There is an unfortunate mindset in India that cavils at anything of significance, based on false assumptions about the return on investment. Oddly, this perspective tolerates the bottomless money-pit of pork-barrel socialist shibboleths (e.g. a rural employment guarantee scheme) which do in fact achieve their principal aim splendidly: that of permitting party cadres and politicians to siphon off large amounts.
On the contrary, it is worth analyzing why there is such poverty in India, despite the fact that, up until 1750, India was consistently the richest country in the world. European imperialists, after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, systematically looted the country of the equivalent of $10 trillion in today’s money. They wiped out small-scale industry, and reduced the hitherto prosperous artisan class of skilled metalworkers, weavers, leather-workers, etc. to landless, unskilled, itinerant laborers. Hence, lasting poverty in India.
Therefore, the best antidote for Indian poverty is strong national defense. India has always generated capital primarily from its agricultural surplus, light manufacture, and mineral wealth, and this has made it a tempting target. Barbarians marched over the Khyber Pass, simply because there was gold in “them thar hills” of Hindustan. The Europeans were only the latest of this motley crew of raiders.
Therefore, here’s my principal query about Chandrayaan: Does this lead to an ICBM capability so that India can credibly deter potential aggressors with nuclear missiles? I believe the answer is yes, and that is good enough reason for the moon shot. The civilian space program—although continually handicapped by American denial of technology and interference in a cryogenic engine deal with the Russians—does put India on the path toward a credible minimum deterrent against certain bellicose nuclear neighbors.
But there is more. The spin-off benefits of NASA’s programs in the United States have been enormous, for instance in electronics, computing, packaging, materials technology, etc. A lot of the research commercialized by the Silicon Valley was originally driven by NASA’s (and DARPA’s) funding. There is a similar boom with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO); for instance many of the components of the satellite launch vehicles are supplied by private-sector firms in Kerala and southern Tamil Nadu.
Besides, at a time when U.S. commentators bemoan the fact that science and engineering do not appeal to the brightest minds— they all go into investment banking, and we now know the havoc they cause there—it is wonderful that children in India are being inspired by Chandrayaan. Not to mention the prestige factor and halo effect that will drive more high-value manufacturing to India.
Superpowerdom does not come cheap. If we believe India has a shot at going back to its economic dominance of the past, military and scientific might are necessary conditions.
Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from near the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center in Trivandrum.
Yes, the money could be better spent
Back in 1984, India was wrapped up in space mania. During the heady days of Rakesh Sharma and his jingoistic “sare jahan se achcha …” a whole nation was in the grips of space fever when an Indian astronaut went to space piggybacking on the accommodating comrades. Soon, the euphoria died down, and today nobody remembers this anymore. It is yet another forgotten episode in an era of non-alignment and the Commonwealth, socialism and license raj, when India was just a struggling nation trying to impress the world, by jumping on to the “me-too” bandwagon.
24 years down the road, we’ve come a long way, and we got here all on our own. The world is paying attention big time to India. They are sitting up and taking notice. What exactly are we trying to prove at this point?
While we must continue to progress and develop in the fields of science and technology, progress merely for the sake of progress does not seem appealing. Or is a mission to the moon a prerequisite on the curriculum vitae of a super power? Let us take “small steps” aimed at man’s welfare rather than go for this particular “giant leap.”
Despite India’s colossal strides in the fields of IT and biotech, we continue to be a massive convergence of paradoxes. Pardon me if I sound regressive, but aren’t there enough issues that need immediate notice? Something closer to Earth perhaps? A couple of schools or primary healthcare centers or even a few miles of decent roads, so that the next time they transport the various massive and unwieldy parts of a satellite launch vehicle, they can do so on well-defined highways without causing hazard and inconvenience to ordinary commuters heading, not to the moon, but to mundane jobs?
Or do something about the deplorable “power” situation. Big cities with their hi-tech industries or “satellite” townships engrossed in space missions are blissfully unaware of atrociously long power cuts that smaller towns and villages around them endure to keep their computers and air conditioners running. Ironic that marginally productive windmills and an idle atomic power plant hibernate in southern Tamil Nadu, close to Mahendragiri, one of India’s major space centers. How about channeling some of the enthusiasm thataways?
Before Chandrayaan became the new darling of the press, the very same media was calling ISRO a white elephant whose upkeep had become uneconomical. Maybe this mission was just an attempt to draw attention away from that fact. Or was it merely an attention seeking maneuver of a petulant child? Or a swaggering exhibition of machismo; juvenile boys showing off their muscles?
Boys … and their toys! Grow up India, and wake up! Hello, Earth to Moonbeam!
Remitha Satheesh, of Cary, NC, grew up near the ISRO’s rocket testing center, Mahendragiri, Nagercoil.