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On India's Space Success And Big Tech Talent Poaching

ISRO is forced to compete with U.S. tech giants for India's engineering talent. And with its breakthrough moon mission, India shows the success of its working model.

ISRO launch in Sriharikota
ISRO launch in Sriharikota
Arup Dasgupta*


NEW DELHI — The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has done it once again. On July 15, it scrubbed its launch of the Chandrayaan 2 lunar mission even though the President of India was scheduled to watch it live. Its engineers discovered a glitch at the 56th minute before launch; if missed, it could could have had a disastrous effect. But ISRO proceeded to call it off, displaying professionalism of the highest degree. Then, engineers zeroed in on the precise problem and fixed it in 48 hours, and launched the mission on July 22 in full view of the world. This calls for kudos.

As praise and congratulations pour in on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media it is necessary to place things in perspective. Who are these professionals at ISRO? They come from very ordinary backgrounds and studied in local schools in their mother-tongues and attended second-tier colleges, but – and this is an important ‘but" – they ultimately chose to work for India, and not for Google or Microsoft.

Sadly, talk to any youngster waving the Indian flag and chanting "Chandrayaan jai ho", and you are unlikely to find anyone dreaming of joining ISRO. They would rather go to NASA! Facebook is full of young hopefuls who wanted to join ISRO after undergraduate degrees but rarely after more advanced degrees. They skip ISRO possibly because they need to pay back the debts they've incurred attending coaching classes that got them into top engineering colleges.

Very few people will know the name of the engineer who spotted the problem – of pressure lossin a helium tank – before the July 15 launch, and even fewer will recognise that he/she triggered a chain of events that stopped the countdown at the 56th minute. Isn't this worthy of praise? That engineer and the people in the chain of command not only prevented the loss of Rs 978 crore ($143 million), they also ensured that this money was put to proper use on July 22.

ISRO has demonstrated the usefulness of space applications, but there have been virtually no takers.

This tells us that the hallmark of ISRO's prestige and success is its teamwork, not its individuals. The work at ISRO is always in project mode, with fixed schedules, deadlines and continuous appraisal. Not being able to use the budget is the worst sin you can commit nor can you divert your budget to other purchases just to meet expenditure targets. Why do we not find this in other government agencies?

In ISRO, each and every government rule is followed meticulously. Perhaps the only deviation concerns promotions, which is based on performance instead of seniority and/or vacancy. This was one change that Vikram Sarabhai insisted on and effected, at a time when ISRO itself was a project of the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, and was funded entirely by the government. This is to the credit of the leaders of that time, including Satish Dhawan and his administrative team, that this facility was not withdrawn from the technical wing. However, they couldn't keep it from being withdrawn from the administrative wing.

ISRO's INSAT-3DR satellite — Photo: ISRO

In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the initiative to bring ISRO and various government departments together to formulate 160 projects. Five years down the line, we do not hear anything about them. Were the projects successful? Did they meet the expectations of the government departments? Did they precipitate further projects? Did any of these departments invest in setting up their own facilities?

ISRO has demonstrated the usefulness of space applications time and time again, but there have been virtually no takers. The Digital India Land Records Modernization Programme is trundling along. Had it been operationalized, tragedies like the one at Sonbhadra could have been prevented. Further, the Restructured Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Programme and the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission are examples of how geospatial systems have been accorded the lowest priority.

Look also at the communications sector, which has become all about bandwidth for direct-to-home (DTH) services. Disaster communications stands neglected. India's state governments are not setting up emergency communications systems à la the National Disaster Response Force, as they should.

Tragedies like the one at Sonbhadra could have been prevented.

I do believe that, in this respect, the government has been using satellite communications well, perhaps as a result of the prime minister's initiative. However, how many people know about it and, more importantly, use them?

All together, it seems like ISRO's public perception has become limited to receiving commendation for glamorous achievements like Chandrayaan. When will it be celebrated and its knowledge and technologies utilized for the betterment of the country, its people and its environment?

*Arup Dasgupta is the managing editor of Geospatial World and former deputy director of the Space Applications Centre, ISRO.

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