Communications Research: Pioneering Work of Dr. Binod Agrawal in SITE

Last week, another of our gurus passed away. Dr. Binod C. Agrawal wore many hats in his life, and it is impossible in a short piece to do justice to his work . But we knew him as a kind and generous mentor, who never stinted in sharing his time, advice, wisdom and wit with the young rookie educators we were when we first met him.

He was then at the Development Communications Education Unit of ISRO. In the communications sector, he was legendary. He had after all been part of the historic SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment), termed by some as the greatest communication experiment in history. SITE was an experimental satellite communications project designed jointly by NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) which made available informational television programmes to rural India. It broadcast programmes to over 2500 villages across 6 states in India, in 1975-76. Dr. Vikram Sarabhai’s dream of India using technology to reach the most deprived was the basis of the experiment.

Everything about the project was unique—the vision, the audacity of the dream, the technological challenges, the operational challenges, and the challenge of making a difference to people’s life.

The last is where Dr. BA’s contribution came in. The contours of the programme were clear. It would broadcast (a) educational television (ETV) school children in the age group of 5-12 years and (b) instructional television (ITV) for adult audiences, primarily designed for neo-literates and illiterates. ETV programme was focussed to make education more interesting, creative, purposive and stimulating and also to create an awareness in the changing society. The ITV for adult viewers was to cover incidents of national importance, improved practices in agriculture, health, hygiene, family planning, nutrition, etc. and some recreation programmes.  

The purpose of the project was to provide information that was useful, relevant and actionable by the target audiences—the people in these most remote, deprived villages. But what did the people there need and want to know? This was the first question that Dr BA and others in the team had to grapple with. What were the information gaps? Without a proper understanding of that, the programme would not really be useful. Hitherto, such studies used to depend essentially on survey methods. Dr. BA, with his background in anthropology, for the first time deployed qualitative studies, to supplement and complement traditional methods. Through innovative research design and large field teams spending time in the target villages, SITE programming could answer the real questions and concerns that people had.

Dr. BA’s work did not stop there. At the instance of the Planning Commission, the impact of SITE was thoroughly evaluated—through a Bench-Mark Survey during July, 1975, a Concurrent Observation, and Repeat Survey in 1976. He was involved in these as well.

The evaluation validated the needs assessment done by the communications research team. 78% of the development programmes were rated as good and over 90% as relevant to the local situations. About three-fourth of the respondents felt that the development programmes were, on the whole, useful and conformed to the local conditions. Over one-fourth of the viewers could acquire detailed knowledge of the new practices shown on the television.

Dr. Agrawal’s contribution to communications research through his involvement with SITE and agriculture research before that, is summed up in a paper by his long-time associates Dr. Arbind Sinha and Dr. Sudhakar Rao: ‘ is Binod C. Agrawal, trained in cultural anthropology, who devoted his time for conducting communication research using anthropological methods at the Indian Agriculture Research Institute, New Delhi during the early 1970s. A major boost to this field came with his engagement with the now iconic Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) of Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in the mid-1970s..that has brought anthropology in close relationship with development and communication, especially, in the rural context. It helped make communication an integral part of the discipline of anthropology.’

Dr. Binod Agrawal

Dr. BA was not one to sit in an office and design research protocols. How deeply he and his team were involved in the field during SITE can be gauged from a report by the Resident Representative of NASA in India, Dr. Howard Galloway: ‘Just checked with Dr. Binod Agrawal, Chief of the Research and Evaluation Cell (REC). He gave me the following information. All of his staff take evaluation very seriously. When their DRS has trouble, they get immediate help. Example: Recently Dr. Binod was in a village when the TV cut off. Within five minutes his staff had borrowed a motor bike and set off for the subcluster maintenance center (SCM). Returning shortly, he brought the needed part and put the set back into operation. Because it is so much effort for a service man to get to the village to replace a fuse as a circuit card, the REC staff has relieved his burden. They carry fuses and set right the TV sets at once. On his recent trip, Binod saw a villager from a nearby village come furiously pedalling to an REC village, His TV was out. The REC staffer, riding on the back of the bike, went to the sick set, replaced the fuse and restored peace in the village.

It was this commitment and passion shared by the SITE team which made the project an international landmark in space experiments. Talking to Dr. BA more than a decade after these experiences, we could still feel the excitement.

Dr. Agrawal was Founder Director of Mudra Institute of Communications Ahmedabad (MICA), which is one of the most respected communications institutions in the country. He was also Founder Vice Chancellor of Himgiri Zee University, and till recently Professor of Eminence and Director General TALEEM Research Foundation.

He taught so many of us so much.
May his soul rest in peace.


To Shruti, his daughter who was a dear colleague.

And thanks to Dr. Arbind Sinha his colleague and another doyen in the world of development communications, for the chat which helped develop this article.

3 thoughts on “Communications Research: Pioneering Work of Dr. Binod Agrawal in SITE

  1. A very sad moment indeed. He was one of the few who genuinely enquired about our well-being both from the health front and at work.
    A pleasure to meet him just for the warm smile he sported…
    Extremely helpful.
    A very sad news for anyone who knew him.
    Prayers and heartfelt condolences to his family and friends 🙏🏼


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