Atanu Dey On India's Development

The Indian mission to Mars is a Waste

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Countries, as much as individuals, have to allocate limited resources rationally. Even those tasks that have net benefits have to be considered in relation to the net benefits of other tasks that could instead have been done — the simple idea of opportunity costs explored in the previous post, “The Importance of Prioritizing and Sequenceing.” In the following I argue why India’s mission to Mars is a waste of valuable resources.

The unbearable silliness of mission to Mars
{Published on Niti Central on Nov 10th.}

This thing about opportunity costs, prioritising and sequencing applies at the level of the collective as much as at the level of the individual. Society too has limited resources which have alternative uses. Based on its priorities, the government chooses how public resources are to be used. If it chooses correctly over an extended period, the outcome is a prosperous society, and vice versa. These are public policy choices and they powerfully determine the prosperity (or lack thereof) of the society, state or nation.

Considered in isolation, the decision to send a probe to Mars can be justified on the grounds that it will add to our knowledge about it. That’s a benefit. And of course there’s a cost. Whether the cost is less than what it would have cost another country or not is irrelevant. The salient question relates to the opportunity cost of the Mars mission because increasing our knowledge about Mars is not the only thing that needs to be done. Was it the most important thing India could have done at this time expending the same resources? I argue that it was not and that it was a bad decision.

Mars is not relevant to India. Whatever scientific discoveries the Indian probe makes will be quite irrelevant to the people of India — or any other people, for that matter. There can be no conceivable benefit to knowing its geology or atmospheric composition or whatever. True this knowledge will be of some use to someone in the future but right now aside from scientific curiosity, there’s little use of it here and now.

But isn’t research a good thing? Of course it is. However finding out things about Mars (or any other extraterrestrial body) is not basic research. Basic research is what advances scientific knowledge which in time helps people in figuring out the technology that have beneficial applications. The question isn’t whether India should do basic research or not; the question what kind of basic research. There are lots of areas where research and development is sorely required and missing. That should be the priority.

One can easily list dozens of areas where resources for research and development could be spent. Here’s one: solar power. India needs to do it because research will lead to technology that will be of use here and now, and in the future. Any resources spent in solar power research will have massive return on investments. The technology it develops will not only directly benefit it (lower energy bills) but also build capacity for research. India is favorably located with immense solar energy potential and that should be top priority for R&D for India. The reasons for investment in solar power research are too many to go into here but the primary reason is that it will directly lead to production and productivity growth — which is sorely needed if India is to stop being poor.

The point here is that there is an endless list of things which require publicly-funded research. Developing countries should focus on those fields that are likely to benefit them most urgently and in fields where other countries are not motivated to invest in. Poor countries should leave it to rich countries to do things like sending missions to Mars. They have a comparative advantage there and it is pointless competing with them. The resources they spend will be dictated by their priorities but the benefits — the knowledge about other planets — anyway will be part of the shared scientific knowledge of humanity.

One argument that is sometimes made has to do with national pride. India is the fourth country to send a probe to Mars, or some such thing. That goes into the “pride” column but what about that item in the “shame” column which says that India ranks 140-something in a list of nations and basic literacy? Now it can be argued that with the (relatively) small amounts that are spent in a Mars mission, you could not make a real dent in literacy. But that is incorrect.

India’s literacy problem needs to be solved urgently. A literate population is an absolute minimum if India is to grow economically and socially. The old methods of government schools have failed and are anyway outdated in a world of highly advanced information and communications technologies. Just spending a few tens of millions of dollars on that problem will yield enormous benefits. Gather a stellar group of researchers and practitioners who have the knowledge of that field and let them figure out a solution. That’s a research area for you.

Another area of research could be to figure out a better legal system. Courts are backlogged and I am certain that there are laws on the books that are idiotic, outdated and need to be weeded out. How about spending some public resources on them because there are public benefits.

How about doing a bit of research to figure out how best to design public toilets? It may not be the most exciting thing to read about in the newspapers — certainly not as sexy as sending probes to Mars — but it will have enormous public health benefits. The reason this is not on the radar of the policy makers is simply that they themselves have private toilets and cannot empathise with the plight of people who don’t have any toilets.

Here’s another research area: figure out what’s wrong with the Indian constitution and how to get it fixed so that it is sensible. As I see it, I think all the major ills that afflict India flow from a flawed constitution. One of the biggest flaws in it is that it is unreadable and — to a first approximation — nobody has read it. Over the last several years, I have asked at least 10,000 reasonably educated people and not one person has admitted to having read the constitution of India.

