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India’s mission to Mars: money well spent? February 6, 2014

Posted by southasiamasala in : Guest authors, India , trackback

Eshan Motwani

In November 2013 India joined an exclusive club of nations to have launched a mission to Mars. Informally referred to as ‘Mangalyaan’ (Mars-craft), the launch represents an unparalleled scientific and technological achievement for India; one that has already drawn praise for its shoestring budget of $78m. Media coverage of the scientific and human efforts involved in managing this mission on an extremely small budget has often been accompanied with attention to India’s wide-scale poverty and social welfare issues. The intention of mentioning these distinct events and circumstances together has seemingly been to question the Indian rationale in launching an ambitious project in light of existing challenges.

The argument that the space program somehow diverts valuable resources away from public welfare projects is imbalanced. It is surprising that global (and some Indian) condemnation of the launch is so readily expressed without considering other activities that have severely drained public funding. The drain in resources from India’s space program is in fact trivial when compared to the effects of corruption and graft that plague India’s public welfare initiatives. Condemning the space program for redirecting attention away from social welfare problems ignores the potential commercial, scientific and long-term impacts of the successful launch.

Photo: Indian Space Research Organisation, Copyright 2008 ISRO

It is unmistakable that the majority of the Indian population suffers from deeply entrenched poverty. As of 2009-10, official figures show that up to 34 per cent of India’s rural population and 21 per cent of its urban population suffered from poverty. In real terms, these figures show that over half of India’s 1.2 billion population is subject to poverty. The challenge of providing adequate relief to such a colossal number of individuals would be demanding for any government. A variety of public welfare projects have been launched in recent years to address this challenge, however their success has often been hindered by the subversive behaviour of those administering and delivering the projects.

Consider for example the National Food Security Act, 2013 whose broad aim is to guarantee subsidized food grain to 70 per cent of India’s population to reduce chronic hunger and poverty. Under the initiative, eligible households receive five kilograms of subsidized wheat, rice and coarse grains each month. These grains can be purchased at significantly reduced prices, ranging from one to three rupees (approximately two to six Australian cents) per kilogram. The initiative is designed to be one of the largest of its kind in the world; however its ambitions will be tested by the notoriously corrupt public distribution system (PDS).

The PDS includes a number of state-authorised Fair Price Shops (FPS) located all across India from where individuals can purchase subsidized grain. The level of corruption inherent in the system is staggering – estimates suggest that up to 60 per cent of all grain stored at FPS’s are stolen by traders to be sold in black markets. Another study found that approximately $14.5 billion in food had been stolen by corrupt politicians over a decade in the state of Uttar Pradesh alone. In an investigation into the inefficiencies of the PDS, a Supreme Court-appointed vigilance committee highlighted that the PDS suffered from: “rampant corruption, black marketing and diversion involving a vicious cartel of bureaucrats, fair price shop owners and middlemen”.

The almost institutional level of corruption established in the PDS can be easily found elsewhere in India. In 2010 the chief minister of one of India’s largest states (Maharashtra) was forced to resign after revelations of his role in assisting relatives of senior politicians in securing apartments meant for war widows. In late 2013 the former Indian railways minister was found guilty of stealing state funds intended to help poor farmers with their livestock while acting as the chief minister of Bihar. Fortunately, not all corruption scandals exclusively target India’s most vulnerable populations – in 2012 it was found that India’s Communications and Information Technology Minister deliberately under-valued mobile phone frequencies and manipulated the application process for licenses, costing the exchequer approximately $40bn in lost revenue.

Amidst fervent criticisms of the launch, one aspect was conspicuously omitted from popular narratives. Coverage of the launch has rarely led to the question – what if the mission is successful? Perhaps this owes to an element of surprise: Russia, China and Japan all failed in their first-attempts to launch a successful mission to Mars (each with considerably larger budgets relative to the Indian effort as well).

From a scientific and social welfare perspective, the advanced research and technology used for the launch could influence the assembly of future imaging and communication satellites. The benefits of advancements in satellite technology were most evident in October 2013 when India’s 11 remote sensing satellites accurately forecast the arrival of Cyclone Phailin. Data provided by the satellites permitted unprecedented disaster planning. The early warning provided by the satellites allowed for the evacuation of approximately 1.2 million people, relocation of 30,000 animals and the safety of countless individuals during a cyclone that resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to schools, homes, crops and the fishing industry. A comparison of this event to a cyclone that fell in the same area in 1999 indicates the value of advancements in satellite technology – Cyclone 05B claimed 10,000 lives, compared to 44 in 2013. Indian satellite technology in 1999 permitted only two days notice of the cyclone’s impending arrival, relative to four days for Cyclone Phailin.

A successful mission could extend the impact of India’s existing satellites – particularly those that address various social welfare challenges. Greater efficiencies could be applied to satellites used for tele-medicine by enhancing the connectivity of speciality hospitals found in major cities to those found in rural and remote areas. Similarly, superior satellite capabilities could benefit Indian fishermen that rely on satellite imaging to guide them towards greater concentrations of fish (via analysis of chlorophyll levels in water). Advancements in satellite technology could further benefit the agriculture sector by improving current technology used to track and approximate yields.

From an economic perspective, a successful mission would further bolster the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) growing reputation and participation in the global space market. Since 1999, India has launched over 35 satellites for other countries through ISRO’s commercial arm, Antrix. Some of these countries have included: France, Germany, South Korea, Israel and Japan. Given the low-cost of Mangalyaan, several analysts have commented that India could increasingly become involved in the global space market (whose revenues for 2012 totalled $304 billion). Should the mission in fact fail in its primary objective to detect traces of methane on the red planet (indicating historical traces of life), the launch nevertheless showcases Indian ingenuity. Accordingly, experts have predicted that ISRO could begin competing for multibillion-dollar contracts in the near future as foreign space agencies look to outsource their space missions to reduce their spending.

In many ways, the successful launch of the mission has already led to a type of benefit that is hard to quantify. The launch on November 5 2013 gave many Indians a sense intense pride at what is entirely a home-grown achievement. Should the launch inspire greater interest in the sciences at a school level, it will be seen as a significant accomplishment in a country where mainstream careers in business, IT and medicine are encouraged from an early age.

Mangalyaan will continue to be a popular topic that divides opinion. There is no question that increased efforts are required to tackle poverty and social welfare issues. Greater accountability and transparency should be implemented into existing and future initiatives to ensure that every rupee of public funds is expended on its target populations. This effort however is not necessary at the expense of the space program. While it is easy to label the launch as wasteful, the space program has already proven itself as having provided an array of benefits to the lives of ordinary Indians. Scientific and technological advancements should therefore be viewed as an element of India’s social welfare programs, rather than being in competition with them.

Eshan Motwani is a Consultant at ACIL Allen Consulting and has an interest in international security challenges and development studies. He holds a Masters degree from the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney.

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