The Hidden Value of India’s Space Program

On the fifth of this month the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) became the fourth space agency in the world to attempt to reach the Red Planet.  ISRO’s Sriharikota assembly and launch facility, in the very south of Andhra Pradesh state, played host to the blast-off of the Mars Orbiter Mission, colloquially known as the Mangalyaan, or Mars vehicle, and the media circus that accompanies any space launch and, in India, pretty much any major government initiative. There were two questions on all lips, which have predominated in subsequent analysis: what was the cost? And what does this launch mean for India?

Image courtesy of Emily Lakdawalla © 2013, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of Emily Lakdawalla © 2013, some rights reserved

The mission was conducted for a record low price of $73 million, cheaper than a Boeing 737-700. However, it is the other costs, both human and political, that make the mission interesting.

The social questions that arise over a relatively poor country like India possessing an advanced space programme are parsed by the Indian media by the epithet “Roti [Bread] or Rocket?” This apparently facetious question raises the obvious criticism of the programme, and highlights an underlying tension in the country. India is a country that subsidises food for two out of every three citizens, and is one of the largest aid recipients in the world, but its government still runs a space programme.

A particularly vehement attack on the programme’s existence came from activist and Indian development economist Jean Drèze, who claimed that the mission “seems to be part of the Indian elite’s delusional quest for superpower status”.[1]  This is an understandable position in a country where many frontline services are provided by non-governmental and civil society organisations, and where the government struggles to provide even basic social services. However, arguments about infrastructure are moot, as a recent bridge between Bombay and the mainland cost $340m[2] and a statue of a long-dead Congress leader $300m[3], as are arguments over the mission’s detrimental effects to the public finances.  Mangalyaan cost just 0.0039% of Indian GDP.[4]

More pressing are concerns from India’s aid partners, such as the incessant UKIP[5], which forgets the UK policy to cut aid to India by 2015 and prioritise business linkages. The fear is that India is misusing funds.  However, these concerns are missing the point.  The calculus in the UK Foreign Office, and US State Department, among other donors, is that aid should be given to India for precisely the reason that it can launch space missions.   For one, aid increases the donors’ soft power in a still very strong and emerging economy; it also increases competition with China, with India acting as a willing proxy.

In support of this are two indisputable pieces of diplomatic and geopolitical manoeuvring: the Americans, through NASA, agreed to help India track the rocket’s trajectory, and the project was announced by Prime Minister Singh shortly after the failed Russian-Chinese partnership Phobos-Grunt mission.  This was both a backhanded insult to India’s cooling ally Russia, and a glove thrown at the feet of the Chinese, in terms of geopolitical and space-strategic reasons, but also commercially.  The Indian plan to launch astronauts in 2016 has been scrapped,[6] with a greater focus on commercial launches, as India is trying to set itself up as the cheap, English-speaking, high-technological alternative to Western investment in China.  The space race is no longer a race for thermo-nuclear supremacy, as each country has an arsenal capable of destroying the other a few times over, and both are developing nuclear-triad second-strike capabilities.   The utilisation of space technology is now a competition for investment.  As India’s economy slows and, like China, threatens to fall into a potential middle-income trap, investment will become the touchstone of India’s foreign policy.  A rocket launch is the perfect vehicle to showcase Indian prowess. Given the end of UK aid, and declining US aid,[7] utilisation of government funds for space exploration is a canny investment.

The impact of the mission on India’s internal workings must not be underestimated, as there are large implications for its internal and national politics.  National pride is also incredibly important to India, a country of very many disparate identities, something to really around, an Indian flag in the stars, will only do good for national morale.  The ruling Congress party government was quick to claim credit for the all-India endeavour, with congratulations from PM Singh and Sonia Ghandi, Congress leader, who said: “Every Indian is proud of this outstanding scientific feat.”[8]  This inclusiveness is key to Congress’ message against the more insular, Hindu centric opposition BJP party. How much good it will do the ailing Congress party in the upcoming election remains to be seen, however.

There are also national and economic elements to a space mission that are not immediately quantifiable.  The inspiration provided by the US missions of the 1960s to a generation who went on to innovate in the country’s burgeoning, and now world-beating, science and engineering sectors is legendary; in an already technology focussed and tertiary education-promoting place like India a boost in this area could only be welcomed. Further, in a sublime response to a question posed by a BBC reporter about the cost-efficacy of the programme, a high official retorted “We have heard these arguments since the 1960s, about India being a poor country not needing or affording a space programme.  If we can’t dare to dream big it would leave us as hewers of wood and drawers of water! India is today too big to be just living on the fringes of high technology.”[9] There are aspects of reaching for the stars that fuel a sense of transcendence, a sense that cannot be told, a striving that lies at the heart of the Indian promise, and therefore Indian nationalism.  In the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, at the birth of India, there comes a time, but rarely in history “…when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”  It could be that India’s forceful entry into the stars will be one of those moments.