Or how about the mother of all research topics: why is India so desperately poor? If we could definitely know the causes of India’s continued failure to grow rapidly, we would be able to do something that will benefit the poorest of the poor. Right now there are a bunch of untutored ignoramuses determining public policy, people who would not know the first thing about what causes poverty or prosperity. How about hiring some of the best brains in the business from around the world and giving them the job of dispassionately figuring out what needs to be done?

All those and many other important topics need urgent attention in terms of public spending. If the government is not going to take the lead in funding research in these areas, who will? The private sector does not have the capacity nor the incentive to do so. It is a known fact that public funding is required in any field that has large positive benefits (positive externalities) for the public at large.

India has limited public resources and allocating them sensibly is necessary. For that India needs a well thought-out priority list. Choices have to be made because India cannot afford the opportunity cost of making bad choices. One day, if and when India becomes a middle-income country, maybe then India could indulge in the luxury of spending on irrelevant data gathering. But sending probes to the Moon or Mars is way down on the list right now and this kind of silliness should be called out strenuously and loudly.

{Follow-on post “Mars Mission Revisited.”}

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  • Naina

    I’m usually on this side of this debate too. Though doesn’t it raise more questions? Such as – what about sports infrastructure and spending tax money on sports? What about the fact that the Govt heavily subsidizes heavily the cost incurred by film students at the FTII in Pune? Yes, it is not a lot of money, but in principle, is that necessary? I’d say no to both, though sports infrastructure *may* have a long term effect of overall healthier people. That’s a bit far fetched though.

  • VirtualPresence

    ISRO – Indian SPACE RESEARCH Organization, “The objective of ISRO is to develop space technology and its application to various national tasks…. INSAT, IRS, PSLV, GSLV”. I think you are trying to apply a command and control/central planning approach to every department in the India gov, which is silly IMHO. Diversity of approaches is quite necessary. It is silly to expect ALL scientists in a country to work on a single problem. It wouldn’t be a stretch to purge all the universities of their Arts and Humanities department according to the utilitarian view you propose, is that the case? I have no doubts that the “leave exploring planets to rich nations” thought process is the prime reason for India to lag behind in the patent race and we are or atleast will very soon pay a heavy price in licensing fee for many products or will have to utilize the supreme court to avoid exorbitant prices, like in the Novartis case. How many times can we pull off a judgement like that? In a country like India with a billion heads there will be a multitude of areas of interest, diverse and not necessarily utilitarian in nature. To expect all to work on a single set of issues while abandoning their swadharma would be silly. [comment from NitiCenteral with minor edits]

  • blogospheroid

    Hi Atanu,

    There is a more charitable way to consider this approach. According to N Nicholas Taleb, a portfolio should be divided amongst the very conservative and the potential black swans. The majority of the investment should be in the conservative and a meaningful small percentage of potential super high upsides. The conservative part is where typical prioritization is used. For the black swans, actually nothing can be said about them.

    In some space tech discussions, india’s ability to pull off this mission is being looked upon with almost disbelief. It might just become the seed of the next boom sector, if the space age begins now.

    I don’t disagree with anything you said in the essay. I agree that electronic delivery of course content and economic research into growth is very important. But the space mission is not something i would cut. I would cut kerosene, diesel and fertilizer subsidy way before that.

  • NS

    It’s rare that I disagree with you but… The Mars mission isn’t just about research or national pride. It is about capabilities. Think of the Apollo missions and how it generated both an interest in science and engendered the competitive spirit. Probably it created the best science generation in the US. Science is a competitive activity. It isn’t a detached search for truth. People who believe that have never worked in a good research team. By the way is your definition of “basic research” correct? It seems like you seem to be defining “applied research”. Lastly, when you find yourself in agreement with Jean Dreze please take some time out to go back and check assumptions.

  • Freedom India

    Atanu,

    I admit to know very little compared to you, and find myself enlightened by most of your posts on this blog. But I seem to have difficulties agreeing with you on this one. I agree that a country needs to prioritize on where it spends money and choose wisely based on the opportunity costs. And even though $73 million is much less compared to mars missions of other countries, no amount is small when it is spent on correct priorities as developing countries like India always have important projects/human development areas that desperately need money.

