Satellite TV comes to India, but will it play in Amedabad?

Barring any crossed wires or sunspots, India plans to beam its first television broadcast via satellite especially for rural villages on Aug. 15.

The date, exactly 35 years after India achieved independence, could go down in history as the start of the most powerful means of integrating a largely rural nation, now divided by dozens of languages, separatist movements, and communal clashes.

Or else the attempt to create a ''global village'' on the airwaves could flop for lack of an audience.

The broadcast will reach only about 15,000 of India's 550,000 villages in six of the country's 22 states. Transmitters, community television sets, and electricity are still in short supply.

Then there is the problem of the satellite, INSAT 1-A, built by Ford Aerospace of the United States and launched in April. Its solar panels are not fully operating. Broadcasts can be only two hours, and the satellite may last only three years at best.

But the main task for broadcast officials will be just keeping the attention of village viewers. With limited money and bureaucratic style of programming, the government television agency, known as Doordarshan, has struggled to improve its style for the national hookup.

A small experiment in rural television six years ago revealed a drastic drop in viewership after a few weeks. Officials admit the shows were not ''relevant.''

Television is not new to India. The first station was opened in New Delhi in 1959. But it wasn't until the 1970s that eight more stations started up, based in cities and reaching only about 15 percent of India's 700 million people.

In 1976, Doordarshan began to boost its budget by allowing commercials over these city stations. The advertised products range from roach killer to hair-removal creams. In December, a second channel will be allowed for sponsored programs. Private companies can back productions that have been cleared by Doordarshan in exchange for commercial time. One-quarter of the programs can be imports.

For the village broadcasts, however, commercials and foreign shows are a long way off. (''I Love Lucy'' shows are a favorite in cities.) As in many other developing countries, the government, aware of television's influence in Western nations, keeps a tight grip on what reaches the masses.

''If you create demands for goods that the people can do without, then you set back the nation,'' says N. L. Chowla, director of the Indian Institute for Mass Communications and an adviser to Doordarshan.

''TV can create political tensions. The people suddenly are aware of products , but they don't have the means to buy them. The minimum needs of villagers do not include cosmetics, fancy clothes, or electric watches,'' he says.

The official TV policy, he adds, is ''to educate people and build a social structure for modernization.''

This government-sponsored education via the tube includes telling villagers about their rights. ''Most of the lower castes don't even know there is a minimum-wage law,'' one official says.

Color TV sets are being introduced to India, with manufacturing and assembly starting this fall. ''The color will help ensure greater viewership,'' says a planning commission member. Also, solar-powered TV sets are in the works for some villages lacking electricity.

A glimpse at what villagers have in store for them can be found outside the textile mill city of Amedabad. A tiny 1-kilowatt transmitter continues to broadcast to about 100 villages, left over from the rural TV experiment in 1976.

Each night, an 80-minute program tells viewers about farming, health, family planning, and the latest government development projects. To enliven the show, villagers are asked to write their own plays. The most popular themes are land-grabbing and cheating by traders. Also popular are skits about quarrels between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law.

Using Sony portable video cameras, the station also interviews farmers about their complaints, then asks officials what they are doing about them. Several officials have been forced to resign as a result.

''The villagers were grateful that TV had exposed their grievances to the proper authorities,'' says J. B. Desai, station director.

In some villages, the sharp divisions among castes have been broken by the practice of watching television before the community set. Knowledge of animal husbandry and family planning has increased over the level prevailing in villages without television.

''Television can be the most democratizing force in the country,'' says A. A. Shroff, director of the TV center in Bombay.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.