t is a momentous day for Indian space science today. Chandrayaan II should by now be streaking through the vast emptiness beyond gravity towards this planet’s sole natural satellite, our Moon. The success of the mission will place the country in yet another elite league of countries that have made ‘giant leaps’ in space science. In 59 days, the lander named Vikram is expected to touch the surface of the Moon. It will be pushed into orbit by the rocket the Telugu media has nicknamed ‘Baahubali’ for its ability to carry a payload of 4 tonnes into space. The success of the mission will indeed be another feather in the cap of Indian space researchers and technologists. Nonetheless, it goes without saying that the backdrop against which such an achievement is set is rather bleak. The effort scientists are putting in towards understanding life and the possibilities of its existence outside the planet are commendable. But for the common man of this country, the scientific quest, pared down to its basics, means a multi-million crore rupee project that will explore existence of water on the Moon, when fellow countrymen across the country are suffering from the lack of water even to slake their thirst. For example last Friday, 12 July, a 50-wagon train, the first of its lot, carrying 2.5 million litres of water arrived in Chennai as part of a solution to the crisis facing that city. The city that requires 525 million litres of water every day has seen a 40 per cent cut in piped water supply after all the four reservoirs outside the city dried up. Chennai also faces depletion of groundwater resources as saltwater ingress has made water from many sources unsuitable for drinking. What is worse is that the city has not invested enough in rainwater harvesting nor has it worked towards seawater desalination technology that could help it meet its drinking water needs. In comparison a city state like Singapore sustains itself solely on sea water desalination.
The Indian paradox is conspicuous. Scientific advancements in space need to translate into benefits for mankind for it to be really meaningful. While some may, kind of justifiably, oppose this thought claiming India has to prove its standing amongst the nations of the world, reality seems to elude them.
The fact that countries today are increasingly threatened by the space prowess of the neighbour is worrisome. It must be kept in mind that the push for space domination should be tempered by concerns for life on Earth. It must not be forgotten that one failed space mission means millions of rupees go down the drain when a fraction of that sum could help a large segment of the populace escape poverty. Similarly a successful mission too would hardly make any changes in the lifestyle of the average citizen. The question that arises in this context is whether India’s ambitions in space are rooted in Earth’s betterment. There is no denying that the country has seen improvements in remote sensing and weather predictions over the years. But is that adequate reason for such ultra expensive jaunts? It is debatable whether it would be wise to restrict space studies to matters that are in some way associated with bread and butter issues. The problem arises primarily owing to the economic disparities within India. Centuries under alien rule has left the country depleted of its resources. Most importantly, the populace has never shown great enterprise or zest for hard work that could justify a parallel and cost ineffective growth in science and technology that would not help productivity or efficiency in any manner. Mere optimism will not suffice to tide over the problems on ground. The country needs to address its troubles from ground up. There is development. But it has not kept pace with the requirements of a rising population and its aspirations. It is also a fact that the country is primarily focusing on keeping up with the developed countries rather than treading its own unique path.
The fact that some of the poorest mainland Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand showed extremely quick growth over the three decades through the Asian economic crisis of 1997–98 indicates the focus of those nations on human development rather than on things that do not matter to the common man. Although India is a late entrant to space science and technology, it apparently is yet to tie in sustainability to its exploratory goals. Galactic ambitions of countries do have their pointlessness and getting into the race will be costly for the nations involved. Space science is undoubtedly a frontier that requires India’s attention. But concomitantly science should also help the country and its people overcome social and economic hurdles before adventures are taken up. As ego boosters, these forays into space may prove positive but apart from political chest beating, they hold very inconsequential relevance for the Indian citizen.