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Space science is value for money

- Satellite data help catch fish, run ATMs, save lives mid-sea, predict crop yields

New Delhi, Dec. 1: Fisherman Nubin Roy felt a surge of pride when he heard about India’s Mars mission that some activists have criticised as a project that prioritises esoteric science over basic needs in an unequal society.

But blind nationalism wasn’t driving his pride.

Twice a week, Roy sails into the North Andaman Sea on his 12-metre-long motorised boat to haul in groupers, mackerel, red and white snappers, and tuna for dinner tables on the islands, elsewhere in India or in foreign lands.

Roy knows exactly where to anchor, guided by a strip of paper with latitude and longitude readings generated by scientists in Hyderabad who use India’s Oceansat-2 satellite to pinpoint marine zones abundant in fish.

Since Roy began to rely on satellite-based potential fishing zone (PFZ) advisories three years ago, his boat has been returning with 400kg to 500kg fish from each trip, against the typical 200kg catch earlier. He’s bought a refrigerator, a TV and a cellphone.

“I don’t waste fuel, I sell more fish, and life is better,” said Roy, 29, who grew up in Port Blair but has spent the past 10 years as a fisherman-sailor in Shibpur, a village on the east coast of the island of North Andaman.

The Indian Space Research Organisation’s (Isro’s) Mars orbiter spacecraft, launched on November 5, was nudged out of Earth orbit early today to begin its 10-month journey towards Mars.

The Mars mission has led some activists to question the wisdom of a planetary exploration mission by a nation struggling with poverty, inadequate drinking water, and health care.

“This mission is symbolic of misplaced policy and scientific priorities in an unequal society,” said Harsh Mander, a social worker and director of the Centre for Equity Studies, New Delhi. “This mission will not help India’s poor in the short or medium term.”

But senior Isro officials point out that the Mars mission has cost only about Rs 450 crore over three years, less than a tenth of the Rs 4,880 crore Isro spent during fiscal 2012-13 alone.

Besides, they say, the space programme has helped millions of people across India in ways that are not always, or widely, appreciated. Its projects have helped put fish on the table, ensure bank ATM machines reliably roll out cash, save lives through search-and-rescue operations and early cyclone warnings, and arm many domestic industries with superior quality-control mechanisms.

Some economic gains from the space programme — such as the amount of boat fuel saved or extra fish sold — are relatively easy to quantify. A study by the National Council for Applied Economic Research, New Delhi, suggests the annual economic benefits from satellite-based identification of PFZs is over Rs 34,000 crore, a sum close to what India’s space agency has spent over the past 10 years.

“You just can’t put a value on some impacts,” said Satheesh Shenoi, director of the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (Incois), Hyderabad, the institution that sends PFZ advisories thrice a week to 225 fishing harbours along India’s coastline.

PFZ advisories are forecasts of fish abundance based on parameters such as ocean temperature, currents and plankton concentrations.

Isro’s satellite-aided search-and-rescue system, responding to seven mid-sea distress calls, helped save 61 people last year. The success rate of finding hidden groundwater reservoirs has risen to 80 per cent with the use of satellite imagery, from the earlier 50 per cent when conventional methods were employed, Isro scientists say.

Satellites allowed the Forest Survey of India to quickly detect several thousand forest fires in northern India last year.

Isro officials say the space agency will continue to promote space technology for economic and social development, as envisioned by its earliest architects including the late Vikram Sarabhai and evident through the nationwide reach of space applications.

“The Indian programme was developed under the conviction that space capabilities should be used to uplift the lives of people,” Bhupendra Jasani, a professor and space policy expert at King’s College London, told The Telegraph.

“To a large extent, these ideals have been fulfilled and it would be natural to move forward and use the technology for exploration. The Mars mission should be viewed in this light.”

Isro officials point out that 90 per cent of the space budget goes into the development of telecommunications, weather, and Earth-observation satellites and launch vehicles.

Since its early years, the space programme has been encouraging Indian industry to develop components and subsystems for its satellites and launch vehicles. Isro officials estimate that some 500 companies are now contributing to the programme.

The rigorous demands placed by the space agency has helped industries improve manufacturing processes and quality control.

“These gains have enabled many private companies to bid for outsourcing contracts for the global aerospace industry,” said V. Siddhartha, a former space department official who has also had nearly two decades of experience in the department of research and development organisation.

“The technological experience that HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) gained from its work with Isro has been a significant factor in HAL’s ability to forward-engineer into the stringent reliability and quality-control requirements of the fighter aircraft Tejas.”

Last year, India’s finance ministry and a consortium of public-sector banks contracted nine service providers to install and manage 63,000 bank ATMs across urban and rural India, many operating through satellite-based services.

Hughes Communications India, a company contracted for 27,000 offsite ATMs, said in a media release last year that the secure satellite connectivity would provide uptimes (the durations for which the ATMs are operational) higher than 99.9 per cent.

Outside the strategic or economic domains, satellite imagery is also used to predict yields of crops such as rice, wheat, potato and sugarcane.

“In less than four weeks, we can get a reliable estimate of the area under potato (cultivation) across the Indo-Gangetic plains,” said Islam Ahmed, a mathematician at the Central Potato Research Institute, Meerut. “Without satellites, reliable estimates aren’t available.”

A satellite-based telemedicine network connects 60 speciality hospitals to over 300 remote rural, district or mobile clinics. Doctors who have assessed one of these telemedicine hubs in Karnataka, however, say technical and non-technical factors are hampering the efficient use of the telemedicine services.

The doctors from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore, observed that fluctuating satellite bandwidth had led to breakdowns in tele-pathology and tele-radiology services.

Their study, published last month in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, also found that some doctors in remote clinics are at times reluctant to consult experienced doctors in the speciality hospitals.