Venkataraman Balaji: Fighting Drought With Technology

It's only 500 meters from Venkataraman Balaji's three-bedroom cottage to his office?to say he lives at work is not an exaggeration. Work and home are on a lush, palm-dotted campus that sprawls over 1480 hectares, with more than a dozen two-story buildings housing offices and laboratories. Still, sometimes even half a kilometer can seem like a long way when you have a lot to do.

And Balaji has a lot to do. As head of the Information Systems Unit of Icrisat, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, in Patancheru, a suburb of Hyderabad, in Andhra Pradesh, India, he has set an immediate goal that is both simple and ambitious. He wants to stop drought in Africa and Asia from threatening people's lives. Meanwhile, he spends at least half his time running Icrisat's information infrastructure, which connects its eight centers across Africa and Asia.

Sounds like a job for an agrichemist, perhaps, or maybe, in other times, a rain dancer. But Balaji thinks it is a job for an information technologist, because, he says, only with information and communications technology can the problem be solved. Such technology will allow knowledge of advanced agricultural techniques to spread to rural farmers, and it will link those rural farmers as well to local, national, and international markets. Both those factors, as well as improved drought prediction and the dissemination of that information, will allow information technology to finally defeat drought-created famine, he predicts. He calls this effort Vasat, for Virtual Academy for the Semi-Arid Tropics.

The scale of operations for such an effort is enormous and involves what, to an outsider, would seem like an impossible number of meetings each day. Today, as IEEE Spectrum visited, Balaji, in a pinstriped white shirt, black trousers, and sandals, started out by meeting with a small group of visiting villagers. Crowding into his spartan office, the villagers updated him on their new information center and their effort to build a microcredit system using computers to keep a database of local banks and people.

Later, after a series of administrative meetings, he departed for Delhi to meet with the chairman of a grants commission, followed by a meeting of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. From Delhi, it was on to Bangkok, for a set of meetings organized by the United Nations and the Asia Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions. Meanwhile, he was making plans for an upcoming trip to Afghanistan, to help the Afghan government extend its information infrastructure to the northern and western parts of the country.

Such meetings, which for many engineers might be a trial, are a pleasure for Balaji. "In a day's work, I get to meet policymakers, field researchers, techies, and social activists," he says. "Interacting with front-rank experts across the world, top-level practitioners of new technologies, and rural families is absolute fun." Plus, he says, "I love traveling. I get to know more about ordinary lives. If I hadn't been an engineer, I would have been an anthropologist."

The Vasat project is not the first time Balaji has tackled such an ambitious technological goal along with such a vital humanitarian goal. As director of the informatics center at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, India, he brought the women and youth of 10 villages near the coastal city of Pondicherry online. To do this, he and his team installed VHF radios in each village, along with one central telephone exchange modified to receive video signals on one end and then pass the signals on to copper wires. The VHF radios created a local-area network; the exchange was able to route data and voice traffic through the network and onto the Internet. Another innovation was an uninterruptible power supply using various sources of battery, solar, and line power, optimized by fuzzy logic software.

With this system in place, local volunteers built their own databases, including ones for local market prices for grain, details of government subsidy programs, and pest management information. In the village of Villianur, where 1500 people were dependent upon fishing and had no modern means of navigating their boats, villagers began using the network to obtain the U.S. Navy's wave-height predictions for the Bay of Bengal, and they believe such information continues to save lives today.

Balaji studied both engineering and chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology, in Kanpur, and at the University of Madras, in Chennai, finishing with a multidisciplinary Ph.D. in energy studies. He credits his stint at the Swaminathan Foundation with teaching him that the true job of an engineer is to use science and technology for the greater good. "In India," he says, "there are a lot of people who are less than ordinary, and if we cannot do anything for them, we have no right to be in the business of technology."

A few years down the road, Balaji hopes his current work preventing drought from threatening lives will be self-sustaining and he will be able to move on to work on his dream project. That goal is to create a cloud of nanosatellites?tiny communications satellites, almost the size of cellphones?over small regions to serve as communications outposts in the sky for poor rural communities. "The technology is already tested," he says. "It's only a matter of entrepreneurial initiative to make it real."

Seema Singh is a science writer based in Bangalore, India ( She was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, in 2000-2001.

Editor's note: Reprinted with permission from IEEE Spectrum Careers, the career development Web site of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' (IEEE's) Spectrum magazine and available online.

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