The South Asia Satellite was launched Friday by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had described the communication and broadcasting satellite GSAT-9 as India’s gift to the region, watched as the GSLV F-09 launch vehicle took to the skies at 4.57 pm. The satellite is less about space technology and more about geopolitics. The GSAT-9 is a regulation communication satellite, not very different from the several that Isro has launched over the years.
There were the INSAT series of satellites earlier, the last of which flew in 2007, and now there is a whole constellation of GSAT-series of satellites, providing a vast array of services over the country.
What makes the GSAT-9 stand out from the rest is the fact that it is actually an exercise in neighbourhood diplomacy, the kind of which has not been attempted earlier.
The satellite is meant to cater to the requirements of countries in India’s immediate neighbourhood, most of whom have almost negligible presence in space. In keeping with its own status of being one of the top space powers, India is providing these countries with access to transponders on the satellite free of charge.
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Usually, this kind of transponder space is made available commercially and ISRO has leased out transponder space to several private and foreign organisations earlier. First announced in 2014 by the Prime Minister during a visit to Nepal, the SAARC satellite was proposed as an effort to share the fruits of space technology with all countries in the region. This kind of international collaboration in space exploration and technology is best exemplified by the European Space Agency which has more than 20 countries as members.
But even before baby steps in that direction could be taken, Pakistan, which had earlier agreed to be part of the collaborative effort to build and design the satellite, pulled out, forcing a change in the name from SAARC Satellite to South Asia Satellite — India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Afghanistan are now part of the project.
In the region, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are the only two countries to have launched communication satellites. Both took the help of China. Afghanistan has leased a part of French telecommunication satellite, Eutelsat 48D, for its use, while Bangladesh is planning to launch its own satellite, Bangabandhu-1, later this year.
The Indian offer to make a satellite that all the countries in the region can use freely is a mere act of generosity. Hard strategic calculations have weighed in, and these have barely been disguised. Isro has hardly been discreet in acknowledging that it is also an attempt to prevent China from offering similar services in the region. In fact, in an interview to this newspaper last year, shortly after the SAARC Satellite was announced, Isro chairman A S Kirankumar conceded as much, though he did not name China.
“In this region, you also have a large number of other players trying to come in and get into (space) operations,” he had said, while giving reasons for India’s offer for making a SAARC satellite. It is no coincidence that China has helped launch communication satellites for both Sri Lanka and Pakistan with which it has a growing partnership in space technology.
For India, it was also a little disappointing to know that some of the other countries in the region, like Bangladesh, were taking the help of western countries in running their space programme when ISRO could offer comparable services at a fraction of the cost. The South Asia Satellite is, therefore, also an attempt by Isro to look for newer markets for its services in the immediate neighbourhood. Isro has so far launched satellites from 23 countries.