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Evolving a viable economic model is the next step

G Madhavan Nair
Indian Space Research

How do you see space, rocket science and technology coming to the help of common man?
The Indian Space Programme, right from its inception, has been concentrating on how this technology can be used to solve the day-to-day problems of man and the society. This has been the vision of Dr Sarabhai, and we have truly lived up to his spirit. In the mid 70s, we have carried out a programme to spread knowledge and education to the rural people.

It has been a unique experiment, and more than 2000 villages in the different parts of India benefitted. This has not only demonstrated the capability of audio visual medium, but how it can be integrated to address the problems of rural people, and how the solutions can be communicated to them in an understandable manner. The logical extension of this has been the EDUSAT network supplementing the regular education in schools, colleges and technical institutions.

In remote sensing applications, we have taken the lead early with IRS satellites, conceived to meet the specific needs of agriculture, fisheries, forestry and water resources management – the areas that really touch the lives of the people. We have made sure, the composition of the spectral bands and the resolutions are tuned to meet specific applications. Be it CARTOSAT with its stereo viewing capability and one metre resolution, RESOURCESAT with multispectral imaging capability, or the recently launched Indian Mini-Satellite (IMS), all these are targeted for meeting specific requirements. The programme to provide advisories on the potential fishing zones, operationalised by the Department of Ocean Development, is a successful one. I don’t think there is one such programme running elsewhere in the world. Coastal villages of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Kerala and other maritime States have been benefiting from this information. If you look at our communication and remote sensing programmes, on the one side we develop high technology on our own, and on the other, we try to achieve as much as possible in applications, even excelling world standards in some areas.

So far, the applications are driven by government departments. We are slowly seeing more people-oriented efforts coming in. Do you see that happening with VRCs? Do you see rural people driving certain applications?
Village Resource Centre is a concept wherein we have integrated remote sensing applications with local development plans and connectivity that can be used for tele-education, telemedicine and so on. It is a selfcontained system, which meets the basic needs of the villages. Initially we have put up a few VRCs in selected locations, and have also provided certain contents. Now, people are increasingly realising the advantages of such a system, and the demand for VRCs is very high. Voluntary organisations interested in contributing to the rural development are partners in this venture and the programme is really gaining momentum. The success of voluntary organisations working with the villagers is tremendous. I don’t have figures at this moment, but I see great enthusiasm in how the villagers are going for water harvesting, adopting alternate land use practices in cultivation, how they are addresssing skill development problems, basic needs of agriculture like better tools and better information access, along with training in areas like carpentry, electrician, plumbing skills, etc. The digital connectivity has enabled the expert centres in training the rural youth on advanced techniques, help them perform better, and improve their income levels. For example, in Tamil Nadu, a course has been conducted for students at 10th standard level, and in one year, around one thousand of them have been trained to carry out skilled jobs like electrical, plumbing and carpentry. They have used this knowledge for self-employment. Agriculture sector will show results after a few years. With the changes in land use, economic benefits will directly accrue to them. One example is the Sujala project being implemented in Karnataka. It is a World Bank funded project for watershed based development. We have been providing technical advises as well as services. Over the last few years, the reported figures have shown up to 40% increase in the income levels. So, these tools are definitely powerful.

What is your idea about institutionalising the whole process?
We have already demonstrated this fact with about 400 VRCs, and I can say that about 80% of them are 100% successful. The remaining will catch up soon. It all depends on the interest of the user community. I expect that State and Central governments will come forward to take up further expansion of these networks. We, on our part, have been encouraging the voluntary agencies. The Union Rural Development Ministry has been appraised about this. They have shown interest to put some investments in this area. State governments have been appreciating this concept. The potential for expansion is high. But we are not sure of one thing; that is how far we can convert this into a revenue model to sustain this activity. The major objective of this activity is to serve the people in the villages, especially the poor people. To make the services affordable to these people, government will have to subsidise such schemes. Government is investing in many areas of rural development. And looking at the benefit, different ministries are expected to come forward to expand the project. Even if we set up one VRC for a cluster of about 10 villages, the potential is for setting up about 60,000-70,000 VRCs in the country. Of course, the volume of activities in establishing VRCs and providing services has its own commercial aspects. More than that, the benefits accrued indirectly and directly will payback more than what we have invested. It can also supplement some of the e-governance aspects. Such a network can cater to remote areas where terrestrial connectivity is not available. So, if you say, e-governance service can be charged, it can perhaps bring some income to the people who are managing the system. So it is quite possible to evolve this into a revenue model.

