Why Isro has a legacy of success
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The 39th flight of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (Isro) Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle last week was justifiably lauded. The playing up of the record-breaking nature of the flight—104 satellites is by some distance the most a single launch has ever managed—echoes the bouts of self-congratulation that follow every major Isro success, and there have been a fair few of those. Well and good; bragging rights and the resultant positive public perception are valuable assets for any space programme. But there is another issue worth examining: why Isro has managed to deliver on a level that few other comparable government agencies have.
Perhaps the most apt point of comparison is the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). They share a number of similarities. Both work in areas where technological and research capital is paramount. Both deal with targets that require advanced application of that capital. Both, importantly, work on projects that can take decades to come to fruition, with all the uncertainty that it engenders—and indeed, given the nature of the beast, may turn out to ultimately be unsuccessful. The DRDO’s reputation has perhaps obscured some of its achievements, but the gulf in outcomes between it and Isro—similarities notwithstanding—is nevertheless clear. There are a few reasons for this.
The first is organizational structure. In 1962, the department of atomic energy—which had been entrusted with space research—set up the Indian National Committee for Space Research (Incospar) with scientist Vikram Sarabhai as chairman. In 1969, the committee was replaced by the newly founded Isro, again under Sarabhai, which took on the responsibility of developing space technology and overseeing its application. The final step in the evolution of India’s space programme was the constitution of the department of space (DOS) and the Space Commission. Isro was brought under DOS in 1972, with the commission formulating policy and seeing to its implementation. The entire structure functioned directly under the prime minister.
The absence of the otherwise mandatory layers of bureaucracy present in any government body is the obvious takeaway. The fact that specialists in the field and technocrats—starting with Sarabhai himself—rather than mandarins have populated the upper echelons of the hierarchy compounds this. For instance, Isro’s current chairman, A.S. Kiran Kumar, is also chairman of the Space Commission and secretary of DOS. This set-up has promoted vertical integration between policymakers—who are in a position to understand the nature of the long-term projects Isro undertakes—and those delivering the end results.
Contrast this with the DRDO, which functions under the ministry of defence and is entrenched in the bureaucratic culture. The fetishization of civilian supremacy over the military has resulted in the heads of the Armed Forces not having a place at the table when it comes to policy decisions—and the political and bureaucratic set-ups have failed to articulate a long-term vision to understand the needs of the Armed Forces. This means that the DRDO functions at a remove from the end users of its technology, and with inadequate leadership at the ministry level.
The second reason is international cooperation. Although there have been some impediments—Isro, along with a number of other government agencies, was removed from the US’ entity list only in 2011, and a decade-old US policy that hampers the use of Indian launch vehicles by American companies is still in effect—Isro has been able to work with the international scientific community since inception. This has been a throughline from the first component of the space programme, the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station, established by Incospar, to the agreement between Isro and the US’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration to work on future joint missions to Mars.
The DRDO, on the other hand, has faced far greater barriers here. This has partly to do with geopolitics and international restrictions on sharing defence-related technology. Partly, it is the Indian political leadership’s stress on entirely indigenous development in past years. This has been counterproductive. As the then director general of DRDO, V.K. Saraswat, said in 2011, “if anyone wants complete homegrown products in critical areas, it is because of the lack of (understanding) of the dynamics of the market and a lack of understanding of what is global competitiveness.”
A third difference is accountability in the form of outcome budgets. This is too recent to judge its impact on both agencies; outcome budgets were mandated in 2005-06. And given the nature and risks of technological projects with long gestation periods, strict financial accountability is not feasible. But some level of periodic oversight is necessary—and while DOS submits an outcome budget that contains a detailed breakdown of Isro projects, the ministry of defence, and thus DRDO, are exempt. More likely than not, this will eventually result in further divergence in the outcomes of both agencies.
Given the nature of Isro’s work and its unique organizational structure, it’s not possible to employ all the lessons learnt elsewhere. And there are unquantifiables such as institutional culture in the mix as well. But there is no harm and potentially much good in examining its success and the methods that can be successfully translated, such as streamlining decision-making mechanisms and lateral entry at the policymaking level for area experts. The political and bureaucratic will to actually employ those methods elsewhere is, of course, another matter entirely.
Can other agencies such as DRDO replicate Isro’s success? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org