It's called outreach

Indian science is in Space, but not its villages

Published: Thursday 30 June 2005

-- harnessing Space for rural enlightenment was an avowed goal of the Indian space programme. It was crystal clear to Vikram Sarabhai, the chief architect of the Space programme: conquering Space was not fancy science, but one aligned with the national goal of improving the lot of millions.

In the ensuing three decades, the Indian Space Research Organisation (isro) became a power to be reckoned with, picking up several laurels along the way. Thanks to Rs 25,600 crore of tax payer's money spent on the space programme, India now has improved telecom and television services. Its high-quality satellite imageries helped not just the military establishment, but planners at all levels: national, regional and local.

An equal beneficiary is the private sector. Of late, each time isro hits the drawing board to design a new communication satellite, private telecom/satellite television firms' needs are weighed in as equally as that of the public sector. As a result, an increasing number of isro transponders are now leased to private companies. There is nothing wrong per se in public-funded isro catering to private capital to make some money, as seen in the growing revenue of Antrix Corporation, isro 's commercial arm. But in its present form, such catering has also meant attention drawn away from several of its so-called rural projects, which require undivided attention. If isro so desires, let it raise money through bonds and float a company that launches satellites for the private sector.

When revenue generation becomes the prime motive, other goals take a backseat. A few years ago, isro unveiled a major programme for rural India: Gramsat. The stated objective was that this cluster of satellites would not only improve rural connectivity, but also raise education and health services in hinterland to a new zenith.

Such highs exist only on paper. On the ground, High Science's social mission is fraught with problems. Take, for instance, Edusat, a Gramsat satellite dedicated to plug the rural-urban divide in education. Almost a year after Edusat was launched, its utilisation is less than 30 to 35 per cent of capacity, admit isro sources themselves. So, isn't it time isro refocused its attention? Isn't it time isro realised that while profit-motivated private corporations have a choice of private transponder vendors, whose satellites are hovering over the Indian sky, that is not the case with millions in the hinterland, who have a right to ask for a fair share of this valuable resource?

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