Archive | Science in Public Affairs RSS feed for this section

Bias to scientific reason

Issues of scientific complexity occupy a lot of space in public affairs – be it the extraction of shale gas, the effectiveness of alternative medicine or the alleged dangers from cell phone tower radiation. A strong position on many of these issues is often tied to a political ideology rather than a deference to scientific reasoning and evidence.

So what is the easiest way to figure out if someone defers to scientific reason above and beyond ideologies?

I say that you can do it by understanding their positions on three cardinal topics of today: anthropogenic climate change, the safety of nuclear power generation, and the safety of genetically modified foods. Broadly, people leaning towards the left of the political spectrum agree only with the first, and those leaning right agree only with the last two – be it with evidence or not. Ascertaining people’s views on all three is a good barometer of their deference to scientific evidence.

It is important, however, to note the core arguments that define these issues:

The core argument in climate change is that the earth’s surface warmed significantly in the 20th century due to human-linked emissions of greenhouse gases.

The argument with nuclear safety is that health risks from nuclear power generation, both chronic and acute, have been grossly exaggerated and that due to an obsession with nuclear safety for the past 6 decades, nuclear power is now safer than most other sources of energy.

The argument with genetically modified crops is that they are just as safe as other crops, both for growing and for consumption. Additionally, crop modification through targeted molecular biology techniques is in fact less genetically invasive than conventional hybridisation techniques.

All three arguments have overwhelming scientific evidence on their side, and the nature of the scientific debate is very different from the public and political discussions regarding the same.

Together, anyone’s views on all three topics – nuclear safety, GMOs and climate change – can be very illuminating. The discussion is moot, however, if people start questioning evolution.

Addendum. Subsequent to this post, we ran a short survey of opinions on these three issues and analysed the results.

Comments { 3 }

In Pragati: Not quite over the moon

I write in Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review this week about the Indian space programme and the challenges it is facing today.

Space exploration is a public venture in more than one sense. It has traditionally been taken up by nations and it rarely escapes public regard and reason, be it for better or for worse. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) completed its one hundredth mission last September, by launching two French satellites into a low earth orbit. While space exploration is a public venture, discussions around it in India remain limited and fall into two categories. There is an endless refrain about how a poverty-stricken country like India can spend public money on space, and there is often significant discussion around the popular scientific and technical aspects of space missions. Beyond this, there is little critical debate around what the Indian space programme needs to do to stay relevant and useful to India at large.

Third, ISRO needs to accelerate its transformation to an outward-facing organisation. ISRO developed its culture of innovation in isolation, but today foreign states, international and Indian corporations are all capable and willing to partner with India. As a credible player in space, ISRO is in a position to do so on equal footing. Space and defence are two high technology sectors where having a diverse set of innovators allows for greater spinoffs that benefit the larger economy. While the United States and other countries are reducing the size of their much larger space programmes and laying off talented people in the process, India has the opportunity to absorb as many of them as possible. FDI in space is an equally attractive option that has unfortunately garnered little discussion to date. Indian commercial needs, especially of transponders for broadcasting TV channels, has been growing at a faster rate than what ISRO can provide for. This begs the question of whether commercial space technology needs to be provided by a monopoly public institution, or if some competition can be incrementally introduced.

Thanks to human ingenuity and the establishment of strong institutions, Indian space exploration has come a long way since the launch of a sounding rocket in 1963. Going forward, the Indian Space Research Organisation has to aim high and pursue lofty goals like human spaceflight, take the public into confidence and embrace a more open culture of innovation.
[Full article – Pragati, July 2013]

We cannot stop today at just cheering successful satellite launches, but need to expect a lot more from ISRO. To paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson, going into low earth orbit is to boldly go where many have gone before. The Indian space programme needs loftier goals to truly benefit Indian society at large.

PS. You may also be interested in reading the very first post on this blog, on why we should stop using poverty as an excuse to reduce public spending on space.

Comments { 0 }

Hybrid buses: An exercise in vanity environmentalism

Missed opportunities outweigh any gains hybrid buses make in terms of  fuel efficiency.

In a move that has been in the making for several months, the Ministry of Urban Development has decided to fund the roll-out of hybrid buses as a part of JnNURM:

The urban development ministry plans to fund hybrid buses — that use a combination of electric battery and diesel engine — as part of the next lot of buses under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).

During the budget session, finance minister P. Chidambaram had announced that the Centre would fund 10,000 buses under the mission. The ministry has not put a cap on the number of hybrid buses, as it will depend on proposals coming from states, but officials said they may not exceed 50.

