The hospital where I work in Delhi has a lounge where the surgeons and anaesthetists converge over a cup of coffee to discuss, argue and ruminate over a number of issues – most of it revolving around traffic , weather, Modi and Kejriwal. On a busy weekday morning, there was only one discussion that dominated the lounge. White bearded senior surgeons and fresh out of school young OT boys had heated discussions on the loss of contact of the mission control with the Vikram lander. Terms like orbiter, lander, apogee and orbit raising were used freely and the entire scalpel wielding crowd sighed over the sad fate of the lander. Chandrayaan-2 was now a national issue.
I was disappointed as many were about the loss of contact with the lander. We all sympathised with the ISRO team which worked on a budget less than that of major Hollywood movies. But it was also very heartening to see nurses discussing about the moon mission. Science had indeed entered into our living rooms. There was jingoism, false sense of political pride but yes we have common people learning about science which I think matters more than anything. When the first men landed on moon and the American flag was hoisted on the rough lunar surface, there was an outpouring of national pride and superiority in the United States. The entire mission was intended to upstage the Soviets. The jingoism lasted for long but what lasted more was the curiosity in the minds of millions of children all over the world who wanted to become space explorers. There is no substitute to inculcating rational scientific temper in the minds of children.
It is disheartening a number of activists lashing out at the mission claiming that the money should have been better spent in eradication of poverty. What the international media and our own citizens don’t realise is that the money spent on Indian Space programs has done more for our farmers than what most major governments and NGOs have ever done. When the Indian space program was still in its early stages and bicycles were used to transport equipment, Prime Minister Nehru never bowed down to forces both international and domestic who questioned the rationale of the expense.
The Indian remote sensing satellite network which is the largest civilian satellite network in the world uses its data to monitor natural disasters, aid water management systems and provide data for railways, air and road transport. Crop forecasts which use remote sensing data has been functional with great success since early eighties. This led to the success of CAPE (Crop Acreage and Production Estimation) project which has helped millions of farmers all over the country. We are able to predict our rains and our droughts. We are able to predict disasters and plan evacuations. We are self-reliant on our satellite data to help the armed forces during crisis situations. ISRO runs the most successful satellite education program in the world bringing education to thousands of under-served villages
If this is not enough for the common man, it is also necessary to know that ISRO is also commercially viable, launching satellites for various international organisations for a fee. ISRO stands tall as a successful public sector initiative that must be encouraged not vilified. It represents a symbol of scientific progress in a nation where pseudo-science is often glorified. If you cannot bring yourself to like it, atleast don’t demean it.
“Very many individuals with myopic vision questioned the relevance of space activities in a newly independent nation which was finding it difficult to feed its population. But neither Prime Minister Nehru nor Prof. Sarabhai had any ambiguity of purpose. Their vision was very clear: if Indians were to play meaningful role in the community of nations, they must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to their real-life problems. They had no intention of using it merely as a means of displaying our might.”
Vinayak Rengan is a General surgeon who graduated from MMC and the founder of thestonebench.com. He writes on science, socio-political issues and public health.