Last week, the Indian Space Research Organisation or Isro launched a second unmanned mission to the Moon. Unlike last time, this time Isro will attempt a soft landing on the south pole of the Moon on 7 September—if it succeeds, it will make India only the fourth country in the world after the US, Russia and China to achieve this capability (of making a lunar landing).

The other remarkable thing about the mission is that it is being undertaken at only a fraction of the cost that it has taken other countries. As The New York Times argues in its inimitable style, at a total cost of around $150 million, the mission was cheaper than what it cost to produce the movie Interstellar.

A truly inspiring story. And if you tag the several other benchmarks—particularly the efficiency it has displayed in evolving commercial capability to launch satellites—that have been realized over the last five decades, then Isro is undoubtedly the country’s most successful story. It is even more compelling given that there is hardly an organization, either in the public or private sector, which can out-compete Isro, leave alone match it. And this despite the fact that it operates within the same national ecosystem of stifling public sector bureaucracy and bad work ethics. Further, despite working on tight budgets, they do not fall prey to the temptation of jugaad or compromise on quality. The obvious yet uncomfortable question is why the Isro experience is so exclusive. To put it bluntly, is it an island?

Take for example, the role of women in the organization. As Mint reported, one big headline of Chandrayaan-2 was that for the first time, a mission was led by women scientists. While Muthayya Vanitha was the boss for the launch, the project to navigate the module towards the Moon will be led by Ritu Karidhal. Overall, the share of women in Isro’s workforce is estimated to be around a fifth; nowhere near the ideal, yet something few organizations in the country can match. Persisting social and cultural stereotypes actually mitigate against women working in science, especially as it entails long hours of research. And yet, we have women succeeding at Isro and breaking glass ceilings.

Similarly, Isro’s success is despite the fact that for a large part of the last three decades, it has had to cope with the pressure of sanctions which denied it access to cutting edge technology. Instead of whining about it, the country’s premier space agency has gone about developing the technology indigenously (some critics claim that this tech was surreptitiously acquired; since no evidence has ever been presented, let us simply ignore such allegations). In this, the ability to develop a cryogenic engine—which enables use of propellants at freezing temperatures and hence at the core of rocket launches into space—was remarkable. Because access to such technology is not readily available to buy off the shelf, Isro scientists had no option but to develop it internally in the 1980s.

One can go on to cite many more such examples to argue the case that Isro is a gold standard that makes the country proud. And its accomplishment is not just within India, but something that can match the best internationally too, including the US space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration. How is Isro able to do this? How is it that they have not been weighed down by the same negative pulls that have felled other potentially competent ventures? It would no doubt make for a terrific case study or research project. In the final analysis then, while we should as a country bask in Isro’s success, it is imperative to also view it as a wake-up call on all that is wrong with India. Food for thought?

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

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