The Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), India’s first attempt to use technology as an educational tool, celebrates its 40th anniversary this month
“The greatest communication experiment in history,” exulted Arthur Clarke, renowned science fiction author. He was referring to the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), which celebrated the 40th anniversary of its launch on August 1. The U.S. developed the technology for a powerful direct broadcasting satellite using a large nine-metre antenna — which opened in space like an umbrella — but had little use for it in a country already saturated with TV coverage. India needed to take the reach of a communication network to rural areas. SITE was where India’s need intersected with American technology, where its problems found a solution.
Marking the first major India-U.S. partnership in space, SITE used National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s first direct broadcasting satellite to beam television programmes to remote Indian villages. Antennae measuring 3 metres, a far cry from today’s direct-to-home (DTH) dish antennae, were used to receive signals.
In 1975, when television was a rarity even in urban India, TV sets for community viewing were set up in schools or Panchayat centres in 2,400 villages in six States — Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Rajasthan.
The selected villages — in the most backward and inaccessible parts of the States — included some in Orissa with no electricity where television sets were powered using automobile batteries. Villagers were able to watch programmes related to health, agriculture and development, in their own language. In addition, SITE also broadcast education programmes for children, also organising a special training programme for as many as 50,000 school teachers. Also linked to SITE was the Kheda Communications Project, India’s first rural community project in Kheda, Gujarat, which aided many innovations in communication.
SITE epitomised Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)’s commitment to an application-oriented approach where technology would be used to solve the real problems of the country. The choice of the areas and the villages for TV sets was indicative of its dedication to use technology to help the most disadvantaged.
SITE used a foreign satellite, but the hardware — like the earth stations for uplinking programmes to the satellite; the TV sets; and the special direct-reception equipment — was designed and made in India. Producing programmes relevant to to villagers — and in four languages — was also no easy task. Maintaining television sets and sophisticated equipment in remote areas posed extraordinary challenges, as did the involvement of many organisations and State governments.
For villagers who had never seen television before, it proved to be a magic box that produced sound and image. However, the initial amazement soon gave way to the easy acceptance that often comes with familiarity — similar to that seen in the case of mobile phones today. Yet, in the early days, the fascination and wonder experienced by the villagers was truly exhilarating.
SITE was intended as an experiment that would provide inputs for an operational system, and indeed resulted in much learning that proved invaluable for the Indian National Satellite System (INSAT). A year-long experiment was conducted to assess its impact where studies by experts from various disciplines of social science — like anthropology, psychology, sociology and political science — along with communication experts provided useful insights. These were helpful not just in assessing the impact of SITE, but also in understanding the communication needs of the villagers finding ways to address them.
SITE had been preceded, in 1969, by the launch of Krishi Darshan, a programme on agriculture broadcast using community TV sets to 80 villages around Delhi on the only TV station in the country, Doordarshan. The hypothesis that communication — television in particular — could lead to the adoption of new agricultural practices was first tested through Krishi Darshan with success. SITE further tested and validated the feasibility of direct television reception in remote areas, culminating in an operational system.
In the early stages of SITE, the ISRO campus in Ahmedabad was host to an eclectic band of people, young and old, never seen before — or since — in space organisations anywhere in the world. It included engineers, scientists, social scientists, film makers, folk culture experts and playwrights. Their collective efforts marked creative team work at its zenith.
It is noteworthy that an overwhelming majority of ISRO’s SITE team was in its 20s, ample evidence that young people, when properly motivated and empowered, can deliver results. The project provided them with a useful guide to handling challenges, criticism and being professional in managing a team.
SITE weathered many a storm. Credit for its success needs to go to the extraordinary leaders and the very young team associated with it. They were instrumental in launching it on the chosen date of August 1, 1975 and running it despite obstacles. It touched and impacted, for ever and for the better, the lives of millions of rural people; it was also evidence of India’s technological prowess. Equally important was the fact that it changed the lives and sensibilities of each one of us who was part of this glorious adventure.