Unparallelled space bonding was witnessed on Friday when seven heads of states from South Asia unanimously applauded India’s Rs 450 crore gift to its neighbours by way of a communications satellite. There is no precedent in the space-faring world of a free regional communications satellite being gifted like this, and it shows India has a large heart. Touted as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project, the South Asia Satellite is now in orbit, so the riskiest, but easy, part is really over and undoubtedly the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has delivered.
The tricky bit starts now when the seven member-states have to start putting in their own hard earned resources to get the ground infrastructure in place and to get the software ready for the content that will be beamed by the satellite. Easier said than done.
Speaking at the live video conference after the successful launch, Modi said “Today is a historic day for South Asia. A day without precedence. Two years ago, India made a promise. A promise to extend the advanced space technology for the cause of growth and prosperity of our brothers and sisters in South Asia. “The successful launch of the South Asia Satellite marks the fulfilment of that. With this launch we have started a journey to build the most advanced frontier of our partnership,” Modi said.
What was actually left unsaid was that with this single out-of-the-box foreign policy initiative, New Delhi was essentially trying to contain China’s growing influence in the region. In its cussedness, Pakistan opted out of the project citing its existing space programme which everyone knows is rather primitive in comparison to India’s advanced space- faring capabilities. While there is no doubt India has end-to-end capabilities in space technology but many of the country’s space assets often turn into so-called “white elephants in space”.
In the past, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has come down heavily on ISRO for the non-utilisation of space imageries that the country’s vast remote sensing satellites collected but which remained locked up and were not available to the civilian planners. Some of that has changed but still high-quality satellite images of less than one meter resolution remain out of bounds for civilians. Similarly, India’s Rs 450 crore Edusat–a communications satellite launched in 2004 to “reach the unreached” through interactive teaching–did not live up to its objectives.
The National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru evaluated the EduSat and concluded that it remained “under- utilised’ as it was a top-driven technology initiative where enough thought was not given to generation of appropriate content.
More recently in 2014, ISRO launched the highly controversial GAST-6, a satellite that provides unprecedented satellite-based multimedia capabilities for India’s armed forces but till date reports suggest that the handsets that would enable satellite telephony and handheld capability are still being developed.
Between 2013 and 2016, India placed in orbit a constellation of seven navigation satellites in space costing about Rs 1,500 crore but while the space-based system is constantly beaming down signals yet it seems chipsets that can effectively tap these GPS-like signals are still under development. It seems the 16,000 dedicated workforce of ISRO delivers what it is mandated for but on the downstream side the line ministries seem to fail to capitalise on the gains.
It is too early to assess the outcome of South Asia Satellite for that we may need to wait another 12 years which is the nominal mission life of the satellite. But in daily life when one receives expensive gifts that also need to be serviced with lots of money on a continuous basis, they often turn dust collectors. Let us hope Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and the Maldives will collectively and individually put in the several million dollars a year that may be necessary to effectively tap the benefits of the friendly bird in the sky.
There could be many other reasons why the countries that got the “invaluable gift” may not fully utilise it since several of India’s neighbours already have advanced communication satellites in orbit or are in the process of acquiring them.
The war-torn country of Afghanistan, whose President Ashraf Ghani said “If we can’t cooperate on land, we can at least cooperate in the sky”, participated at the highest level in the unprecedented video conference but sources have said it is yet to ink the deal and cites technical reasons. Hopefully that will happen soon.
But if one analyses its satellite communications capabilities one finds that Afghanistan already possesses a satellite called AfghanSAT. This is a communications satellite it has leased from a European country. Interestingly, the AfghanSAT which was formerly called W2M is an Indian-made satellite. This satellite was made in the same facility where the South Asia Satellite has been fabricated in the ISRO Satellite Centre in Bengaluru.
In 2014, when Kabul acquired the satellite the then Communication and Information Technology Minister Amirzai Sangin said the satellite “is a new milestone in the development of the ICT [Information and Communications Technologies] in Afghanistan, which in the last 12 years has already seen mobile telephony coverage of 88 per cent and penetration grow from zero to 75 per cent through the licensing of six operators”.
One will have to wait and watch how the Afghans finally decide to utilise the services of the South Asia Satellite.
Nepal is a country that felt the need to have a communications satellite in place soon after the devastating 2015 Kathmandu earthquake.
Towards that as recently as December 2016, the Himalayan country has floated a global tender to acquire not one but two of its own communications satellites. May be the Nepali government will dirty its hands by testing Satcom technology on India’s gift but whether it will set up a duplicate infrastructure in the long run is something one will have to wait and watch.
Today Nepal already utilises telemedicine facilities using India’s INSAT satellites and hospitals in Kathmandu are often hooked up to hospitals in New Delhi and Chandigarh for medical consultations. Bangladesh is one country because of its deltaic geography it can benefit greatly by having well established capabilities of Satcom.
Speaking at the video conference, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said “this is an extremely important step to know nature and nature’s patterns. On today’s auspicious occasion betterment of our people can happen through fruitful engagement”.
But at the same time without waiting for the South Asia Satellite to kick in, Bangladesh initiated expanding its capabilities in space and hopes that by the end of this year its very own Bangabandhu-1 satellite will be in orbit as reports suggest that it is being made by the French company Thales Alenia Space. The total cost of the satellite is USD 248 million. Bangabandhu-1 carries a total of 40 Ku and C-band transponders. In contrast, India is offering capacity of about one transponder.
Sri Lanka already owns a communication satellite called SupremeSat which it acquired in 2012 and is operated by SupremeSAT (Pvt) Limited, a Sri Lankan satellite operator. Interestingly, it has partnership with China’s state- owned satellite manufacturing institution China Great Wall Industry Corporation. This satellite has a capacity of 56 transponders.
A less than effervescent Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, joining in from Colombo for the video conference, said “May this initiative support people in all regions, enhance economic conditions and help to eliminate poverty”.
But with China already having the first mover advantage will it let India get a toehold on the island nation? The Maldives and Bhutan are the two countries that have minimal space-faring capabilities and hopefully will be the biggest beneficiaries of the fruits of the South Asia satellite.
No wonder then that Maldives President Abdulla Yameen actually echoed Modi’s words by saying “this launch is an example of India’s ‘neighbour first policy’. We must work for common good, better economic opportunities. Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas”.
India on the other hand is the biggest donor and possibly the biggest beneficiary from the project. Over the 12 year nominal life of the satellite India is extending aid which would be worth at least USD 1,500 million, if one extrapolates the total cost of the project over 12 years.
A highly optimistic and visionary space buff that Modi is, he said “The South Asia Satellite tells us that even the sky is not the limit when it comes to regional cooperation among like-minded countries”. Hopefully, the 2,230 kg South Asia Satellite will remain a friendly bird in the sky and not morph into a “white elephant in space”.