Why India’s Mars mission matters, despite poverty

November 11, 2013

There has been much fanfare over the launch of India’s first rocket to Mars – a mission which, if successful, will position the Asian nation as a major player in the global space race.

For days last week, local television news channels broadcast constant updates as the Indian Space Research Organisation readied to send “Mangalyaan” – the “Mars-craft” – to the red planet.

The orbiter’s mission is to reach Mars by September and map some of the planet’s surface and test for methane, a possible marker of life.

But this is no easy feat. More than half of the 40 Mars missions launched around the world have been unsuccessful.

Only the United States, Europe, and Russia have sent probes that have orbited or landed on the planet. A similar mission by India’s rival China in 2011 failed to leave earth’s orbit.

After the successful launch, there was an outpouring of praise from many Indians, with politicians, Bollywood stars and cricketers applauding India’s prowess in space exploration.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hailed it “a historic achievement” while Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress-led ruling coalition government, said it was “an outstanding feat” that “every Indian is proud of”.

But there were some who were not proud of the Mars Orbiter Mission – raising the long-worn debate which has dogged the country’s space exploration programme since its inception 50 years ago.


This is a nation, they argue, where one-third of the population – 400 million people – live below the poverty line.

This is a nation where more than 40 percent of children are malnourished and 1,655 children under 5 years old die every day from preventable diseases such malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia.

This is a nation where some 620 million people are forced to defecate in the open and many do not have access to clean drinking water.

Should we really be exploring Mars when we don’t even have toilets for our people, they asked.

“I believe that in a country where 230 million people sleep hungry every night, where basic healthcare, clean water and sanitation facilities are not available… it (the Mars mission) reflects a remarkable indifference to the dignity of the poor,” said Harsh Mander, a social activist and director of the Centre for Equity Studies.

Others have dismissed it as a move by India to outsmart its neighbouring giant China, and move one step closer in its ambition to be a global superpower.

Development economist Jean Drèze said the project was “part of the Indian elite’s delusional quest for superpower status”.

Some reports even suggested that critics of Britain’s aid programme in the country have also been angered by the mission. The UK gives India around £300m each year.


Supporters, however, argue that the mission is the cheapest in the world, costing India just $70 million – a fraction of the cost of NASA’s MAVEN mission due to launch later this month.

This is considerably cheaper than some of India’s more lavish spending schemes, including a $340 million plan to build the world’s largest statue in the state of Gujarat.

Author and commentator Chetan Bhagat tweeted that the cost of the mission was in fact cheaper than the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games hosted by New Delhi in 2010.

This low-cost technology could bring in more revenue for India, say analysts, helping it capture more of the $304 billion global space market. So far, it has launched 35 satellites for other countries and is eager to do more.

Experts also argue that technology developed in its space programme has practical applications to improve and save people’s lives.

Satellites, for example, have applications in communi­cation, television broadcasting, agricultural production, environmental pollution and weather forecasting – key when it comes to disaster management.

India is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, and many of its 1.2 billion people live in areas vulnerable to natural hazards such as floods, cyclones, droughts and earthquakes.

With many scientists warning that climate change will bring more severe calamities to the Indian subcontinent, the country has begun using such technologies to predict weather patterns up to seven days in advance – thereby preparing for disasters better.

A fierce cyclone that battered India’s eastern coastline last month killed relatively few people largely due to meteorologists’ early warnings, which spurred authorities to evacuate close to a million people – potentially averting a massive human tragedy. A similar cyclone in 1999 killed 10,000 people.

“Space exploration in the time of dengue does seem baffling at first glance,” Indian jounalist Manu Joseph wrote in September in what was then International Herald Tribune (which is now the International New York Times).

“But then should a nation really imagine that all its great ambitions should ideally line up according to a hierarchy of grave social importance and take up only one project at a time?”

PICTURE CAPTION:  India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C25), carrying the Mars orbiter, lifts off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, about 100 km (62 miles) north of the southern Indian city of Chennai November 5, 2013. India launched its first rocket to Mars on Tuesday, aiming to put a satellite in orbit around the red planet at a lower cost than previous missions and potentially positioning the emerging Asian nation as a budget player in the global space race. REUTERS/Babu 

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