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It’s not rocket science

If India’s space programme, the world’s fifth largest, is to pull off manned missions and other ambitious projects, it urgently needs to enact a law eliminating grey areas, such as the one that gave rise to the controversial Antrix-Devas deal, says Zia Haq.

india Updated: Feb 11, 2012 23:15 IST
Zia Haq

In a slum along the Mysore Road in Bangalore, the headquarters for the state-run Indian Space Research Organisation, or Isro, dozens of dish antennae jut out from crowded rooftops. They pick up signals directly from one of several home-grown satellites, making 24/7 television possible and spurring direct-to-home services.

“The cable guys stopped servicing our area because nobody would pay,” says S Sudhir, a resident who maintains a public toilet in Bangalore. “Now we can buy recharge TV coupons for even a day’s viewing. This is easy on the pocket.”

Most Indians would consider making satellites and sending them into space high-tech activities far removed from their lives. Yet these activities are closer home than they realise.

The ATMs that urban Indians frequent and constantly want more of use satellites signals to dispense cash. A national telemedicine programme uses home-grown satellites to connect remote health centres to big hospitals.

Since India launched its first satellite 37 years ago, it has aggressively harnessed its large flotilla of satellites for many gains. It is among the world’s top six space-investing nations, says EuroConsult, a Paris-based consulting firm, indicating India’s commitment to space amid more basic pressing problems, such as the lack of toilets for more than half the country’s population.

India’s space budget last year rose 22% from the previous year to Rs 5,778 crore, 0.14% of its GDP, nearly half of what the central government spends on healthcare. Over the next four years, the government will spend 15% more each year on space, a CII-Antrix-Deloitte study estimates. In 2014, this will amount to nearly Rs 10,000 crore.

Both India and China are seen as emerging leaders in space research and technology, even as traditional heavyweight US whittles down its programme — after the last Atlantis flight in 2011, it stopped its shuttle missions.

Yet a botched public-private project called the Antrix-Devas deal has come at a sobering moment in India’s so-far-so-good space history. On January 13, alleging that the deal violated rules, the government barred four top scientists, including the architect of a planned moon mission, G Madhavan Nair, from future government roles.

The Rs 766-crore contract between state-run Antrix Corporation and Devas Multimedia was loaded unduly in favour of Devas, ruled a panel set up by the prime minister, who oversees the space department.

While scientists ought to be accountable and punished if guilty, the government cancelled the Antrix-Devas deal, saying that it did not fall within the ambit of the 1999 SatCom policy, the only policy India has relating to space science.

The incident has therefore revealed a huge lacuna in the space sector: the lack of a comprehensive space law, which most nations with an active space programme have. None of this may have happened had the government heeded several calls over the years from various experts for a national space law.

“You need a space law not for when things are going right but when they go wrong,” says Professor VS Mani, a former Isro chair of International Space Law at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Otherwise, you have nothing to fall back on, as has happened now.” There are several grey areas. Nair argues that the SatCom policy clearly did not require him to scout around for other partners before accepting Devas’s proposal, which he says could have brought telecommunications to 40,000 villages that cannot be serviced by terrestrial networks. “Nair could not have had criminal intent,” says Yash Pal, educator and scientist.

But dealing with crime requires a law in the first place. India has already signed several international space treaties, which is a prerequisite for embarking on space projects. These treaties, however, cannot be enforced in India until Parliament enacts corresponding laws under Article 253 of the Constitution.

As India plans big-ticket projects, such as manned space outings, it needs to plug this fundamental shortcoming. Regardless of whether Nair is guilty or not, the lack of comprehensive regulation is bad for space science, which will increasingly have to depend on private participation to flourish.

“It’s about time,” says Mani, “for the government to make the rules of the game clear.”

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