While normal low-floor buses cost between Rs 60 lakh and Rs 70 lakh, hybrid buses — which are more fuel-efficient than normal buses — cost around Rs 1.25 crore.

The urban development ministry had proposed that there should be additional financial assistance for hybrid buses.“We had suggested that since hybrid buses are expensive but at the same time we want to promote them for their fuel efficiency, we should give state governments 10 per cent additional financial assistance,” said a senior official.

However, last week, the expenditure finance committee, while sanctioning Rs 4,900 crore for the project, rejected the idea of additional monetary help. [The Telegraph]

At first glance, this looks like a good pro-environment move, where switching to fuel-efficient hybrid buses reduces both carbon emissions and urban air pollution. Though the buses cost almost two times what other modern low floor buses cost, it feels justified because of the fuel savings incurred.

Clean air in urban India is a quickly disappearing public good. Just like we feel the need to purify water before its use, commuters in cars effectively purify and control their air through air conditioning before breathing it in. But are hybrid buses in any way a solution to this problem? In foreign cities with widespread public transport, hybrid buses may indeed be the solution. If we assume that the share of public transport in city commutes is mostly saturated, for every regular bus that can be replaced with a low-emission hybrid, the city reduces its overall pollution.

This is hardly the case in India as public transport’s share in intracity travel is far from optimal! Most of our cities do not have metros or commuter rail, and have to rely solely on city buses, private buses and “share-autorickshaws” as modes of public transport. The environmental gain in Indian cities comes from people switching from cars and personal vehicles into public buses. So while a hybrid bus might be low on emissions, the opportunity lost because of its purchase is the acquisition of an extra regular bus – which would have taken more private vehicles off the road. If 50 hybrid buses could be replaced by 100 regular buses, the transport service might spend more on fuel and have higher emissions, but the city as a whole will spend less. Investing our scarce financial resources in hybrid buses is not a very environmentally friendly move.

City buses in India

The chart above (Source: *, **) shows you some quick numbers on buses in India and Karnataka. The first three cities have other modes of public transport that coexist with buses (commuter trains and metros). However, as the graph shows – even the best performing cities have too few buses for our public transport to be saturated.

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission has been India’s flagship programme to finance urban infrastructure and catalyse urban reforms since 2005. It is noteworthy that the acquisition of buses was not a valid item of expenditure under the mission for the first four years. It was in 2009 that under a union stimulus package, the Ministry of Urban Development decided to finance the procurement of about 10,000 high tech buses, to ‘transform city bus transport in India‘.

It is beyond the scope of this blog post to evaluate whether bus acquisition and deployment served Keynesian ends, but the move was politically astute and was fairly well received. The JnNURM labeled buses on Indian (and Bangalorean) roads today are the most visible output of the mission. The move to deploy high quality buses with low floors, pneumatic doors, good suspension and comfort was also a welcome one. By providing a means of public transport that is on par with cars on comfort and safety, these Volvos and Tata Marcopolos were likely able to get more cars off the road than regular buses. In cities like Bangalore, these high-end buses have appropriately priced tickets, are profitable and are even able to subsidise other bus fares.

In the mean time, many bus manufacturers have come out with hybrid buses, including Tata Motors with a CNG-hybrid. Tempting as they may appear, policymakers in the urban development ministry have to seriously consider whether these are necessary – or an exercise in vanity. As the Telegraph article points out, the ministry correctly ruled out the provision of extra assistance for hybrid buses. However, even giving an identical percentage of assistance is too much – as it can buy two regular buses in its stead.

Good public transport has several outcomes that benefit cities: less air pollution; reduction in congestion and in travel time; and also an opportunity for social mixing. This blog strongly believes in the single-minded pursuit of better public transport in Indian cities – but alas, hybrid buses are an expensive and unnecessary detour from that road.

Note. 40 buses per lakh population appears to be a subjective norm fixed by the JnNURM. One World Bank initiative recommends between 50 and 120 buses per lakh population. That said, these are but useful guidelines to follow. What matters most are outcomes – and among them, the public share of total city transport, a control of travel time with urban growth and an overal reduction in urban air pollution.

Comments { 2 }

NDTV’s We The People – On the Uttarakhand floods

Last Sunday, I appeared on NDTV’s We The People hosted by Barkha Dutt, to talk about the recent floods in Uttarakhand and on the “eco-insensitive” nature of politics in India. Here’s a clip of the comments I made during the show. You can watch the full recording at the NDTV website.

