IT HAPPENS ONLY IN INDIA,
GREAT JOB MR. PARMAR
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The Indian space programme has done reasonably well despite several minor hiccups. From experiments with the firing of eight-centimetre thick "toy" rockets in 1963 to sending forth a 414-tonne geo-synchronous satellite launch vehicle in 2003, isro has persevered against all odds. Sanctions and technology denials from countries such as the us may have delayed goals, but failed to throw isro off-track.
India's changing economic scenario following liberalisation has put additional onus on isro. It now wears several hats: a public-funded research agency, a satellite vendor, a regulator of space services and a satellite and launch vehicle builder. Besides, demands for its transponders now come not only from the public sector, but also from private firms. Such demands at times forced isro to reshuffle its satellite launches. For instance, Insat-3 b (2000) and Insat-3 c (2002) were injected into orbit by European launcher Ariane ahead of Insat-3 a, partly to meet the demand for extended c band transponders for v-sat operations.
Experts admit there is a dearth of transponders. However, optimal use by Doordarshan (dd) and the department of telecommunications (dot) may help free up some capacity, they feel. dot uses as many as 37 Insat transponders, mostly in c band, for domestic satellite links and international telecommunication gateways. dd has 20 transponders (which actually came down from 24) for its 27 channels. This is further expected to come down to 16. In comparison, 70 private tv channels are using just 13 transponders.
isro and dd officials defend the current pattern of usage. "Our transponders are not underutilised at all," claims dd's chief engineer A S Guin. According to S B Iyer, director, contracts at isro, 30 per cent of dd 's transponder capacity goes to regional news feeds and digital newsgathering. But sources closely watching isro wonder why it hasn't ever carried out a study to assess the requirement of dot and dd instead of just supplying transponders as demanded. "After all it is tax payers' money that is involved," as one of them said.
Estimates by the Planning Commission peg the requirement at 235 transponders by 2006-2007. "In the next two years we plan to add 50 transponders," says isro chief Nair. The bulk of this demand will come from the private sector.
But considering that isro is a public-funded agency, should it be seriously concerned about the growing demand from the private sector and how it will meet it?
In any case, there are several private satellite vendors offering transponders on lease. Under the Satcom policy, if isro cannot meet the demand of a private company, it can lease transponders from global vendors. According to a recent report prepared by us -based market research agency Futron, there is an excess bandwidth of 1,000-10,000 mhz available on foreign satellites for India. The capacity of a typical transponder ranges from 36 to 40 mh z.
Perhaps, isro should pay more attention to projects such as Edusat. It is already drawing flak for the way the project is being implemented. While the idea of using space technology to bridge the urban-rural divide in education may be laudable, as things stand now, it is anybody's guess how good the content can be, which in any case is falling far short of the satellite capacity. From ignou to aicte, all content providers say their broadcasts will largely consist of televised lectures. Would such telecasts attract any students?
The other ambitious project -- Gramsat, launched in 2003 -- appears to be similarly underutilised. Gramsat pilot projects (gpp) were launched in four states, but only Orissa has put gpp to some use. There too, its function is limited to serve as a communication gateway that links the district and block offices to the state capital, Bhubaneswar, with occasional use by departments such as health, panchayati raj, rural development and watershed development to train their staff in far-flung areas. In a 2004 report, the parliamentary standing committee on science, technology and environment had recommended to the department of space that Gramsat projects cover the entire rural India by 2006-07. But at the current rate of progress, such goals may remain confined to paper.
For any country to design, build and launch its own satellites is no mean achievement. isro gets all the credit for it. But when compared with other countries with similar capability, isro's work cannot be described as extraordinary. What can actually tell it apart perhaps would be how it uses high-end space technology to develop strong links with rural India; be it through through Edusat or Gramsat. This, then, will be the final frontier for India.
With inputs from Deepa Kozhisseri in Bangalore and Padmaparna Ghosh in Delhi