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Indian Space Effort

operational problems for the various ex- The Economics of India

Indian Space Effort

operational problems for the various ex-The Economics of India’s Space periments that had been planned. A simpleProgramme – An Exploratory benchmarking exercise comparing the Analysis Indian space programme’s capabilities with by U Sankar; space products and services available from Oxford University Press, elsewhere would have revealed that it would New Delhi, 2007; be very difficult for ISRO to justify the pp xiv + 312, Rs 695. nascent space efforts on the basis of any

economic criteria.


bout three or four years after I had joined the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), around 1977-78, Satish Dhawan, the then chairman of ISRO, got a letter from Manmohan Singh. I think, he was a member of the Planning Commission at that time. The contents of that letter were fairly simple and straightforward at least outwardly. It asked ISRO to justify the investments that were going into the space programme on economic grounds.

I think the letter came at a time when ISRO was still trying to put together a space programme that was relevant to India of that time. ISRO’s track record up to that point in time had not been particularly good. The payloads on the Aryabhata satellite had failed shortly after its launch. The shutters of the TV cameras on the Bhaskara experimental remote sensing satellite had not yet opened to provide the much promised and long-awaited photos from space. Though still in the future, the first launch of the SLV-3 would be a failure and one of the solar panels of ISRO’s experimental communications satellite APPLE would not open, creating many

All of us working with Dhawan at that time felt that the only way we could justify the programme was on the grounds of strategic technology and national security considerations. Dhawan, however, thought otherwise. Over the next six months to a year ISRO went though an extremely rigorous and gruelling exercise of justifying every element of the programme internally on financial or economic grounds. I remember an exercise to look at the market for remote sensed data from an Indian remote sensing (IRS) satellite amongst our neighbouring countries. ISRO carried out a detailed assessment of each country, which looked not only at its scientific and technological infrastructure, but also at the country’s politics and capabilities to use such data. Needless to say that, after this exercise ISRO was successful in putting forward a strong case for the economic justification of the space programme on the basis of its future potential rather than on the basis of its actual capabilities at that time.

Independent Evaluation

Reading Sankar’s erudite and scholarly work on The Economics of India’s Space Programme many of us feel vindicated that

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

what was speculative and what many critics considered “an imaginary programme with imaginary potential” has actually delivered much of the value that was promised. Dhawan, were he alive today, would have been particularly happy to see an “independent” economist evaluate the programme and state clearly and categorically that the programme has more than paid for itself.

Sankar has indeed produced an extremely well-researched book. The three main services provided by space – telecommunications including TV services, earth observation for resources management and weather services – are of course the major contributors to the benefit side of the equation. The PSLV launcher is closely coupled with the earth observation service and the GSLV launcher with the telecom and TV services. These services are linked via intermediaries including various government entities to a large number of users. There are a number of conceptual issues on how to evaluate the costs and benefits of such information and content rich value chains. The procedures and methods adopted by Sankar deal with these conceptual issues rigorously and clearly.

The close technological coupling between the various space systems bring in elements that are shared across the various services provided. Sankar has done a commendable job of untangling these complex connections to arrive at very realistic assessments of costs and value. The methodology adopted for each and every service is thorough and based on clear technical and economic rationale.

Telecommunications, TV services, meteorology are services provided by the INSAT system. Each of these services is covered in detail through a separate chapter. Remote sensing information services provided by the IRS-based National Natural Resources Management System (NNRMS) is covered separately. A number of case studies have been used to look at the costs and value of the information in various resource management disciplines. These have been extended to look at the national level too. The chapter on launch vehicles is again conceptually sound. Development and operational costs are separately assessed and comparisons made with other commercially available launch vehicle services. A separate chapter deals with the spin-off benefits from the space programme.

Most of the space products and services are in the nature of public goods. Network externalities, the non-existence of efficient markets and a variety of institutional and governance issues are important for evaluating such products and services. Sankar has addressed each and every one of these issues for every service comprehensively. The result is a very simple and clear elucidation of these factors and their implications for any economic evaluation.

The book is useful for many researchers because a lot of authentic primary information has been organised and presented in a very coherent way. Basic data on the space programme is available in this book. International comparisons provide an additional value. The list of references and sources is comprehensive.

