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 loss in 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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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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