Archive | January, 2014

Openness in Space – more bang for the buck

India can get more value out of its earth observation satellite programmes if ISRO embraces a culture of openness.

Praveen Bose in Business Standard reported yesterday that a second Indo-French climate observation satellite is being planned between ISRO and CNES (National Space Agency of France).

India and France jointly launched the satellite Megha-Tropiques in 2011 to study tropical weather and climate. Equipped to profile radiation, humidity, atmospheric water content and more, the satellite passes over a huge swathe of tropical atmosphere every day and uses four different sensors and sounders to collect data. With a planned life of five years, the two nations are now contemplating a second satellite that would serve as a replacement starting in about 2016. This replacement will be essential as a lot of value from climate data comes when it can be generated for longer periods that capture interannual and decadal climate variations.

Megha-Tropiques is neither the only nor the first such tropical climate monitoring satellite. NASA and JAXA’s (Japan’s space agency) Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) has been running since 1997, and its replacement, the core Global Precipitation Mission (GPM) is set to be launched in February 2014. These are apart from a host of other Earth Observation satellites from around the world that tell us a lot about how complex earth systems work.

By all accounts, the sensory systems on Megha-Tropiques is of comparable quality and technology to NASA’s climate missions. But Megha-Tropiques takes a big hit in research impact because of the closed nature of the data it generates. While NASA has a high commitment to open access and open data, Indian satellite missions remain opaque and closed. For example, the TRMM website contains various rainfall-related datasets, products and visualisations that are open not just for principal investigators at NASA and partner organisations, but also open to any researcher in the world. Megha-Tropiques on the other hand has a website built by the French that provides a bunch of technical information and stops there.

Tropical climate science is a public good – where everyone is benefited by making the data and knowledge public. The good news is that the planned Indo-French satellite will contribute to the GPM network by complementing the data collected by NASA and JAXA’s core mission. Unlike the standalone Megha-Tropiques, the second climate mission is more integrated into a global effort. However, data sharing policies for the proposed satellite still looks opaque:

The data products are made available to the principle investigators of international announcement of opportunity for validation activities, according to ISRO. As the first of Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) constellation of eight satellites, Megha-Tropiques data would contribute to the global scientific community to study and understand the dynamics of climate system, ISRO added.
[Full Article – Business Standard, January 23, 2014]

While deigning to open up the data to select international researchers for validation, there is a lot of value lost because of the lack of a more public audience and use of the data. This is a standard feature of most national Indian research activities, from ISRO to the Indian Meteorological Department. Data access is restricted to a select few who have a monopoly or oligopoly over publishing research papers.

There are three broad reasons one can decipher for this lack of openness. First, government agencies have had a historical mandate of serving their parent department or ministry, and not the public. Some of this stems from colonial establishment of many government agencies, which were designed to serve a more extractive state under British rule.

Second, the lack of openness often stems from an insecurity of government-funded researchers. Many fear that they may not be able to complete globally if the information they had access to was made public. Government agencies do provide workarounds for other research institutions to access their data, but this if of a form and style that has huge search costs and transaction costs. Also, what ought to have been a public good ends up getting shared through a patronage network.

Third, there is a fear of commercial use and resale of the data. This is extremely shortsighted and is misguided about the idea of private profit. What matters with climate and other information is how it can be used to derive maximum societal benefit. This benefit can arise from both government use of that data (like with say the IMD) and with private use of the same, say in the form of weather channels using publicly generated data to send out public alerts. Private agencies should also be allowed to legitimately sell publicly produced data where they add sufficient value. While there may always be unscrupulous companies that repackage public data and try to con people into paying for it, the solution to this is more openness and not less.

ISRO has a chance at being a leader in overturning decades of government policy of keeping taxpayer-funded data open to only a select few. It has already made a beginning with projects like Bhuvan. The proposed new climate satellite can lead the way in a new approach to research and data sharing. It can even begin with simple things like making the byzantine MOSDAC data sharing website more user-friendly.

2013 was the year that ISRO realised the value of proactively engaging the Indian public, including using social media. With luck, 2014 can be the year that ISRO embraces openness and open access to data.

