Vanity versus necessity in India’s space program

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Mars by Mayank Chhaya

Barely has India’s Mars craft Mangalyaan attained its orbit and the inevitable question about the wisdom of the country’s space program in the midst of all its existential challenges has lifted off as well. Notwithstanding its predictability it is a fair but eventually futile question to ask.

Those who ask the question presumably do so out of a genuine concern about hundreds of millions of India’s poor who lead a life of dehumanizing deprivation. It is extraordinary how this juxtaposition of the country’s chronic poverty and scientific advancement has not changed since 1975 when it launched its first satellite named Aryabhat on April 19, 1975.

It is as much a tribute to the poet’s striking imagination as it is to my memory that I vividly recall a Gujarati haiku written in response to the satellite launch in the midst of even worse poverty than now. Here is that haiku and its translation below:

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Peering in the sky

At the orbiting Aryabhat

Hungry Masses

Like all great poetry, in particular in the genre of haikus, this was a brilliantly distilled but obvious literary riposte and even repudiation of something the poet found unworthy. I apologize to the poet because I do not remember the name. In a sense it is poetic justice that the creation has outlived the creator. But I digress.

The vanity projects versus the essential programs debate is somewhat disingenuous. That is because those who oppose such projects make the mistake of thinking that the money spent on such projects would have automatically gone to the more socially conscious programs had the vanity ones not been conceived in the first place. It is not as if the $72 million, which at 4.5 billion in rupees sounds respectable, spent on the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) ‘Mangalyaan’ mission would have been instead allocated to poverty alleviation immediately. That it should be is hard to squabble over, but unfortunately that is not how government budgeting is designed to work. In any case, the same government already has a massively ambitious food subsidy program costing some $20 billion annually. Ironically, there is some overlap between those who opposed the food subsidy and those who are applauding the space mission.

I am not even going to go into the debate over whether the Mars mission has any earthly benefits in terms of developing spinoff technologies that solve many existential challenges. For one, there aren’t any on the face of it. However, more importantly, all projects cannot possibly have magnificent spinoffs. All great civilizations feel the need to indulge themselves in fanciful spending which is in a complex, indirect way, always at the cost of the more pressing issues. It is a pity that that is the way it is but that is the way it is.

Contrary to the bogus but popular notion, government budgeting does not and cannot work like family budgeting. That is so because more often than not in government money is literally created for many of these projects by printing more. Families that try to print more, or for that matter any at all, will end up in prison.

On balance, I think it is important for a country at the stage of economic and cultural evolution that India has been in for the past 20 years to have what might seem like fanciful, showcase projects such as the Mars mission. There is a case to be made in favor of the inspirational value of a successful space mission for the younger generations and how that could propel ideas that benefit the marginalized. Admittedly, it is a long shot that mostly misses the mark but I would still argue that India needs to do both, have an ambitious space program as well execute massive and sustained poverty alleviation programs. It must not be an either/or choice. I am partly compelled to take this view because of the way government budgeting and fund allocation is set up to work.

Of course, one can always insist that in that case we must change the way government budget making is done. That is a fair point but ultimately futile because what is democracy if not jostling among competing interests for money?

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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