Some people talk about the PCO model. Sam Pitroda has turned the telephone, which has been a private instrument, into a public facility. And it became viable because it has provided many other services along with it. Do you think something of that sort can be done with VRCs?
The concept of VRC is similar. We are taking digital connectivity to the remotest parts of our country where there is no connectivity at all. The second aspect is providing multiple services through the same set up. The system is available on 24×7 basis. One may use it for planning and execution purposes for 3-4 hours and the remaining time is available for providing services, knowledge transfer and exchange, intra-net services and other activities. Further expansion to smaller villages and even to the doorsteps can be conceived if you go in for a combination of complementary communication technologies including the wireless with VRC networks. We are in the process of conceiving such a system. IIT Madras has developed one such system and we have to see how best we can marry the VRCs with such systems. With the expansion of VRCs, the bandwidth requirement will go up, and we will require up-to half a dozen satellites to service all the villages in the country. It then becomes an investment aspect with demands for orbital slots, newer frequencies for meeting operational needs, etc. These aspects pose more challenges at the national level. Rural connectivity is the biggest problem today. The nearest telephone booth is about 30-40 Km in more than 30,000 villages. Reaching such places is a tremendous task. We will try to evolve a good, viable economic model, which can be replicated. That will be our next step.

You talked about minisatellite. Do you think something of this sort can directly fit into a programme like VRCs?
About 20 years ago, our IRS satellite weighed 850 Kg. It has been providing multi-spectral data useful for agriculture, disaster management, etc. Today, we have been providing the same capability with 80-100 Kg satellite. At this weight, the cost of the satellite comes down, cost of the launch comes down, they become more affordable, and if we want frequent observations, we can have a cluster of them. Today, it is not just sufficient to look at the surface of the earth. We should look at the atmosphere in more detail, especially when we have environmental problems. There are a lot of scientists waiting with good ideas to study the coupling of ionosphere, atmosphere and the solar system, such experiments become affordable. Also, a low cost terminal can directly relay information in a radius of about 100-150 Km. This makes it a good tool for local development. So mini-satellite experiment is a unique step for expanding space based activities.

Apart from supplying hardware, do you see any area where the industry can contribute? Is there a scope for the industry to look upon this as a potential market that is largely unexplored?
Again, we have to look at our economic condition. In a country like America or in Europe, a farmer can afford to pay. There are just about 2% farmers in their countries and their income levels are high. But here in India, 70% of our population lives on agriculture. And they don’t have adequate money to buy food, leave alone being able to pay for such services. So, it becomes by and large driven by the government sector to start with. As time goes, perhaps these services can be charged.

More than the industry, public participation is important. If villagers can form cooperatives, such agencies can channelise the data and the type of improvement they seek, and then they can make it commercially viable. A private company investing in such venture will look for the returns tomorrow, and it is just not possible in an area like this. You ought to have patience, invest money and wait for a few years. Only then this will start paying.

One of the things catching up in agriculture sector today is the concept of direct marketing or direct retailing. Do you see VRCs acting as some sort of marketing agency?
Yes, VRCs can definitely supple- ment. If you want to pass on the knowledge and information regarding agriculture and related things like the soils, seeds, manures, etc., VRC is the right choice. But we have to make it into a commercial model.

Precision agriculture is an area where partnerships between industry, agricultural universities and the villagers will work. Villagers can collect samples, do preliminary analysis and pass them on to the universities for study. The university should be able to provide the expert advice, and that advice should be implemented by the industry that is coordinating. If such a partnership can evolve, the programme will be a success.

Are we looking at some sort of satellite sensor which will be able to help in such an endeavour?
Presently, we don’t have that resolution capacity fully. We need to expand our spectral bands. The hyper-spectral imaging we have introduced in our mini-satellite is a good beginning in this direction. And suppose you find an operational system to go with the mini-satellite, it will require half a dozen satellites to cover the entire country on a daily basis. We can provide such a cluster that will facilitate spatial resolution as well as multi-spectral imagery.

Do you see the utilisation of VRC network in building national infrastructure by providing multiple services? The national approach to this programme is actually to bring in major stakeholders together because it is not possible for ISRO alone to build all the 60,000-70,000 VRCs it proposed. So, there seems to be a lot of scope for public/private partnership so that multiple agencies can come together.
We have taken an initiative in this direction and made a projection. Rural Development Ministry has also earmarked certain funds in the current plan. Some of the State Planning Boards have taken note of it and are making provisions. Kerala is the first States to take initiative and other States may follow suit. I am sure, as activities multiply, we will be able to devise public-private partnerships. But more than that, participation of the villagers is important. How the village panchayats contribute to this is an important aspect. In fact, some MPs too have expressed interest to set up VRCs in their constituencies. There is a need to set up a national mission to realise 60,000-70,000 VRCs and this requires lot of funds. There is scope for industry. But it is a massive project and has to be taken up at various layers.

Considering the rural heterogeneities in India, is there a plan to custom make the functioning of VRCs to meet the needs of the local people?
In our initial experiments, we have precisely addressed this problem. When we had set up the first set of VRCs, one had been in coastal region, second in plains and the third in the arid region. There has been a lot of contrast and based on the assessment of the local needs, specific advisories had been given. To understand different problems of the farmers in different regions, we try to tie up with local agricultural universities. And to give educational programmes, it is important to capture local dialects. Otherwise, we cannot communicate to them properly. This model is working very well.