I also had the opportunity to underscore the same points during an interview by Maseeh Rahman of The Guardian.

But most analysts believe restricting the number of pilgrims would be political suicide. “The desire to worship at Kedarnath is almost like an irresistible force,” said Pavan Srinath, of the Chennai-based thinktank Takshashila Foundation. “Despite the tragedy, people are already talking about when they will undertake the sacred journey. No government can bar the devout from the Himalayas.”

Not all experts are in agreement. Srinath maintains that the devastation would have been even more widespread if the reservoir of the region’s biggest dam at Tehri had not contained a significant volume of the deluge. “Dams can also prevent disasters,” he said. “The critical issue is not dams, but proper dam management. In India, we just don’t have a culture of public safety.”
[The Guardian, June 28, 2013]

The comment the regulation of pilgrims, however, isn’t just about political feasibility – but about policy realism. In all likelihood, a strict regulation of official pilgrims to the holy sites will lead to a large number of illegal traffic of tourists and pilgrims, with much less safety.

Also, this blogger thinks that it’s more likely that the Tehri dam was empty and capable of receiving flood waters more by circumstance than by intent – nevertheless, it demonstrates the positive role well-managed dams can play in disaster risk reduction.

Related posts: Not every disaster is man-made | We are still vulnerable to climate variability

Comments { 0 }

No food security without sanitation

Debate has been raging on the Food Security Bill in India for quite a while now, at least in the English press and online commentary. Until recently, the role of sanitation in malnutrition (and by extension, in food security) was largely missing from the public discourse. This prompted me to write an article in Pragati back in May:

While the National Food Security Bill proponents have been looking at nutrition as a ‘gross’ problem which requires more input in the form of cheaper food, the reality is that it is largely a ‘net’ problem. Far too much nutrition is lost to recurring diarrhoea, dysentery, persistent worm infestations and chronic environmental enteropathy linked to open defecation and a lack of sanitation. People in 69 percent of rural Indian households continue to defecate in the open. While most of the urban population uses toilets, little human waste gets collected and treated properly.

It is ludicrous that sanitation has not been made a priority in development policies addressing malnutrition. While the official government of India position has always been that malnutrition is ‘complex, multidimensional and inter-generational’, the interventions have largely been about targeted and non-targeted nutritional interventions, subsidized healthcare, and with token mention of clean drinking water supply and sanitation. This is like giving dysentery patients subsidized food and medicine, and asking them to eat more, and stopping the medical advice there. In the absence of focus on sanitation, what we have is taxpayer-funded diarrhea and little else. [Think Sanitation, Not Food Security | Pragati – May 2013 PDF]

It has been encouraging to see that the popular discourse has changed significantly in the last month, with sanitation and clean water getting  due recognition for their role in nutrition and food security. Several excellent articles have been written on the subject in that time.

Business Standard published an editorial early in June, questioning the assumptions behind the food security bill and arguing against rushing it through, while citing a lack of sanitation as one of several important reasons behind malnutrition.

Arvind Virmani wrote in the Times of India on how we need a ‘hunger elimitation’ act coupled with a strong policy focus on clean water, sanitation and communication about good nutrition instead of a gargantuan food security bill. Dr. Virmani, a former advisor to the Planning Commission and a Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India, has written extensively on the topic even in the past as well.

Adi Narayan wrote a well-researched piece in Bloomberg on how extra food means nothing to stunted kids with bad water.

Robert Chambers (most famous for his development of Participatory Rural Appraisals) co-authored an article with Gregor von Medeazza in the Economic & Political Weekly on sanitation and stunting in India, on the link between sanitation and undernutrition in the country.

And most recently, Sadanand Dhume also critiqued the ‘hunger games’ in India, calling instead for a fix of the woeful public sanitation in the country.

Much of the credit for this goes to some excellent research done by Dean Spears, currently heading a start-up RICE Institute in Uttar Pradesh. While there is a whole body of research on sanitation and health, Spears catalysed the field with original analyses of large, disparate datasets.

All said, it is unlikely that anything will stop the current government from their pursuit of this ill-considered bill. One can but hope that in the long run, sanitation occupies a larger portion of the public mindspace when it comes to matters of nutrition, health and food security.

Comments { 0 }

We are still vulnerable to climate variability

Samanth Subramaniam writes in UAE’s The National on the floods in Uttarakhand and quotes me on the link between flooding and climate change.

But Pavan Srinath, a policy researcher at the Chennai-based Takshashila Institution, who has written extensively about climate change, told The National that cause and effect were difficult to establish in such situations.

