India’s South Asia satellite — A missed opportunity

May 12, 2017 08:25 AM

By  Sandeep Dikshit

Ideally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi should have hoped that last week’s launch of the South Asia satellite had the trappings of the ceremony on May 26, 2014, in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan when, for the first time, most SAARC heads of government came for the swearing-in of an Indian Prime Minister. 

Contrary to the media buildup, the India-funded and built South Asian satellite might have come too late in the day. The neighbours, with no exception, are wary of South Block’s foreign policy currently supervised by a medley comprising dyed-in-the-wool diplomats, kin of high officials in the Modi government and nominated individuals from the RSS. 

On the technical side as well, the satellite has too few frills in its antennas to encourage the South Asian heads to once again head to Delhi for a joint photo session with Prime Minister Modi. The satellite’s limited technical specifications (equipped only with Ku band transponders that are good for videos and photos) are further weighed down by the absence of freedom to download whenever or whatever they want to because India is yet to put up satellite ground stations on their respective soils. 

This means the countries will have to request ISRO for specific images and video feeds. Or the participating countries must work out a sharing protocol with ISRO. This is much like their existing arrangements with commercial satellite companies offering similar services except that the partnership of South Asian countries with ISRO is free of cost but may bring bureaucratic red tape in its wake.

The satellite is being touted as a Narendra Modi initiative. Facts tell a slightly different story. It began as a UPA project after the country’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), sounded a series of warnings in late 2012 about the inroads being made into the South Asian space segment by China. If anything, the UPA should be faulted for letting time slip by after the Joint Intelligence Committee weighed the issue in February 2013 and urged ISRO to accelerate its marketing and persuasion efforts. Chinese space companies have started setting up offices in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, the two SAARC countries (besides Pakistan) that are likely to be big consumers of satellite services.

The Chinese are snapping at ISRO’s heels and data rates for satellite communication in India is many times costlier than the tariffs in the US. The time to bite the bullet may well pass India by

Pundits have drawn attention to the geopolitical symbolism of this project in which Pakistan is the only sour note. In other words, they are indirectly admitting that the satellite might not be of much help to the SAARC countries. But its launch does display a unity of purpose in space that has eluded the South Asian neighbours on the ground despite Narendra Modi’s best efforts. India’s pan South Asia barrier-free road travel project first ran aground on Pakistan’s refusal to buy into it. Islamabad’s opposition inadvertently excluded another SAARC member, Afghanistan, from the project because all terrestrial links from India (as well as Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan) must go through Pakistan. When Narendra Modi tried to push through the truncated SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement — renamed BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) — eternally-loyal Bhutan jumped the ship. Its Parliament refused to endorse the BBIN agreement on the grounds that unruly Indians with their badly maintained vehicles and poor driving skills will cause havoc and pollution on their serene roads. 

Another major country, Sri Lanka, will also have limited use of the South Asian satellite’s offerings because China has made substantial inroads and is well poised to be Colombo’s premier partner in the space segment. Bangladesh too is unwilling to be tied to the Indian coat-tail in cutting edge areas — nuclear plant, submarines, as also space.

This leaves just Bhutan and Maldives who will substantially gain from the satellite but will be modest users. Even Afghanistan currently utilises an old Indian satellite with assistance from the French. 

Why hasn’t ISRO, which rewrote the world record for simultaneously launching the maximum number of satellites in one go and sent the cheapest-ever mission to Mars, unable to make breakthroughs like the Chinese companies? Is the much-vaunted ISRO expertise concentrated in a narrow segment? 

The reason may lie in the aftershocks of the Antrix-Devas affair. The latter is the marketing arm of ISRO and it has to pay heavy penalties to the private company Antrix for backing out of a joint venture. The government cancelled the Antrix-Devas contract after the Comptroller and Auditor General found a number of procedural violations. The controversy even claimed the scalp of the then ISRO chairman, Madhavan Nair.

ISRO now stands in danger of losing its global preeminent position of being the most cost-effective launcher of micro satellites as Chinese start-up companies are already actively scouring the world for opportunities. ISRO is likely to be attractive only to customers who have security issues with Chinese companies. This means the Western block, and they too have existing tieups for the large satellites where ISRO still has no capability. 

The problem lies in the Modi government’s inability to come up with a revamped Satellite Communications Policy to replace the 20-year-old version that has licence-permit raj written all over it. Three years after it took power, there is no word whether the BJP government is interested in taking a look at the draft policy left behind by the UPA government. The Chinese are snapping at ISRO’s heels and data rates for satellite communication in India is many times costlier than the tariffs in the US. The time to bite the bullet may well pass India by.

From a national security perspective too, India is yet to integrate different policies for space communication, security and remote sensing. The Prime Minister has often spoken of an integrated space in all aspects of policy making. The Joint Doctrine of the armed forces is an example of deeds following words. But it is easier for governments to make the armed forces do its bidding than breaking down walls between civilian departments.

That is why South Block is still struggling with an integrated transport policy. But India cannot afford to allow its various users of space to work in silos when the worldwide trend is of integration. 

The neighbourhood policy is also in disarray. The accent on Hindutva might have made neighbours with a different religious disposition wary of their domestic audience perceiving them as being in too close an Indian embrace. What could have been an occasion to highlight pan-South Asianism has turned out to be a missed opportunity.

(From The Tribune, Chandigarh)


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