Two years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has seen some ‘ache din’ (good days) and a ‘naya savera’ (new dawn) for the Indian space agency.
Since Modi took over, India’s spaceship reached planet Mars, the successful launch of India’s mini space shuttle India was spectacular, ISRO kickstarted the classic swadeshi satellite based navigation system.
Towards the end of this year, ISRO is getting ready to launch the unique South Asia Satellite, a friendly communications satellite for the South Asian neighbours, actually conceived by Modi himself. The launch of India’s first space observatory AstroSAT that gives India’s scientists a unique view of the universe also fructified successfully.
Most importantly, Modi pushed for use of space-based technologies in day-to-day governance of India where he sat through two hours of open grilling of line ministry secretary level bureaucrats on how they plan to use space assets.
Two years of the NDA government has seen classic turn around for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). During the Manmohan Singh government, the ‘squeaky clean’ space agency was scorched by the worst scandal of this century dubbed the Devas-Antrix S-band spectrum scandal where a total of upwards of Rs two lakh crore was allegedly swindled through crony dealings. The morale at the space agency hit rock bottom but it did not lose focus.
On 26, May 2014 when Modi took over, little did people know that the former ‘chaiwallah’ was an ardent space buff. Modi vibes well with the chairman of ISRO Kiran Kumar with whom he has interacted since his days in Ahmedabad when Modi was chief minister of Gujarat and Kumar was head of the Space Applications Centre there.
Kumar has spent close to four decades working in Gujarat and manages to speak a smattering of Gujarati as well. The good chemistry has helped ISRO.
In the last two years under special instruction from Modi, the Indian space agency made a very special dash to complete India’s NAVIC – “Navigation with Indian Constellation” when the last of the seven satellites was successfully placed in the orbit by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle on April 28.
During Modi’s tenure in rapid succession, five of the seven satellites of NAVIC were put in orbit. The Indian satellite constellation is already providing day and night coverage of the navigation signal throughout the Indian region. This is a unique achievement by ISRO.
Modi took forward a gem of an idea from former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure when during the Kargil conflict India was denied access to the best quality satellite based navigation system signals it desperately sought to annihilate with pinpoint accuracy the reinforced bunkers on the high hills made by the Pakistanis.
The first round of the NDA government laid the foundation for the swadeshi GPS which Modi has fulfilled.
Other than India, globally, satellite-based navigational signals over South Asia are provided only by the American constellation of the Global Positioning System (GPS) and the Russian constellation that uses a system called GLONASS. It is ISRO’s claim that the Indian navigation system is superior to both these systems for the South-Asian region.
Moreover, the American and Russian systems use 4 times as many satellites for their systems, making NAVIC (like a lot of ISRO’s technology) very frugal, operating with just 7 satellites.
It must of course, be clarified that the Indian NAVIC provides a regional signal while the American and Russian systems have global footprints. When required India’s footprint can also be made global by augmenting the number of satellites.
NAVIC’s assured signal coverage extends over the country and about 1500 km beyond Indian borders, and experts explain the rationale for this as being based on the current threat perception that exists for the country.
NAVIC – working for both the average and more specialised user – beams down two types of signals.
First, signals that can be tapped by the average user on any compatible smart phone, with accuracy on this frequency better than 20 meters, according to ISRO.
Second, special, highly accurate signals for usage largely by India’s security establishments to make sure that India’s borders are well protected (the “restricted users”). The NAVIC satellite navigation system has cost the Indian government, close to Rs 1400 crore.
Today, India holds the distinction of being the third country to have such a robust system over South Asia. Despite a late start, ISRO completed the deployment of the NAVIC system in a record 3 years. This significant milestone has been achieved under the leadership of Modi.
It was just in 2013, when the first of the seven satellites in this constellation was launched, it was understood that India was the sixth country to initiate efforts for its own satellite based navigation system with the US, Russia, European Union, Japan and China all actively pushing the frontier on satellite based navigation systems. Then the Americans and Russians took more than a decade to complete their work.
According to India’s Science and Technology Minister, Harsh Vardhan, India initiated this effort upon the denial of access to such signals during the Kargil conflict.
Vardhan shared his pride about the great display of skill and capability of the Indian science and technology establishment – with such a completely Made-in-India effort for the people of this country.
To make sure that the point is driven home that he keeps a hawk’s eye on the Department of Space; Modi witnessed live the launching of the seventh and last satellite in the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) from his office in the South Block.
He also spoke spontaneously about ways in which such a system could be used by India’s people. It was Modi who christened the system NAVIC, which means ‘sailor’ in Hindi.
He described how these brave men from India’s glorious past would navigate the sea using stars, adding with pride that ISRO’s new star would make for easier navigation.
Modi also built on what seems to be an initiative close to his heart – of working on India’s immediate neighbours and strengthening these ties, and said that NAVIC’s services could be offered to the country’s South Asian neighbours.
Modi said: “With this successful launch, we will determine our own paths powered by our technology. This is a great gift to people from scientists”. He described this as an example of “Make in India” and “Made for Indians.”
There are already a select few compatible smart phones that are receiving NAVIC signals and apparently, all Indian handsets will be made compatible using chipsets that are enabled to receive signals from NAVIC.
In an India increasingly digital, the idea of Indian entrepreneurs using more and more Indian signals is indeed an attractive one. Dependency on foreign vendors for providing satellite based navigation systems may also reduce and eventually cease, increasing self-sustained resilience.
Navigating road routes as one travels through the country, or increased efficiency of deployment of the transportation sector, or monitoring the movement of trains in the vast Indian railway network, NAVIC’s signals would be put to great use in the future.
There is little doubt that this would streamline road, rail and ship transport, also making it cheaper and more cost-efficient. There is a hope that these signals may help improve women’s safety, based on the usage of distress or panic signals using the panic button that are to be introduced on all Indian mobile phone handsets by 2018.
The now famous frugal and effective engineering model that ISRO excels in has once again come out a winner, helping large goals like securing Indian borders, but also perhaps providing an impetus to the Indian economy and under Modi it has got a new energy and zeal to fulfil the aspirations of the 1.25 billion people. Perhaps reaching for the stars is just the beginning of India’s quest to master and domesticate outer space.