18) Top World Technology Award for Balaji (July 2001)

Dr Venkataraman Balaji, Head, Information Systems Unit, ICRISAT, has won the prestigious World Technology Award for his pioneering work in the use of electronic information technologies to better the lives of villagers. Dr Balaji is the first Indian to get this Award.

Dr Balaji received the Award, carrying a plaque (displayed on right by Dr Balaji and Dr Jill Lenne, ICRISAT's Deputy Director General - Research) and a citation, in London, UK, at the end of the just-concluded World Technology Summit – a unique two-day gathering (1-2 July 2001) of over 200 of the world's key players in IT. Scientists, technologist s, entrepreneurs, industrialists, financiers, journalists, and policy-makers had gathered to explore the emerging technologies that will have the greatest impact upon industry and society in the first years of the 21st Century.

Dr Balaji received the award in the category of Education. His work at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, where he worked until last year, involved putting to use modern information and communication technologies in 10 villages in Pondicherry in South India. Using a hub-and-spoke model of data-cum-voice communication these Information Villages communicated with each other and also accessed the Internet.

For example, wave height predictions were obtained from the Internet and supplied to Veerampattinam, a coastal village in which 98% of the families are involved in fishing. The information was downloaded from a US Navy website and converted to suit the latitude and longitude of the village. This was used by the fishers to decide whether to go in to the sea or not. Similarly, thermal mapping of fish aggregation near the shore (25 km) produced by the National Remote Sensing Agency, Hyderabad, was also provided to this hamlet whenever available.

"We took up a simple challenge," Dr Balaji said at the awards ceremony. "We wanted to see if IT could be meaningful to the poorest 20 per cent of the people of India and not just for professionals."

Other locally specific content included the development of a detailed document on sugarcane cultivation; a guide book on application of biofertilisers in rice cultivation; a how-to style document on herbal remedies for minor disorders among children; and a document on local religious festivals. Also, results and mark sheets of high school and higher secondary school examinations were made available through the Internet.

"It was a surprisingly successful hybrid of technologies," Dr Balaji said. "We used wired with wireless for communication, and solar with mains for power supply."

The hub village provided connectivity to the Internet through dial-up telephone lines, and the staff there created locally useful content. The village centers (the 'spokes') received queries from the local residents and supplied information, collected from the hub, back to the villagers.

An important feature of this project was the strong sense of ownership that the village communities developed towards the village centers. The other key feature was the active participation of rural women in the management of the village center as well as in using it. A system of close consultation between the project staff and the rural users evolved, so that information needs could be realistically assessed.

Other awardees this year of the World Technology Network included Craig Venter for decoding the human genome in the category Biotechnology, Shawn Fanning, founder of Napster in the categories Entrepreneurship and Entertainment, and Gordon Moore of Intel in the category IT-Hardware.


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