Last week, India successfully launched a satellite which finally established the country’s own satellite navigation system—only four others, the US, Russia, China and the European Union, possess this capability in the world—or more familiarly, a global positioning system (GPS) of its own. And once again it did so on a shoe-string budget.
Not only will the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), made up of seven satellites, strengthen the country strategically, it will also be useful in disaster management.
And, given that the footprint of the satellite navigation system will extend 1,500 km from its borders (covering all of Asia and extending to the fringes of Australia and Africa), India can share some of the capabilities with other developing countries in its neighbourhood.
This is a superb achievement for the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro). The institution and its innovations are clearly the best Make in India products and more incredible is the fact that it is the most cost effective space programme in the world.
In another three years it will celebrate its golden jubilee—given its amazing track record, this will be an anniversary to look forward to.
Set up in 1969, this organization has emerged as a unicorn (not in the way we refer to start-ups). It has had to face the same constraints as other institutions as well as the fact that it functioned under overall government control. Yet it has managed to break the stereotype of a public sector company (including forging a string of commercial agreements with private sector companies) and emerged as an institution which is world class.
This would be, by far, the most important takeaway from the Isro story. While the rest of us have whined about our constraints, Isro has shown that it is possible to deliver despite it (alternatively, imagine Isro’s achievement if the country had possessed a genuine meritocracy).
And, in this pursuit, it incorporated the national trait of jugaad, the ability to make do with minimal resources, in its mission. It is the same trait that defines India as a “missed-call" nation—where the poor can make do with a ₹ 5 prepaid phone card, by relying on free incoming calls. Similarly, Isro, too, has resorted to jugaad to keep its budgets down.
I still recall writing in the late 1980s about India’s pursuit of satellite launching capability. At that time, no one believed it was possible, especially with the West clamping down on any transfer of technology to Indian institutions claiming that it could be misused for military purposes. Yet it refused to be overawed and managed to assemble the cryogenic engine, critical for its rockets to acquire the desired efficiency.
Not only did it manage to acquire the capability, Isro has managed to scale up operations to a stage where it is now offering the facility commercially.
In the current year, it has inked contracts to launch 25 satellites, which include 12 for the US, four for Germany and three for Canada. So far, Isro has launched 57 foreign satellites for 21 countries.
The world woke up to its capabilities, rather dramatically, when Isro succeeded with its Mars Orbiter Mission, Mangalyaan. And, amazingly, it managed to do so at one-ninth of the $670 million spent by the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) on its own mission to Mars.
In September 2014, Mangalyaan entered the orbit of Mars ending a 300-day voyage; in the process, India became the first country to succeed in its first attempt to send a probe to the red planet.
The 1,340-kg Mars orbiter was launched aboard the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C25) on 5 November 2013. It carried five scientific payloads weighing a total of 15kg, including a camera.
Like the other countries, the idea was to explore the presence of life forms on the planet’s surface. In the process, it reinforced India’s claims in deep space exploration capabilities.
Next on the agenda is Chandrayaan II, the country’s second moon mission, to be launched later this year; it proposes to soft land a wheeled robotic vehicle to explore the surface of the moon.
Regardless of whether it succeeds or not, Isro has undoubtedly ensured its place in history. The trick will be in emulating the Isro story in other sectors. Till that time, Make in India will continue to remain a WIP (work in progress).
Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org