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No, India should be fiscally conservative

India has launched a rocket in space on a mission to Mars, becoming only the 4th nation in the world to do so and the first in Asia to embark on this journey. Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) also boasts that this is a trailblazing “budget” rocket at a cost of only Rupees 450 Crores (75 million USD), a fraction of what NASA spends on a similar mission, achieved through “indigenization of the program which has helped keep costs low” according to an ISRO spokesman. Some expert commentators have speculated that this mission makes India a contender for the commercial global space market estimated at $300 Billion.

While the Indian media and politicians have gushed at this achievement as a national pride, other saner voices have questioned if this massive expense and effort is misguided and necessary, given the gravity of other basic needs that are sorely lacking for much of its 1.2 Billion population. India apparently is not doing this with money to spare, according to a recent article by M.K.Venu in The Hindu; India has to pay back a short term debt of over $172 Billion by March 2014.

According to the Global Hunger Index Report 2013, released just last October, India is at 63 in the index, hunger in India remains at “alarming levels,” just one of the three countries in that category outside of Africa, besides Haiti and Timor.The report also says that India continues to have the highest prevalence of children under five who are underweight, at more than 40%. UNICEF estimates that about 1.83 million children die in India before their fifth birthday, most of them due to preventable causes. A recent United Nations report said that more than two-thirds of India’s population has no access to toilets and that India had 60% of the global population lacking access to basic sanitation. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2011-2012 ranked India 89th out of 142 countries for its infrastructure. It is estimated that there are over 300 million Indians with no access to electricity.

Just as an individual has to prioritize needs and live within their means, a nation has to as well. By embarking on this flight of fancy and fantasy, India is squandering precious resources that could be channeled toward solving the nation’s critical needs. As social activist and former member of Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council, Harsh Mander opined the Mars mission depicted a “remarkable indifference to the dignity of the poor.” Even the former ISRO Chairman Madhavan Nair has ridiculed the mission as “utter non-sense.”

Instead of looking for life in Mars, India can use this money to better the lives on earth, within its own borders. Any amount of inflated national pride will never feed a hungry mouth, cure a sickness or educate a child.

Rameysh Ramdas, an S.F. Bay Area professional, writes as a hobby.

Yes, India should spend on space exploration

Just as families all over India invest in their future by spending significant portions of their resources on education, the government of India is justified in making significant investments in the technological future of India through the space program.

It is indeed true that poverty and infrastructure are thorny issues in India. Even worse is the issue of corruption. Not allocating funds to the Mars program does not ensure that the funds will be allocated for other necessities. In fact citing these issues as a way for not pursuing prestigious programs like the Mars probe, is the lazy way out. It’s also the easy way out.

Space exploration is hard and challenging work. For example the Mars probe will experience great differences in temperature that will drive fundamental innovations in material science technology and  onboard power requirements will drive innovations in efficient solar panel technologies.

The space program will challenge and  inspire engineers, scientists and managers to develop skill sets and excel in them. Such excellence and world class performance is essential to sustaining the growth rates of the Indian economy. A growing economy in turn promotes additional spending on infra-structure and sanitation. A growing economy also increases the tax base which is essential for infra-structure spending.

According to the Times of India there was a 235% increase in education spending between 1999 and 2009. This is more than the spending on any other essential items like food, shelter, etc. It is not a coincidence that India’s economy has been growing like gangbusters during the same time period. It is called thinking big and being visionary. This is not the time for government to engage in narrow minded thinking and cutting ambitious programs like Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).

Second guessing spending on space programs is nothing new. Politicians and interest groups have used empty phrases like “use the money here on earth” since the beginning of space programs starting with Apollo. Such criticisms are not leveled at military programs because, unlike space programs, military spending has winners and losers with clear consequences. Space programs on the other hand are non-aggressive and have consequences that are subtle but extremely beneficial. For example the Apollo space program provided a technology boost to many areas such as micro miniaturization of computers, heart monitors and mobile phones. CAT Scanners and MRI technology that are commonplace in hospitals around the world today came from space technology. So let’s broaden our minds, take pride, and encourage ambitious programs like MOMS. The world and India can always use more inspired scientists and engineers.

Mani Subramani works in the semi-conductor industry in Silicon Valley.