And Long Before E-Education, there was SITE…

In the education space, stakeholders in India ( at least private
schools and ’learning solution providers’) have moved to E-learning. An estimate is that overall, technology adoption has been accelerated by upto two decades,
thanks to COVID.

Two things stand out. We would not have done it, if we did not have to
do it! While online tutoring had caught on in a big way, educational
institutions were definitely not leveraging technology to the extent
it should have happened—till COVID. The other, more heartbreaking, is
that this is adding to the already stark inequity in educational
access. The point is not to deny access to some because it cannot be
universal. The point is rather to go on a mission to make it
universal!

In contrast—SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment)
undertaken by India in 1975, was a proactive effort to use technology
for education and development communication for the most-unreached.
Imagine 1975, when TVs were hardly seen even in urban households. Here
was an unimaginably bold initiative to take TV to 2400 of India’s most
backward villages in 6 states.

There were questions even apart from our technical ability to do this—was such an experiment necessary for a country at our level of poverty and problems? Surely, there were more pressing problems and more immediate use for the scarce resources? But the conviction of a team led by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, that technology-leapfrogging was critical to solve India’s development challenges,
ensured that the topmost decision makers saw the advantages and they
could make  it happen. (‘Technology-leapfrogging occurs when
decision-makers choose to adopt leading-edge technology, skipping one
or more technology generations’).

This was a NASA-ISRO partnership with the objective of using technology for the education of communities in the most deprived and unreached parts of the country . A NASA broadcasting satellite was used. In the first-ever Indo-US space collaboration, it was positioned over India for the
duration of the experiment (August 1, 1975 to July 1976). The
deeply-researched content on critical issues faced by the community,
from agriculture and health, to culture to short films promoting
scientific temper, the production was done mainly by All India Radio,
with social research and evaluation done by a special team from ISRO,
and with the involvement of experts from a range of the most
significant institutions of India-Tata Institute of Social Sciences, to NCERT. Apart from community programs, there was a rich variety of special educational programs for schools as also massive teacher training.

AA930C61-3377-476F-B4AC-6E6DE5EAB179The programs were broadcast for a few hours a day, and hundreds of
people would gather in the village community hall or wherever the
village had installed the TV. In villages which did not have
electricity, truck or car batteries were used to power the viewing.
People in remote Bihar were watching television while many in Delhi
had never seen one!

SITE was a resounding success in proving that technology had a huge
role to play in solving the real development challenges of the
country. It helped ISRO develop its capabilities in operational
satellite systems and contributed to a sound platform for the Indian
National Satellite System (INSAT). It helped us develop an
understanding of educational software programming, from social
research to production to evaluation. And it helped develop managerial
capacities. It was probably also the first time in India that a very
young group (mainly in their 20s) formed the core of the team taking
responsibility for such a complex task of national importance.

Well-known science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke called SITE ‘the
greatest communication experiment in history’.

So even as education (for some) moves online, here is a Hurrah for the vision of the
giants on whose shoulders we stand! Can that infuse us once again?

And a Hurrah from the Millennial Matriarchs for some of the amazing
people who were part of SITE, whom we have had a chance to interact
with—Prof. Yashpal, Kiran Karnik, BS Bhatia, Binod Agarwal,
Vishwanath, Mira Aghi—to name just a few. We are thankful to life for
giving us these opportunities.

–Meena

A Life Too Short: A Tribute to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai

Today all of us as Indians, and the whole world in fact, see India as a technological power, a force to reckon with. It is easy for us to be confident of ourselves, our technical prowess, and our growing economic power. But in the ‘40s and ‘50s? We were a fledgling nation, and even food security was an issue. Many around the world wondered whether we would survive as a country, as a democracy. And at such a time, there were some people who had the daring, the vision and the confidence, to dream of being a country that would make a difference. One of them was Vikram Sarabhai.

‘Vikram Sarabhai—A Life’ by Amrita Shah tells this story well. It is a book which made me feel proud as an Indian; which said individuals can make a huge difference; which revealed glimpses of what it takes to build institutions of excellence; and which, most importantly said that it is possible to be a wonderful, warm, caring and very human person, and a high-achiever at the same time.

We look around us today—India is launching rockets for developed countries, it is accepted as a nuclear power, it is on the forefront of the IT revolution. But how did we get here? This book gives us some insights. I think this is an important role that a biography plays—being able to connect the present with the historical context, through the achievements and the legacy of one person.

And the book gives us glimpses of other very extraordinary individuals who played a part in Vikram’s life. The book helps one understand the impact that Ambalal Sarabhai or Kasturbhai Lalbhai or Bhabha had on Sarabhai’s work. But though we catch glimpses of the next generation–Dr Kalam, Mr Seshan, Kiran Karnik or Madhavan Nair—we don’t get an insight into how they, as people and professionals, were impacted by Sarabhai. But that’s probably another book!

The book chronicles well the span and breadth of Sarabhai’s achievements—from pure research to scientific administration; from running a pharmaceutical concern to laying the foundation for management education as we know it today; from market research to bringing in scientific approaches to looking at industrial operations; from space to atomic energy.  But what it does even better is to reveal that he set out on each of these diversified ventures with a clarity of purpose and a remarkably unified approach to seemingly very different issues. Sarabhai knew what he was doing. He was not a vain man, but definitely he had no doubts about his ability to take on the most impossible-seeming jobs—even when older and wiser heads thought otherwise. His charm and charisma, which probably helped him overcome many an obstacle, come through. But what also comes through is that his relationship with people was based on a real sense of caring. He did not set out to charm people for what he could get out of them, but probably ended up charming because he was a warm, caring and joyous person who believed in people and respected them.

Vikram the father, Vikram the husband, Vikram the boss, Vikram the son, Vikram the scientist, Vikram the manager—they are all there. Maybe not in depth but definitely outlined evocatively enough to give one a flavour of the person in his multiple roles.

The book is remarkably non-judgmental and matter-of-fact. Though Ms. Shah says that Vikram Sarabhai was a childhood hero and that is why she set about writing his biography, she seems to have been able to resist the temptation to fuzz not-so-pleasant realities. Whether it is his marriage, or his inability to really assert himself and take a firm stand vis a vis individuals in the Department of Atomic Energy, it is told like it was.

I would like to thank Amrita Shah for this biography. We cannot afford to forget our heroes—and Vikram Sarabhai was certainly one of them.

–Meena

Vikram Sarabhai, A Life by Amrita Shah was published in 2007. It is reviewed today to commemorate Dr. Sarabhai’s birthday which falls on 12 August.

The Millennial Matriarchs both count Ahmedabad as home and have worked in institutions which were part of Vikrambhai’s dream. I had the additional good fortune of living on the campus of IIM Ahmedabad as a faculty-spouse. In a large part, we owe what we are to him, albeit indirectly.