    However, all the other potential research areas you have mentioned – IT for schools, better legal system, better public toilets, improving constitution or finding out the reasons of poverty for India are not being investigated not because of lack of funds, but for the lack of political will. Improving IT for school or legal system or constitution are not in the interest of the people in power and that is why these areas will not improve even if the money is available for them. I think you have already argued about this in many of your posts. Don’t we remember Aakash tablet? Other areas you have mentioned like better public toilets are not being researched again as you have already mentioned in your current post – because netas are not interested in it. And I think many people in power (including congis) may understand why India is poor – but they want to keep the status quo for holding the power to them forever and therefore the socialistic wasteful policies continue. In short, I am trying to mention that these things will not get worked on even with availability of funds. For that the people of India need to make Narendra Modi the PM first.

    You have dismissed the argument of national pride, but I must admit that I felt better about being Indian when I got news about the successful Mars mission compared to usual poverty, terrorism or Maoist violence or another gang-rape related news we hear about in media and in-particular the foreign media that likes to highlight everything that is bad with India. Just like my 5 year old girl who needs some appreciation every now and then that gives her confidence, we all need some pride in who we are. Indian kids even the poorest who go to government schools and don’t learn much because of pathetic schools, will get attracted somewhat to science and learning because of this Mars mission. How do we calculate the economic impact of this pride that such missions create? I know I started wearing my old Indian watch after this Mars mission. Also, I think this mission is bout showing off India’s capability to send equipment with precision and that is very good marketing for India to attract customers in a highly lucrative space market. How do we calculate this future benefit? Can we reasonably calculate the present value of the possible profits by sending satellites of African countries?

    Thanks.

  • Harcharan Singh

    The New Yorker has a certain take on the matter which is worth pondering over………

    On Tuesday, the Indian Space Research Organisation, the national
    space agency, lobbed a three-thousand-pound spacecraft called Mangalyaan
    toward Mars. The orbiter’s mission is to map some of the planet’s
    surface and test for methane, a possible marker of life. If Mangalyaan
    reaches the Red Planet and swings into orbit on schedule next September,
    that alone would be a remarkable victory: more than half of the forty
    Mars missions launched around the world have failed. But the I.S.R.O.’s real achievement might lie in its sheer frugality.

    Mangalyaan’s mission to Mars cost India seventy-three million dollars. For comparison, Boeing prices its least expensive commercial airplane at seventy-six million dollars.
    And by India’s profligate standards of public expenditure, the Mars
    Orbiter Mission has come cheap: an eight-lane bridge in Mumbai that
    opened in 2010 spans three miles and cost three hundred and forty million dollars; a proposed statue of a long-dead Indian politician—designed to stand twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty—will cost three hundred million dollars.

    The I.S.R.O. has a reputation for austerity, exemplified in a famous photograph from 1981 of India’s APPLE
    satellite being transported on a bullock cart. The agency’s scientists
    are paid between twelve hundred and two thousand dollars a month, and,
    unusual for space programs, its equipment is endlessly tweaked and
    recycled: the rocket that carried the Mars orbiter into space was
    adapted from a launch vehicle that first flew in 1993. Only one physical
    model of Mangalyaan was ever produced. (The I.S.R.O. relied extensively
    on software for testing.)

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/11/a-mission-to-mars-on-the-cheap.html

  • Surkab

    Atanu,

    I am in agreement with you on this 200%. We have enormous and pressing problems affecting a large number of our people. We must prioritize and make wise choices. We can not afford to squander away precious resources in trying to compete with rich nations. More power to your pen, Atanu !

  • Laxmikant Kale

    Atanu, I started reading your blogs a few months ago, and have agreed with pretty much everything you said. Not this one. For two simple reasons (which you did dismiss):
    1. It is too little money. All of the other causes you mention can be pursued by saving a tiny fraction of money in some profligate government program. 2. You are discounting the capacity of such events to inspire young minds. (That is not quite the same as national pride, but even national pride/spirit boost is a worthwhile benefit).

  • 4thaugust1932

    “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” –Einstein

  • Karthik Singh

    uum actually ISRO has a subsidiary called Antrix corporations which sends rockets into space for it’s clients. ISRO director has called this project a ‘demonstration’ and that nails it completely. Antrix earns a profit of 100 crore Rs/year and this mission will only help ISRO earn more. So it’s pure business.

    The real thing is the launch of GSLV next month.

    • mohanrr

      May be Atanu was not aware of this news. If this is correct then he will change his views about this mission to Mars.