“Theoretically, if you mess around in mountain systems, you can increase chances of landslides or floods, yes,” Mr Srinath said. “The question is: How much does the risk go up? We don’t know that yet.”

Similarly, Mr Srinath hesitated to draw a link between global climate change patterns and the early monsoon rain that triggered Uttarakhand’s floods.

“One of the theories is that global warming increases the intensity of the monsoon rains,” Mr Srinath said. He acknowledged that climate change was causing “extreme weather events” but argued that it was difficult to conclusively prove that these floods were one such event.

“I would say, instead, that our towns haven’t even adapted to regular variations in climates, let alone climate change-induced ones,” Mr Srinath said. “Really, that’s the conversation we should be having.”
[Samanth Subramaniam, The National]

I cannot stress the last point enough. The sad truth is, even without climate change, our towns, cities and villages are deeply vulnerable to the natural variability in climate. Be it droughts that hit parts of India like clockwork every few years, or how Assam or Orissa get inundated by floods regularly – we see constant evidence that we aren’t even resilient to what we ought to be. We should be talking about adapting to local climes, to variability and finally to climate change. Talking excessively of climate change alone shifts the focus instead to mitigation, to cutting greenhouse gas emissions and a host of other issues that serve as distractions.

For a nation that is one-sixth of the world’s population, we have but contributed to 3% of greenhouse gases emitted globally since the industrial revolution. Our most important goals need to be of climate adaptation, and building disaster resilience and good emergency services.

Comments { 3 }

Not every disaster is man-made

Uttarakhand has been a scene of unfolding horror for the past four days, and is a human tragedy occuring at a scale that is staggering. For many people in India, it is also a disaster that hits home as millions have visited Uttarakhand on pilgrimage and have seen the places that we now see on the television with dread.

The scale of damage due to floods is not yet known but is certainly immense. The loss of human lives above all, and the destruction of public and private property will likely haunt the residents for many years. The loss of lives is currently estimated in the hundreds and can go up to the thousands or even more, given the large number of people currently reported as missing. A disaster such as this requires rapid, thorough rescue and relief operations. By most accounts, the army and the state officials are doing an admirable job of it. Afterwards comes the time for rebuilding and sombre reflection, as well as thorough investigations into the causes for the disaster, the amplifiers, and the role of human error, malfeasance and failures.

What do we have instead? Loud war cries that the disaster in Uttarakhand was man-made, and that political parties gave in to various mafias and increased the scale of destruction unleashed upon much of Uttarakhand.

One human factor that can be brought into this discussion as a causative agent is climate change, but only with great care. While anthropogenic climate change has been established as a very likely cause for the increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events in India and elsewhere in the world, there are two strong caveats to this link. First, it is impossible to say whether an individual event has a greenhouse gas or a warm climate footprint. This is the case for everything from Hurricane Sandy to the cloudburst over Uttarakhand. Second, empirical evidence for the relationship between the monsoon and climate change is still very limited. There are many theories on what climate change is likely to do to the Indian summer monsoon, but much of it is still unknown. While the summer monsoon hit the coast of Kerala around the usual date this year, its march over the long leagues from Kanya Kumari to the Himalayas was exceptionally quick. The most honest, if uncomfortable, statement is that we don’t know if climate change caused the cloudburst over Uttarakhand, nor do we know that climate change could make such events more frequent or intense.

The reasons for declaring the disaster as man-made were given in a Down to Earth home page feature as the increase in hydel projects in the state, roads and infrastructure destabilising the mountains, and development increasing the frequency and intensity of landslides.

Is any of this true? On the first count of hydroelectric power projects and excessive dam-building in Uttarakhand, the reality is far from the rhetoric. While it is true that there are ambitious plans for dam construction in the state, especially on the Ganga and its tributaries, very few projects have actually been implemented and are operational. The map below from SANDRP shows that on the Ganga, only 16 hydel projects had been commissioned, 13 were under construction, and 54 were proposed as of a year or two ago. The picture has not changed rapidly since then. We can do better than blaming widespread floods on paper dams.



On all other counts of “development” causing or worsening the disaster, the litmus test is the impact at Kedarnath. The holy pilgrimage site of Kedarnath is a valley on the banks of the river Mandakini that lies high above much of the upper Gangetic basin at 3600 metres above sea-level [See Kedarnath on Google Maps]. Above it is wildnerness and  inhabitable mountains, and motorable roads are yet to reach the place. Pilgrims drive up to Gauri Kund, and trek up the last 14 kilometres, climbing some six thousand feet in the process. There are no roads, bridges or extensive artificial interventions around Kedarnath, except for the temple and surrounding hotels and housing that has sprung up.

