By Anand Sinha
Edited by Anandita Malhotra, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
On September 24, the Mars orbiter- spacecraft of India reached the orbit of Mars, giving the country a great moment of pride. India became the first country in Asia to have a Mars orbiter successfully launched, since the Chinese Mars mission had failed. India joined the elite club of the countries who have a successful Mars mission, joining the league of USA, Russia and ESA (the collective enterprise of some European countries). The mission would also let the country forget the bitter memories of the GSLV debacle. The spacecraft will orbit around the red planet and study its atmosphere and related physics. Previous missions have already established the presence of methane. We will now look forward to what new discoveries the Indian machine makes.
The biggest plus point of the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is its economic cost, approximately INR 450 crores ($ 72 million), which is even below the budget of many Hollywood film projects. But the low cost also has its repercussions on the efficiency of the craft. It will come close to the planet once every 3.2 days, which is a very low stats according to the leading scientists. To study a planet and that too for looking for the possibilities of life on a planet, this is not enough. The mission, like previous space missions of India, has not been left out of criticism. Many western space organisations and the ex- ISRO chief himself had cast doubts over the success of the project.
The strongest criticism of such space projects has been that there is, in the first hand, no need for a poor country like India, to invest in such projects. From a utilitarian point of view, this is indeed true. Whether there is life on the red planet or not is, of course, a very curious question. But if the answer is positive, what is to be done about it? For once, let us assume for the sake of assumption that human life is possible on Mars. But in no way is India going to set up colonies for its common citizens in even a very distant future and, there seem to be no plans for a wealth- generating space tourism programme on the part of India. So for what reasons is an enormous amount of public money being spent on space programmes of this kind in a poor country like India?
Once an interesting discussion had taken place in my school classroom years ago. Our chemistry teacher told us that most countries launch their space programmes to speculate about the possibility of life on other planets because the climate of earth will probably become so toxic in the near future that life would be a hell on earth. A friend suggested, perhaps naively, that it would be far more economical if the people are provided with suites designed to tackle the adverse climate of the earth. Our teacher shed his formal position as a teacher for a while and said that this is a world with all the countries competing against each other for the dominance over the resource- rich regions. It is precisely why most of the wars take place. Here lies our India amidst this chaos, with a large population under the poverty line. Do you think that these people, who cannot even afford a simple dinner suit, can afford to buy a suit designed to deflect UV? And do you think that the Indian state, mostly relying on foreign aid, will ever give its citizens these suits for free? Can it even afford to? Yes, that man was a cynic. But he had a point.
While the country’s political leadership and the urban bourgeoisie may have an illusion of India being a new superpower and the 21st century being an Asian age, this is far from true in this highly hierarchical, caste- and poverty- ridden country. This is a country with high malnutrition rates in children, illiteracy and unemployment. What good is the Mars mission of India going to do for these problems? Noted economist Jean Dreze had in the very beginning called it “the Indian elite’s delusional quest for superpower status”.
The criticism of the MOM and the like projects is justified when we realise that this is no private enterprise. These are essentially state- sponsored projects. Why the Indians have to imitate the superpowers is beyond apprehension since we are poles apart from those countries, though India can certainly boast of many billionaires. Even the lowest strata of the population of these countries is at par with the average Indian middle class. The needs of both the worlds are different and it should reflect in the policies. It is a well- known fact that it was out of the rivalry between the USA and the USSR during the Cold War era that so many space programmes were launched during the period, with others joining the league.
Most Indian policy- makers argue that it would be more appropriate for India to focus on the space programmes, regarding communication and weather. The smartest minds of India more bent on speculating the possibility of life on Mars and other planets must not be discouraged, and should go to organisations based abroad. But as long as the Indian state has not conquered its battle against poverty, unemployment, casteism etc. on a concrete level, it must not invest in these speculation- based projects and rather concentrate over a better implementation of its welfare programmes.
Currently based in Delhi, Anand is an English literature student at the Delhi College of Arts and Commerce, University of Delhi. After working as a content writer and editor for an online firm for a few months, he interned at Youth Ki Awaaz. Sinha defines his political stand as centre-left. His interests include literature, cinema, music, philosophy and world politics.