India's Satellites Help Farmers, Fishermen

Nobody would mistake India for a leader in outer space. Many Indians are hopeful that the launch this week of the Chandrayaan I spacecraft, which will orbit the moon in search of water, will mark a turning point for the nation's space program. The Indian mission will carry instruments for the U.S. and European space agencies in addition to its own Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Judging from local media coverage, Indians are following the mission almost as closely as the gyrations of the stock markets.

The Indian space program is already far ahead in one respect: its use of space technologies to solve the everyday problems of ordinary people on the ground. For more than 20 years, India has been quietly investing hundreds of millions of dollars in its earth-sciences program with an eye toward helping farmers with their crops, fishermen with their catches and rescue workers with management of floods and other disasters. "India is leading the way in the approach towards the rationale for earth observation," says Stephen Briggs, the head of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Earth Observation Science and Applications Department.

Measured by the number and sophistication of their satellites, America and Europe may be ahead of India. But with an annual budget of about $1 billion—less than a tenth of NASA's—ISRO covers a lot of ground. It has built and launched 46 satellites, which provide data for at least nine Indian government ministries. Its 11 national communications satellites are the largest network in Asia, and its seven remote sensing satellites map objects on Earth at a resolution of less than a meter. These form the backbone of a series of practical initiatives that, according to a Madras School of Economics study, have generated a $2 return for every $1 spent. "We have clearly shown that we can give back to the country much more than is invested in the space program," says ISRO chairman Madhavan Nair.

The satellite network is the fruit of an effort begun in 1982 to connect India's remote—and often roadless—regions to radio, TV and telephone networks. By 2002, ISRO had expanded satellite TV and radio coverage to nearly 90 percent of the country, up from 25 percent.

India's investment in Earth observation satellites over the years comes to only about $500 million per satellite, about a tenth of the cost of its Western counterparts. After introducing a satellite service to locate potential fish zones and broadcasting the sites over All India Radio, ISRO helped coastal fishermen double the size of their catch. For the government's Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission, begun in 1986, satellites have improved the success rate of government well-drilling projects by 50 to 80 percent, saving $100 million to $175 million. Meteorological satellites have improved the government's ability to predict the all-important Indian monsoon, which can influence India's gross domestic product by 2 to 5 percent.

Next, ISRO plans to roll out satellite-enabled services to hundreds of millions of farmers in India's remote villages. In partnership with NGOs and government bodies, it has helped to set up about 400 Village Resource Centers so far. Each provides connections to dozens of villages for Internet-based services such as access to commodities pricing information, agricultural advice from crop experts and land records. ISRO's remote-sensing data will also help village councils develop watersheds and irrigation projects, establish accurate land records and plan new roads connecting their villages with civilization as cheaply and efficiently as possible. One ISRO partner—the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation—has used satellites to conduct 78,000 training programs for more than 300,000 farmers in 550 villages, teaching them about farming practices like drip-and-sprinkle irrigation, health-care awareness programs for diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, and information about how to access government services. Using satellites to guide reclamation of 2 million hectares of saline and alkaline wastelands is expected to generate income of more than $500 million a year.

The United States and Europe may have beaten ISRO to the moon, but India's vision might just show the way for mankind's next giant leap.