhunjhunwala: Reengineering Rural India

The TeNet group cofounder creates telecom, banking, and electricity systems to lift up underserved communities

3 min read
Ashok Jhunjhunwala: Reengineering Rural India
Photo: Naveen PM

The first time Ashok Jhunjhunwala and his team helped install an ATM in rural South India, around 2005, the villagers didn’t like what they saw: They knew that the new bank notes it issued would be suspected as counterfeit, in contrast to soiled notes, considered authentic because they’d been in circulation.

Ashok Jhunjhunwala

IEEE Fellow

Age: 61

Occupation: Cofounder of the TeNet group

Location: Chennai, India

Hero Moment: Promotes robust and affordable technologies to lift up India's poor.

It was an eye-opener for Jhunjhunwala, a professor of electrical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IITM), who heads the Telecommunications and Computer Networks (TeNet) group there. His goal was to develop a low-cost ATM that could run on solar power, to serve villagers who typically had limited or no access to financial services. Jhunjhunwala had to redesign the ATM to handle soiled notes, a difficult task because such notes are much less uniform than new notes. It was a good demonstration of how low-cost systems can require more sophisticated designs than conventional systems.

The ATM, Gramateller Duo, was built by Chennai’s Vortex Engineering, guided by Jhunjhunwala and faculty from IITM. But it’s only one of the 80-odd products Jhunjhunwala has fostered, many incubated at IITM’s Rural Technology and Business Incubator (RTBI), where he’s professor-in-charge of the IITM research park. He is also on the board of directors for numerous Indian tech companies.

Jhunjhunwala is currently busy combating blackouts by working on solar DC power for homes and offices. At his IITM office, he gestures toward the devices surrounding him, saying, “This room is powered on DC—all lights, fans, TV, laptop, charger. There is no AC power…DC-powered and energy efficient devices decrease power consumption by 50 percent.”

He and his team are working on the concept of off-grid homes—in which individual homes run on solar power alone—and what they call GOA (green offices and apartments) for multiple dwellings, where each apartment can set the DC-power limits from 100 to 400 watts and solar power can be supplemented from the grid. “We have designed and commercialized these two concepts. The system can be expanded by using more solar panels,” he says.

In India, 32 percent of homes receive no power. Decentralized-solar homes, generating an average of 500 W of solar power per home, could generate enough power to equal current total Indian domestic consumption, says Jhunjhunwala.

When power cuts occur today, there’s a blackout. The AC power supply from the grid to homes is completely switched off. Instead, Jhunjhunwala and his colleagues, including Bhaskar Ramamurthi, IITM’s director, suggest a brownout fallback that would use 10 percent of the normal power supply from a DC line.

Although solar powered, the DC system will have storage so that it can provide electricity around the clock. It can power three LED tube lights, two fans, and a cellphone charger or three lights, one fan, and one 24-inch TV. “This is done without any change in the power grid. The only change required is at the substation, where a brownout instead of a blackout is implemented, and at homes, where this box provides two lines,” Jhunjhunwala explains.

The system has been successfully tested at IITM, and it’s now being tested at some homes in four states. It can certainly banish much suffering during the hot Indian summers.

A desire to help humanity has driven Jhunjhunwala ever since the late 1980s, when he worked on the idea of one telephone for every person to empower rural India. Back then, there were only 8 million domestic lines. The dream? To make it 100 million. For his contributions, he received India’s prestigious Padma Shri award, in 2002.

Even today, Jhunjhunwala continues to believe in “training people to become wealth creators in India, where there is so much poverty—to get them out of it, give them opportunities to grow. That’s the driving force of my life.”

This article originally appeared in print as “Ashok Jhunjhunwala.”

About the Author

Geetha Rao is a freelance writer based in Bangalore, India. She says learning about Ashok Jhunjhunwala work was “mind-blowing—a call center to help farmers, a telephone advisory service for moms-to-be, solar DC–powered homes to combat India’s hot summers. Jhunjhunwala has left no stone unturned to help the poor lift themselves out of poverty.”

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