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Warfare in ancient India and high school football

I’ve spent the last week reading KA Nilakanta Sastri’s magnum opus, the History of South India, that spans from prehistory to the fall of the Vijayanagar empire. Among the many insights and curious facts that the book reveals, it throws some light on military prowess of kingdoms and empires over the ages.

By the 13th century, warfare in South India was internally competitive but had lost the edge to armies from the north of the Vindhyas. This was certainly not the case earlier – notable examples of southern victories include the Chalukya Pulakeshi II defeating Harshavardhana of Kannauj in the 7th century and Chola Rajendra I conquering up to the Ganges in the 11th century. Southern armies were no longer competitive after the formation of the Delhi sultanate.

The Khilji and Tughlak sultanates from Delhi began making inroads south of the Vindhyas starting in the latter half of the 13th century. One finds that the southern kingdoms did not offer a whole lot of resistance immediately. Allaudin Khilji’s famous slave general, Malik Kafur raided deep into the Deccan and Tamil heartlands, and they are referred to repeatedly as daring. they caught almost everyone off-guard. For example, kings like the Hoysala Veera Ballala III appear to have capitulated almost immediately, instead of putting up a fight. Ballala was busy trying to sort out affairs in Tamil country while Kafur came marching up to his capital Dwarasamudra (present day Halebeedu near Hassan, Karnataka). On full reading, it appears that extended supply lines, the limited objectives of the initial incursions and an increasingly hostile Hindu populace were the major reasons why Kafur and his successors did not fare better. Nothing that can be pinned to a competitive armed force.

This reminded me a little of the way a few of us played football (soccer) while in high school and later. A few of us friends played regularly with each other on a basketball court and the games were fun and competitive, and continued that way for years. But if we had to play with other groups, or play on a full-size football field, the game suffered immensely. While we were enjoying the sport within our little group, we were not even remotely competitive against anyone good outsiders.

Warfare in south India appears to have become equally stultified – there were known kingdoms, empires and fiefdoms spread across the land whose relative power varied with time. But by and large there was a code of the conduct for warfare. For one thing, temples were rarely destroyed. They were deprived of their wealth at best, and the priestly class were rarely harmed. For another, governance and civilian life continued without too much change. Caste groups, village leaders and corporate guilds provided much of the governance (iniquitous as it might have been) – from dispute resolution and policing to developmental works like irrigation and road building. The entry of new forces changed this status quo irrevocably.

Even if you were to discount the earlier example of Malik Kafur as having the advantage of surprise, the story remains the same even a century later. While Harihara and Bukka Raya of Vijayanagara were rapidly consolidating their hold on regions south of the Krishna river in the 14th century, they barely met with any success in military engagements with the rival Bahmani sultanate. If anything, only the incessant in-fighting and intrigue between various ruling muslim factions in the Deccan appears to have blunted the impact of their victories against Vijayanagara. It is only by the time of Krishnadeva Raya in the early 16th century that Vijayanagara starts winning large scale victories on the Northern border of their empire that were not quickly reversed.

Clothing of Bisnagar (Vijayanagar), a Dutch engraving by Cornelius Hazart, 1667.

Clothing of Bisnagar (Vijayanagar), a Dutch engraving by Cornelius Hazart, 1667.

Krishnadeva Raya managed to achieve this only by creating a more martial state, fostering a competitive military culture with games and contests of physical feats, as well as a modernisation of the army with gunpowder technology and horses via the Portuguese, and other sweeping changes.

North Indian powers were equally blind to events outside the subcontinent, as noted by historian KM Panikkar in a speech in 1961, ‘Before the enemies reach Panipat‘. They probably paid for it a lot more. South Indian states paid for this blindness to people outside the basketball court less frequently, but this deserves no excuse. Perhaps a key failure was in not looking for military technology through oceanic trade routes and restricting trade largely to luxury items and commodities. The only major defence import via the seas was the horse – and it is quite telling that south Indian armies never developed the ability to care for horses well, with many of them dying regularly of disease. Not even the Vijayanagara empire managed to change that. For Arab and Persian traders, south India remained a happy export destination for horses, with an ever-present demand.

