Atanu Dey On India's Development

India’s Moon Probe

Finally

India is catching up with the USSR (which does not actually exist anymore) of nearly 50 years ago. The Soviet lunar space mission got off the ground with Luna 1 in Jan 1959. Two days ago India gave a fitting reply to it by launching Chandrayaan-I on its way to the moon. Aside from crash-landing on the moon a probe with the Indian flag in it, Chandrayaan-I will map the surface of the moon for two years. It brings to mind the US Lunar Orbiter Program of 1966-7 which photographed the surface of the moon.

Mapping the moon 40 years later has the advantage of high technology such as high definition digital photography and fabulously improved telecommunications. But over the recent few decades, the US, USSR, and Japan have also done high-tech reruns of the same gig. So in a sense this is all old hat. Still, there are benefits of doing it for yourself even if you are not the first to do it because one learns by doing.

Underwhelming

Indians can justifiably take pride that their space agency has the ability to do things such as launching satellites and sending probes to the moon. But I must confess that I am not impressed with this and other planned lunar missions, although I think that India’s ability to launch satellites is important. What matters to me is more — how shall I put it — mundane, more of the earth than the moon.

Where I sit on earth, I am reminded multiple times a day that the inability to do low tech matters more than the ability to do spectacular high tech things. Providing a reliable supply of electrical power is decidedly low tech. I live in Pune, a major city with millions of inhabitants and home to scores of educational institutions, information technology related companies, major manufacturing firms, and the fine arts such as film, music and theater.

Pune — like practically every city, town, and village of India — does not have adequate power supply: power cuts every day for hours on end, and this has been going on for the last several years. If I am asked whether I would like to live in a country where they have power but don’t (or cannot) send probes to the moon, or to live in a country which sends me-too probes to the moon but the average resident does not have reliable (if at all) access to power, my reply would be the former country.

What’s really hard

Am I being curmudgeonly and contrary in saying that? Curmudgeonly perhaps but definitely not being contrary. I believe most Indians would migrate to countries which have a high standard of living but which don’t have a space program. That implies that reliable infrastructural public utilities matter more to people than the abstract pride arising out of spectacular but ultimately pointless achievements.

So why is it that India can send moon probes but cannot figure out how to supply adequate amounts of reliable power? The obvious reason is that it is much harder to supply electrical power and other public utilities than to shoot at the moon. I single out electrical power but it is not the only thing that is unavailable to most Indians. The story is equally dismal if one were to look at child nutrition, schooling, health-care, water, sanitation, and other non-high tech matters. India clearly does not provide these. The question is whether it is unable or is it unwilling to do so?

It is an important question because the answer has implications for India’s development and therefore by extension needs serious attention. My considered opinion is that India is unwilling to address these questions. Why? Because these are hard and solving hard problems take time and immense effort. A person makes the required investment to solving hard problems only when the return on investment can be captured by the person. This is glaringly obvious but its implications are staggering.

More to come.

There is more, Josephine, but some other night. (In short, I will continue with this later.)

Post Script: Many years ago I wrote this. I am reminded of this only because of the Josephine quote.

  • vishu

    Atanu – You have hit on spot.
    Our top notch scientist, leaders should start solving our earthly problems because from moon India will not be visible as it would be dark. Dark in mind and Dark in actions.

  • LalitPatnaik

    An interesting view point. True that building reliable infrastructural public utilities matters more. But that doesn’t mean we jettison all our high-tech research plans. Many a time solutions to certain social problems come as a by-product of high-tech research. For example, APJ Abdul Kalam mentioned in one of his books about how researching on lightweight materials in the missile programs led to the development of light weight prosthetic limbs. Agreed, it was defence research in this case, rather than space research. It was high-tech research nonetheless.

    So what I would think of, ideally, is to have work on the high-tech domain – such as space, defence and other research – to proceed hand in hand with the decidedly low-tech yet utterly important issues of building adequate and reliable infrastructural public utilities. Easier said than done though. We don’t live in Utopia!

  • DChandra

    The way I look at it is, what makes ISRO, a govt agency – that same useless govt, special? How is that they can set a goal and achieved it, within a few months of the deadline, they set years/decade ago. The funds they used to achieve this was small change in Lalu’s swindle acts! That is something for the rest of govt departments to learn…