In spite of this, Kedarnath has been among the worst hit areas in this disaster. Floodwaters swept into the settlement, bringing with them vast amounts of debris and cutting off access for about 8,000 people from the rest of the region.

We have to live in an evidence-free world to say that the horrific natural disaster that struck Kedarnath was man-made. Kedarnath, as the map below shows, lies high above even proposed dams and has only the most minimal amounts of development. It is the benchmark by which one can say that the flooding in Uttarakhand has been more prolific than any other in living memory, above and beyond any “man-made” effects.



All this has been said in full recognition of the fact that Uttarakhand has always been profoundly vulnerable to flooding, and that there has always been a high risk of natural disasters. The notion that such floods could happen some day was far from unknown. The hope that it may not happen to us or in our lifetimes was as free of evidence as some of the claims mentioned above. Places between Rudraprayag and Rishikesh on the Ganga have evidently not built any resilience against an event such as this.

Unfortunately, the value for human life in India still remains disturbingly low. It is specious to singularly blame governments for this, without also pointing fingers to all of us as a society. And it is certainly better to reflect on how we can build resilience to natural disasters than to think in terms of false choices such as “Is it just another flash flood or is it a man made disaster?“.

Read this article in Kannada, translated by Vikas Argod.
I subsequently participated in a show of We The People on NDTV making similar points. Do take a look.

Comments { 11 }

Fukushima – feat, not folly.

The latest news on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown that took place in March 2011 came in a few days ago:

Now the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has drawn on 80 scientists from 18 countries to produce a draft report that concludes: “Radiation exposure following the nuclear accident at Fukushima-Daiichi did not cause any immediate health effects. It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public and the vast majority of workers.” [The Age, emphasis added.]

The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) is yet to share the full report with the public on its website, but news outlets appear to have received early drafts from them. After a full two years of study, the study appears to conclude that ‘No radiation-related deaths or acute effects have been observed among nearly 25,000 workers involved at the accident site.

While this may sound contrary to the popular discourse on the “unmitigated disaster” that was Fukushima, this is hardly the first report indicating negligible health risks from nuclear radiation. As the same article mentions, the World Health Organisation had conducted a study which came out with similar results in February this year, finding but marginal increases in cancer risks among the most affected – while finding no evidence of increased miscarriages, stillbirths or more extreme effects of radiation exposure at the site.

The UN and the WHO are both organisations that are quite careful about health risks and human hazards (even erring too far on the side of caution in some cases) and cannot easily be dismissed as institutions that underplay nuclear radiation risks. The evidence flies in the face of initial hysterical claims of widespread hazards (including the spread of radiation through stratospheric wind systems!). Individuals like Mark Lynas have been steadily debunking most of the myths and bad science that has surfaced after the incident. Among other things, it seems like the impact of the forced evacuation and relocation of the elderly Japanese population around the nuclear reactor site might have had a larger health impact than all the nuclear radiation.

Some fear was generated last year when scientists found a significant number of mutant butterflies in the vicinity of Fukushima. While the increased mutations were likely a result of radiation exposure, the results are not of a kind that can be directly extrapolated to humans. Molecular biologists have extensively studied mutations and the effect of mutagens in various organisms, and the dose required for a human being are several orders of magnitude higher than what is sufficient to cause mutations in small invertebrate species like butterflies. Mammals also have more robust DNA error correction mechanisms that check mutations and are able to delete and remake mutated sequences of the genetic code. Further, it also helps to remember that all of us have numerous mutations – likely in every single cell in the human body – but only a small number of them cause changes in minor cell behaviour, a smaller number resulting in significant cellular changes, and an even smaller number resulting in tumours. A minuscule number of these are fatal or hereditary.

The reports by UN and WHO provide sound evidence for the minimal nature of impacts due to radiation exposure from the meltdown and ought to allay most fears on the subject, but unfortunately, they fail to do so.

