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Modi wish: a Saarc satellite

Sriharikota, June 30: Prime Minister Narendra Modi today asked India’s space agency to gift a satellite to its neighbours, amid concerns building over the past year that Delhi needs a strategy to counter China’s space diplomacy pulling South Asian countries into its orbit.

Modi, speaking here after watching India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) ferry five foreign satellites into the orbit around Earth, called on the Indian Space Research Organisation to build a satellite for the eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

“I want Isro to gift a satellite for the use of Saarc nations,” Modi said on his maiden visit to the agency’s launch centre in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. “We already share disaster management data with 30 countries… I now urge you to develop a Saarc satellite for the benefit of our neighbours,” he added.

Modi lauded the engineers and scientists after watching what Isro officials said was a “textbook” launch of the PSLV that carried and deployed its payloads — a principal passenger, a 714kg French Earth observations satellite named SPOT-7, and piggyback riders, two 15kg satellites from Canada, a 14kg satellite from Germany and a 7kg microsatellite from Singapore.

Modi, speaking in English and handling technical terminology with ease, said the nation could be proud of the space programme where “we have pushed beyond mediocrity to excellence.”

“Today our space programme stands out in the world, I’ve heard that the making of the Hollywood movie Gravity cost more than our Mars mission,” Modi said, evoking peels of laughter in the mission control room.

Before today’s flight, Isro had launched 26 successful PSLV flights since the mid-1990s, using the rocket to carry 35 foreign satellites. The PSLV began flying foreign satellites in May 1999 with a South Korean and a German satellite.

Modi’s call to build a satellite for Saarc members comes months after the Prime Minister’s Office, during Manmohan Singh’s tenure, had asked Isro to prepare a strategy to counter what was perceived as China’s lead over India in space diplomacy.

The concerns emerged after Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Myanmar and Thailand joined traditional allies of China such as Pakistan and Iran in discussing space pacts with Beijing. China had offered discounted satellite launches and other space-related technologies to regional neighbours.