  • http://nileshgr.com/ Nilesh Govindrajan

    Given the history of public spending in our country, if is wasn’t used for this, it would have gone elsewhere, and very likely in some scam.

  • Satish

    I am sure even if that $73mn was spent on one of those poverty reduction schemes, named after some Gandhi we have, most of out would never reach the intended people. Instead it would all be gobbled up by corrupt people in between. As such there are enough people working on those issues (and with plenty of money!) and we have seen how much progress has been made on that front. Without some serious change in those areas no money is going to help fix it.

    The Mars mission if successful will pay for itself by sending satellites for others. Lets call the pride and inspiration it brings as the by-products.

    • Atanu_Dey

      Satish:

      Thanks for your comment. But I am afraid that you misread or misunderstood my point. I am not for spending on “poverty reduction schemes.” In fact, I would argue against them but not here. What I wrote has to do with research — and I listed a few areas just for illustrative purposes. Spend on research on how to design a better toilet, not actually spend millions on installing badly designed, inefficient toilets.

      On your other point, I have a piece that will be published soon on NitiCentral. Thanks.

  • Sachin chaudhary

    Atanu,

    Last year modi spent 10 million dollars on his 3D rally. Don’t you think that was also waste of money ?

    This year another BJP leader has spent 1.5 crore rupee on a tea stall. Don’t you think thats also waste of money

    http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/news/rs-1-5-cr-tea-set-so-what-we-are-royals-says-bjp-s-yashodhara-raje/298577

    Why BJP is wasting so much of money on election campaigns ?

    Sachin

    • sachin chaudhary

      atanu,At least reply to this question?

      • Atanu_Dey

        I did not address that question because the question is irrelevant to the topic. The BJP is a political party. What political parties do with their money is not my concern. The principle is simple: it is none of my business what anybody or any institution does with its own property. It is only when my money is concerned that it matters to me.

        Yes, it is my money that is being used whenever the government, or any agency funded by the government, spends money. The government takes money from me (and other taxpayers) under the threat of violence (yes, the government uses violence to extract taxes) and it is my money that the functionaries of the government use or misuse.

        What a political party does with its money does not enter in this discussion.

        I did want to address your question. I am merely answering your follow-on question as to why I did not answer your previous question.

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  • Sankesh

    I have to disagree with you. This mission is not a waste. You are absolutely right stating that there are many other basic problems we are facing. For instance electricity, we face a major shortage in generation. Water supply, healthcare and many other basic needs where we are not doing good enough. And then comes poverty, literacy and so on. Why is this so? Don’t we have funds? The government has lots of schemes but its not reaching the common man. Its very sad to say that we are a rich county but with poor people. We all know whats happening and whats wrong in our political and legal system.
    Now coming to your argument, if the money that was spent for the mission was allocated for the above needs you mentioned do you think that would’ve made a difference now, when over the decades with billions of rupees spent couldn’t be solved ??
    I don’t understand why is everyone talking about the worth of this mission ? What happened to the huge amount of money that the government lost due to scams ?? What happened to the people involved in them ?
    Even our education system isn’t that good enough. The quality of IITs, the premier institutes has also gone down Every year more and more students are going abroad for studies. Indians are recognized well outside. Despite this fact, ISRO has done a highly successful job, hats off to them. In middle of all the problems we as a nation are facing, we must all be proud of this mission.
    So I feel we all should answer for ourselves. Why are we still a poor country lacking basic needs? what is stopping us? How can we bring a change in the system?

    If you think the mission is a waste, then I want many such wastes to happen.

  • Mahesh Sreekandath

    “There the economic problem is to employ these factors (of production) in such a way that no unit of them should be used for the satisfaction of a less urgent need. It is this that the market solves in determining the prices of the factors of production” – Mises

    The most pressing needs of Indian Society is not Mars, undoubtedly it is a mal-investment.

  • Anand Parikh

    Hence, rocket-scientists should also stop doing their work and join the jobless brigade, or better, they should start developing space-grade toilets for rural India.
    In fact, all the lawyers, fashion-designers, cricketers, boxers (), accountants etc should stop what they are doing, even if they are doing world-class work, and start designing public-toilets.

    Also, when I graduate as a biomedical engineer, I should not make irrelevant biomedical devices (which i want to), and should invest my domain knowledge in teaching primary school kids and let India import 90% of its healthcare products at 10 times their cost. (just like not doing a mars mission for $75m instead of $650m)