Societal relevance of the intended programmes is doubtful

"THERE ARE some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned spaceflight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society." This was the clinching argument put forth by Vikram Sarabhai more than 40 years ago, while getting the government commit to the Indian space programme. This is the quotation that greets visitors to ISRO's website. ISRO has admirably lived up to the above axiom. Its track record of reliability (notwithstanding the failure of the last GSLV launch), its commitment to learn from failures, its capacity to develop external sources such as private industries and academic institutions, its ability to retain top-notch talent and the return on shoestring investment are a benchmark for any government aided R&D organisation.

Visible benefits

ISRO's programmes are respected and supported because of their visible benefits to the common man. The great strides in communications, TV broadcasting, remote sensing, weather prediction and disaster management have improved the quality of life for an average Indian. More is in store through applications in telemedicine and using EDUSAT for empowering citizens through education irrespective of geography. In this context, ISRO's plans for manned missions and moon-landing missions come as a questionable surprise. It seems to have drummed up support from a galaxy of experts most of whom have had some stake in ISRO's past projects and programmes. No doctrine is applicable for eternity and Sarabhai's axioms too are eligible to be revisited. I am not convinced that any of the assumptions or environmental factors underlying Sarabhai's vision has changed in the last 50 years to warrant a change of mind in the pursuit of manned missions. ISRO has so far deserved and enjoyed the support of the public at large. I am sceptical whether such support will be forthcoming for the manned missions. In what way would the mission affect the quality of life for the common citizen? There are ample societal applications that await technology (and space technology in particular) based solutions. We have not fully exploited the power of geographic information systems and remote sensing data. The capacity of EDUSAT is under-utilised as of now. Such innovative applications of existing high technology to solve problems rooted in ground reality would attract equal international respect and provide effective platforms for technology demonstration as manned missions. I am not against Rs. 10,000 crore being invested in ISRO. I do not doubt ISRO's technological capability to realise the intended missions - ISRO has passed the test successfully. But I do not feel comfortable about the societal relevance of the intended programmes.