Closer home, misinformation about Fukushima has had an enormous impact on Kudankulam on the southern coast of India. Fears about a Fukushima-like disaster have fueled resistance to the local nuclear reactor for over two years now. A quote from a woman at the nearby fishing village of Idinthakarai from 2012 is most telling:

“We never listened to Udayakumar Sir when he told us about the radiation dangers, till Fukusima happened. I saw it on TV and later on videos shown by our leaders. I realised that the fears were not far-fetched. It can happen to us also,” [The Telegraph, Feb 7, 2012]

Make no mistake, the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 was a disaster of epic proportions, killing over 15,000 people and causing estimated damages of about $235 Billion dollars. But this was due to the tsunami, and not the nuclear meltdown in the TEPCO plant at Fukushima. However, the two were fungible for villagers 7,000 kilometres away in Tamil Nadu and it was taken advantage of by the local agitators and activists. It worked as effectively as it did because people had a living, recent memory of the Indian Ocean tsunami that caused widespread death and destruction in the region. Never mind that the Kudankulam nuclear reactor site was protected from the worst of it precisely because of its well-chosen location, sheltered from much of the open ocean by the island of Sri Lanka – as well as coral reefs and offshore islands.

Equally, one cannot claim that the Fukushima reactor meltdown had no elements of risk mismanagement and human error behind it, there were indeed many lapses on the part of the owner TEPCO and the Japanese government. BUT. I stand by my old claim that the damage control efforts after the emergency were nothing short of a feat of great human excellence and engineering. It is also telling that in spite of regulatory oversights and lapses in safety planning, the effects of the meltdown were minimal. This underscores the success of decades-long global obsession with nuclear reactor safety and security, which has resulted in a nuclear industry that is likely far safer than most other forms of energy production. The chronic safety risks from a nuclear power plant are nil today, and acute safety risks have the best-designed emergency response systems that human ingenuity has been able to develop – and are more than up to the challenge.

Once we stop listening to those trying to cause fear and doubt and look instead at hard evidence, the reality of nuclear risk and safety is quite apparent.

Bonus: I never tire of promoting Randall Munroe’s excellent radiation dose chart. It gives you a great picture of the natural ionising radiation that we live with, all the time. Also, read the Acorn‘s excellent post from just after the Fukushima incident in 2011.

Comments { 0 }

India in Space

India’s Mission to Mars got approved today by the Prime Minister, the Rs. 450 crore ($80 million) plan receiving a final nod. The Indian Space Research Organisation ISRO is to start preparing for launch in November 2013, around when Mars comes close to earth’s orbit.

Whenever any news comes out on India’s space exploration ventures, a host of arguments spring up centered around the question, “How can India spend money to go to space, when there is so much poverty in the country?”

In the first blog post here at The Transition State, I would defend India’s space programme in this “Space vs. Poverty” debate, a twenty-first century variant of the much older “Guns vs. butter” argument.

A central point of debate here is that the resources available at our disposal are finite, and it is up to us to use those wisely. Noted economist Bibek Debroy says the following on his blog:

All resources have opportunity costs.  If they are used for something, they cannot be used for alternative uses.  I am not sure what benefits arise from such missions, apart from the ego part and the elusive pursuit of superpower status.  These are resources that could have been used for primary schools and primary health centres.

So does India’s space programme give us more than just bragging rights? In particular, is there value in a mission to Mars, or in a far more expensive human spaceflight programme?

The answer is a resounding yes. The benefits are several, but I shall list just two of them here.

Space exploration is an extremely powerful agent of inspiration for young minds. Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian to go into space on a Russian Soyuz rocket in 1984, and soon after entered our textbooks, our hearts and our minds, motivating an entire generation of school students in India. Indian-born Kalpana Chawla followed suit in 1997, sparking the imagination and ambitions another generation of students. An Indian human spaceflight programme is but a logical extension of the same. Launching spacecrafts seem to be one of a few things that India is quite good at, and it seems silly to stop doing it because we are not so good at many other things.

Neil deGrasse Tyson describes the power of space exploration like no other:

The mainstay of India’s launch vehicles is the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle or PSLV, which had its first successful launch back in 1996, and a total of 19 to date. Along with Indian satellites, the PSLV has also launched satellites from 18 foreign nations. Thanks to payload costs than are lower than that of many foreign spacecraft, Indian commercial space exploration has also grown significantly, leading to small but increasing revenue generated for the government.

These commercial launches are largely restricted to what are called “Low Earth Orbits” and don’t involve the trips to the moon or Mars. However, I would argue that it was the constant drive to tweak the PSLV before each launch, pushing the spacecraft to go faster, farther and with greater loads that has allowed Indian launch vehicles to be as robust and competent as they are today. A mission to Mars will test our scientists and engineers and demand an excellence of them that we could do with a lot more of.

Governance in India is in disarray. One can even make a case for doing more with our space programme, and getting more value out of it. Cutting costs and channeling them elsewhere, however, is far from the answer.

Comments { 0 }