Satellites and saris: 25 years later

Print edition : April 28, 2001

"A NATIONAL programme which would provide television to about eighty per cent of India's population during the next ten years would be of great significance to national integration, for implementing schemes of social and economic development, and for the stimulation and promotion of the electronics industry. It is of particular significance to the large population living in isolated communities."

These words were written by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, India's space pioneer, as far back as 1969. In a paper presented at an international conference, Dr. Sarabhai spelt out his vision of what television could do for India. He argued that communications satellites, which I had first proposed in 1945 and had become a practical reality in mid-1960s, could help India to provide direct broadcast television to reach the least developed rural areas of the country.

Sir Arthur C Clarke in his Colombo home.-ROBERT NICKLESBEERG / GAMMA

Three decades later, satellite television has evolved far beyond what Dr. Sarabhai imagined - and perhaps wished for. Yet it was Sarabhai's vision that inspired Indian space scientists and engineers to usher in satellite television to the subcontinent in 1975-76. It was an important milestone in the history of satellite communications, for India was the first country in the world to use satellites to transmit educational television programming directly to villages. The Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), as it was officially called, involved 2,400 villages in six States. It used a communications satellite borrowed from the Americans, ATS6, to beam television programmes carrying information on family planning, crop production, healthy living and other practical matters that can raise the quality of life - and indeed, often save lives.

Unfortunately, Dr. Sarabhai didn't live to see even the initiation of that daring experiment. After his untimely death, it was brilliantly carried out by his colleagues of the Indian Space Research Organisation and the Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad. The team was headed by Dr. Yash Pal, who later became a winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award for excellence in communications.

I HAD the privilege of playing a small but interesting part in SITE, providing occasional advice and international promotion to the project. My travels in India before and during SITE gave me valuable insights into how developments in communications can produce tangible benefits for large numbers of ordinary people. One of my articles, 'Satellites and Saris' - which has since been reproduced in many publications - ended as follows:


"One of the most magical moments in Satyajit Ray's exquisite Pather Panchali is when the little boy Apu hears for the first time the aeolian music of the telegraph wires on the windy plain. Soon, those wires will have gone forever; but a new generation of Apus will be watching, wide-eyed, when the science of a later age draws down pictures from the sky - and open up for all the children of India a window on the world."

During its twelve crowded months of operation, SITE proved beyond doubt that only comsats could provide India with all the variety of telecommunications required to administer such a large and diversified country. This led to the development and launch of India's own communications satellites, beginning with INSAT-1.

Meanwhile, SITE had an impact on myself in an unexpected way. In 1977, a team of Indian engineers flew into Colombo to install a massive five-metre dish antenna - a generous gift from ISRO. When signals came in loud and clear, it marked the arrival of television in Sri Lanka (which didn't have terrestrial transmissions till 1979). Everyone - from Cabinet Ministers and civil servants to schoolchildren - flocked to my home to watch the programmes. My hospitality bill was enormous.

At an outdoor SITE viewing centre-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Thousands of words have been written about the successes, and occasional failures, of the SITE experiment. The man best qualified to sum them up is Yash Pal. Speaking at a conference on the impact of space exploration on mankind held at the Vatican in 1984, where we were both speakers, he said: "For 1,500 people directly engaged in the experiment, SITE was a deep human experience. It generated new capabilities, demystified space technology, and helped to nucleate a large island of self-confidence. But of far greater significance was the generation of new kinship between technologists and the grassroots problems of the country, a common concern for the ultimate social and human goals."

Those experiments with the 'schoolmaster satellite' now seem to belong to a completely different age, and of course it does. Much has happened since, particularly in the 1990s when commercial satellite television proliferated, opening up fierce competition in the skies over India. Many millions of dishes have bloomed over the subcontinent, and tens of millions of modern-day Apus have grown up taking satellite television completely for granted.

It's been 15 years since I last visited India - to deliver the Nehru Memorial Address in 1986, with Rajiv Gandhi in the chair - so I have no idea how the average Indian viewer copes with the multitude of programmes and channels that became available during the 1990s. But here in Colombo, I'm well within the footprint of satellite transmissions to India, and I sometimes have difficulty discerning local television channels from Indian ones. (That is precisely the point: geographical and political boundaries have blurred in this era of satellite television.)

Even if the novelty of images from the skies has completely worn off, the debates of their social and cultural impacts have not ended. In the early days, I was regularly approached by people who were genuinely concerned as to what the signals from the skies will do to local cultures, traditions and customs. While I share their concerns, I lost patience with some of the complaints levelled by some patronising 'worthies' at the effects of such media. Because some of us frequently suffer from the scourge of information pollution, we find it difficult to imagine its even deadlier opposite: information starvation. I get very annoyed when I hear arguments - usually from those who have been educated beyond their intelligence - about the virtues of keeping happy, backward people in perpetual ignorance. Such an attitude seems like that of a fat man preaching the virtues of fasting to a starving beggar.

Their hypocrisy was well exposed by my friend Yash Pal, who noted, in the 1980s: "In the drawing rooms of large cities you meet many people who are concerned about the damage one is going to cause to the integrity of rural India by exposing her to the world outside. After they have lectured you about the dangers of corrupting this innocent, beautiful mass of humanity, they usually turn around and ask: 'Well, now that we have a satellite, when are we going to see some American programmes?' Of course, they themselves are immune to the cultural domination or foreign influences."

Things must be even more complex now, with over 40 channels available in some parts of India. Watching everything from Hindi movies and cricket matches to world news and Discovery programmes, is India on the verge of having the largest concentration of couch potatoes in the world?

I'm not impressed by the attacks on television because of the truly dreadful programmes that it sometimes carries. Every TV programme has some educational content: the cathode ray tube is a window on the world; indeed, on many worlds. Often it's a very murky window, but I've slowly come to the conclusion that, on balance, even bad TV is preferable to no TV at all.

Sir Arthur C Clarke, 2001

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