Checking the validity of a ‘valid’ ISRO question

The question of whether resources directed to space programmes are a diversion from pressing development needs, however, is a valid one. As an answer, one can uphold the importance of these programmes in material and scientific terms. The knowledge gleaned from these missions will contribute to human progress, and ISRO’s demonstration of its ability to launch satellites at relatively low costs can attract business and revenue from private players.

This passage appears in an opinion article by Rahul Menon, an associate professor at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, O.P. Jindal Global University, published in The Hindu on August 28. The overall point of the article, with which I agree, is that state intervention can also lead to positive outcomes. This said, I strongly disagree with this passage. What Menon has called a valid question is, in my view, not valid at all.

First, it presumes that space programmes can’t be part of “pressing development needs”, which is false. For example, a space programme with an indigenous capacity to build satellites and rockets and to launch them is a prerequisite for easing access to long-distance communications. This is an important reason why television is such a highly penetrative media in India, and has helped achieve many cultural and social transformations.

Second, Menon’s statement also presumes that a space programme subtracts from “pressing development needs”. This is true – insofar as we also agree that the resources we have allocated for the “needs” are limited. I don’t: the simple reason is that the budget estimate for the Department of Space in 2023-2024 is 0.27% of the total estimate for the same period. Even if “pressing development needs” constitute a (arbitrarily) highly conservative 10% of the remainder, the claim that India’s space programme stresses it by reducing it to 9.73% strains belief. In addition, development needs are also met by state governments and often with some help from the private sector.

The real problem here is that the national government has not allocated enough to the “needs”, leading to a conservative fiscal imagination that perceives the space programme to be wasteful.

These are the two points of disagreement vis-à-vis the first sentence of the excerpted portion. The third point has to do with the third sentence: the Department of Space has done well to separate ISRO’s scientific programmes from commercial ventures; NewSpace India, Ltd. exists for the latter. This is important so as to not valorise ISRO’s ability to launch satellites at low cost, which is harmful because, in the spaceflight sector specifically, a) reducing the manufacturing and launch costs to maintain a market advantage is a terrible trade-off, given the safety implications, and b) we don’t yet know the difference that access to cheaper labour in India makes to the difference in costs between ISRO and other space agencies.

In sum, “the question of whether resources directed to space programmes are a diversion from pressing development needs” is a strawman.