Racing to space: India’s latest success story

By Dr Anand Kulkarni

With great fanfare, India recently rocket launched a record 104 satellites in one go beating the previous Russian record of 37. Even the Chinese media somewhat begrudgingly praised this achievement, not failing to remind us that she is still way ahead of India in the space industry. What are we to make of India’s feat? A new dawn of space technology or a one-off flash in the pan?

Paving the way at lower costs

The significance of this achievement for India should not be understated in any way. It represents the globalisation of India’s unique capability of producing excellent products and services at low cost with maximum efficiency. Thus, one thinks of frugal innovation on a very local scale for grassroots needs. This innovation demonstrates the capacity of Indians to re-create such principles at a multinational level and on the cheap. India spends around $1 U.Sb for space programs compared to the U.S budget of $19.3 U.Sb, while China spent $6.1 U.Sb in 2013.

Further, it demonstrates project management and co-ordination expertise in a tangible manner, allied with effective risk management planning. These are very important in their own right for a service based economy such as India’s. While the World Bank “Doing Business” index might have India lagging considerably behind various competitor nations, these initiatives do suggest that India is capable of carrying out business.

Changing policy dynamics

Broadly, one can visualise a new paradigm of industrial and technology policy in India in the future, focusing less on selecting priority sectors and sub-sectors which may or may not embody genuine competitive advantage for India, and emphasising more on niche winning projects in emerging technologies.

[su_pullquote]It is estimated that in 2015, the global space market was worth $323 U.Sb, with commercial space activities accounting for 76% of it.[/su_pullquote]

Perhaps “Make in India” as a traditional sector-based approach will be better represented in the future as “Make, manage and execute by India”. A project approach arguably provides focus and the ability to move resources flexibly from one activity to another. It is worth also bearing in mind the lucrative nature of the space market. It is estimated that in 2015, the global space market was worth $323 U.Sb, with commercial space activities accounting for 76% of it.

Also, one should not underestimate the sheer impact of such an achievement on national pride bearing in mind that Indian policymakers and political leaders have long held a fascination for space activities.

Kinks that require major ironing

Before getting totally carried away, some issues need to be raised. It is true that of the 104 satellites launched, 96 were U.S owned and operated, enhancing U.S surveillance and other activities across the plane. Perhaps in this context, India is only the final link in the production chain. On a related note, and as the Chinese rather uncharitably claim, India lacks total systems capability such as large-scale space exploration, a space station and the fact that no Indian astronaut is in space.

Further, arises the age-old question of whether a country such as India, with still many fundamental problems and inequalities to address, can afford to expend scarce resources on what could be seen as an indulgence.

The answer to this lies in the extent to which such an initiative can provide a commercial return, employment and technological benefits to other sectors and broader society, including better imaging technology for resource exploration and improved agricultural performance. Moreover, another pertinent question is whether India can still maintain its lower cost advantage to the same extent if it goes down the path of developing complex integrated systems.

Above all, a critical challenge will be to ensure that India does not get involved in a frivolous and expensive space race. This will require discipline and focus on the part of the political and scientific leadership who have to act responsibly

The writer is the consultant/principal adviser for Victoria University, Australia. The views expressed here are the author’s.

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