Religious taboos on sea voyages likely resulted in a complete lack of parity in trading ability, and it is little wonder that maritime powers from Europe conquered India from the south. With the exception of the Cholas, Indian powers never had a blue water navy. One can only imagine the possibilities if an Indian power had developed a blue water navy after the invention of gunpowder.

Though India sort of has a blue water navy in the 21st century, we should really be asking ourselves – have we really left the basketball court?

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Old tricks, New Year

The Indian ministry of defence continues to route capital allocations for revenue expenses.

Manu Pubby reports in the Indian Express earlier this week that the Indian ministry of defence may divert about Rs. 6,500 crore from the capital budget of the armed forces towards revenue expenses.

While the ministry has spent over 80 percent of the capital budget of Rs. 86,740 crore allotted this financial year for purchase of new equipment, it is seeing a shortfall in revenue expenditure from the estimated Rs. 1.2 lakh crore.

Sources say that the shortfall is mainly due to unexpected rise in fuel costs that led to rationalisation of equipment usage and exercises this year. As the armed forces are one of the largest consumers of fossil fuel, the hike in global prices coupled with exchange rate variation resulted in a huge hike in government expenditure. Also, the government announced new measures this financial year for increased pensions that put an additional burden on expenditure.

[Full article: Budget hike turned down, MoD to juggle capital funds, Indian Express, January 12, 2014]

On the face of it, this makes a lot of sense – the fall of the rupee a few months ago hurt both the public and private sectors in India significantly and coupled with the global fuel prices it served as a shock that the country is recovering from.

However, this is not the first year that revenue expenses have eaten into the defence modernisation (capital) budget. As I’d written in Pragati last September, this has been routinely happening, especially in the army budget.

DefenceSpending1

Full Infographic: Understanding India’s Defence Spending

The defence ministry should not be having recurring difficulty in accurately estimating its revenue expenses for the year, especially salaries, pensions and fuel. Also, the demand for grants that most ministries submit to the finance ministry are usually 5-10 percent higher than allocations they end up receiving for the budget. The army’s low capital-to-revenue cannot further be weakened every year. And going for perilously expensive ventures like the proposed mountain strike corps which can worsen the situation.

With the defence of the realm at stake, we need better defence planning that is more robust in estimating spending.

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The Growth of Bangalore

The city of Bangalore grew from about 5.7 million people in 2001 to 8.7 million in 2011. Earlier, the official city area was 226 square kilometres under the erstwhile Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BMP) which expanded to 716 square kilometres in 2007 with the creation of Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike.

However, these area numbers only reflect the official administrative boundaries, and are not always reflective of the organic growth of cities in various directions. Below are two land use images from ISRO’s Bhuvan portal of Bangalore from 2005-06 and 2011-12. Built-up area in the region is marked in red.

Bangalore 2005-06

Source: Bhuvan

Source: Bhuvan

In the period of five years, Bangalore has grown in area mostly only on the southeastern side. It has grown considerably along Hosur road, forming a continuum between the city, spanning Electronics City until the edge of the state boundary. The bulk of the rest of the growth has happened along the southeastern section of the outer ring road.

We can rail against ‘unplanned’ growth all we want, but this misses the point that people and companies are essentially free agents who move to places conducive to their requirements. Urban planning in India often centers around rigid control in things like land use, where the state has little capacity to enforce anything, and gets subverted. If instead urban planning favours nudges and incentives (the setting up of electronic city in Bangalore in the late ’70s is a great examples of the latter) then it might have a better chance of working. Official actions are largely unresponsive to the housing needs of incoming migrants and increasing wealth of our cities’ residents. “Irregular” colonies and housing but spring to meet the legitimate need.

Besides, as Karthik Shashidhar finds, Bangalore’s fastest population growth rates were actually in the 1940s and 1970s.

This was a part of my lecture on an ‘Introduction to the Bangalore Municipal Ecosystem’ to B.CLIP students on December 7, 2013.

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