Unfulfilled Dream

One of the dreams that drove many of us in the early days was the belief that space could indeed transform India. Though space technology has had an impact, this has not happened in the way we thought it would happen. Some of us actually believed that satellite TV would transform the education system in the country. While the number of satellite TV channels now run into hundreds, the education component has remained small. Even today many of us cannot understand why this is so. Though the country has now launched a dedicated satellite for education, there are still many barriers to large-scale diffusion and use of this technology. Remote sensing satellites now routinely provide timely information. Information has value only if it is used for making better decisions. Information provided by satellites competes with and complements information provided by other sources. While certainly many areas have benefited from information provided by remote sensing satellites, in some areas their use has not yet become widespread. Even if better and more timely information is available, organisations responsible for using it may not want to use it for a variety of reasons. Some understanding of why some things did happen and why other things did not happen as envisaged though not strictly within the domain of economics may have added even greater value to the study. This is, of course, easier said than done. Maybe ISRO should commission Sankar to carry out some more studies along these lines.

Economic justification of a programme is that much easier to do if the programme is a successful one, which the ISRO programme certainly is. What would be interesting would be to distil from the ISRO programme those elements of the technology, the organisation and the environment that enabled this programme to unfold in the way it actually did. Many decisions were made in ISRO during the critical phase that stretched, maybe from the early 1970s to the early 1990s. I recall that in the early 1970s the secretary of the department of telecommunications had written a letter to the ISRO chairman saying that the department of telecommunications did not believe that any satellite including an Indian satellite was needed for meeting the telecom needs of the country. Within a decade of such a view an operational INSAT system had been set up in the country. The process by means of which change came about would be of great interest not only to decision-makers, but also to sociologists, political scientists and technologists. The decision on the charge-coupled device (CCD) technology for the cameras of the IRS satellite was another landmark decision since it paved the way for ISRO to become a world-class player in the design and operation of remote sensing satellites. The circumstances and the way in which this decision was made is of obvious interest not only to historians of technology, but also to management and policy analysts.

Understanding many other things that happened would also be of great interest. The choice of the PSLV configuration, decisions on the cryogenic engine and its link and connections with the GSLV launcher development, the choice of the propellants for the PSLV boosters and the approaches towards their development, ISRO organisational and managerial arrangements, the gyro and inertial platforms development represent some facets of the programme that nobody has looked at from a research and learning perspective. There are many things we could learn from the successes and failures of high technology organisations like ISRO. In a technologydominated world, a socio-economic understanding of the contexts in which major decisions are taken is beginning to emerge as a major field of study. ISRO and the department of space represent a vast repository of real world experiences and knowledge that could be used as a basis for a number of India-specific research projects. ISRO should throw open its archives to researchers like Sankar and promote a number of such research projects.

Lesser Known Contributors

I was fortunate to have been with the space programme during its early phase. ISRO at that time had possibly one of the

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007 most impressive collections of technical and managerial talent in the country. There is however very little known publicly about many of these extremely gifted, talented and committed Indians coming from different parts of India who all believed that “space” could make a difference to the development of a new India. Few people, for example, know of the contributions that Brahm Prakash (the director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre) made to the development of the SLV 3 and the Indian launch vehicle programme. The development of the solid rocket propulsion capabilities in ISRO with contributions from people like Kurup, Gowariker and a whole host of other engineers and scientists is worth studying not only because it is history, but also because it can contribute immensely to our knowledge of what it takes to organise and run such high technology programmes. The launch vehicle programme and the way in which it has evolved in ISRO in response to the various technological, political and organisational challenges that ISRO faced is also a story that is only partially researched and understood. The development of the IRS and INSAT systems provides opportunities for original research not only from the viewpoint of history, but also from a public policy perspective.

Public knowledge about the origins and evolution of the Indian space programme is sketchy except when ISRO achieves a successful launch or one of its vehicles breaks up dramatically during a launch. Knowledge within the strategic, policy and research communities within the country is also almost non-existent. There is also no organised effort to make public many of the major decisions and events that took place within this “public good” programme. If the situation within India is bad, the knowledge about India and the Indian space programme is practically non-existent abroad. Though IRS is one of the major providers of remote sensing data in the world, very few people in any of the space policy circles have heard about it. Very few Indians know about Satish Dhawan or Brahm Prakash. Nobody abroad has even heard of them. This is particularly sad in the case of Dhawan who was a true internationalist and under whose guidance ISRO gained immensely from international collaboration.

India is no longer the poor country that it used to be. We have the resources to make investments in research initiatives not only in India, but also at suitable locations abroad. Some chairs of research have been created in India to honour some of our space pioneers. We now have to strengthen and improve what has been set up and direct research towards providing an understanding of some of the key happenings within our high technology organisations. We must also institute chairs in the prestigious universities and research establishments abroad not only to honour our space pioneers, but also to do research about India and the Indian space programme. It is also time that we opened up some of the archives to researchers from India and abroad.

ISRO must be commended for asking Sankar to carry out this economic assessment of its programmes. Let us hope that they will not only ask Sankar to do additional work that builds upon what he has done, but also open up the archives of ISRO to other researchers and that this would be the first of a long series of such initiatives.



Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

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