Space Exploration: An Unnecessary Expenditure

With a population of 1.2 billion people, and with a recent election bringing a voter turnout of almost half of that, India holds the title of the “world’s largest democracy”. The sheer size of the population makes India an important figure on the global stage, and the existence of its own space exploration programme places it alongside the likes of China, Russia and the USA.

Both the size of its electorate, and the existence of its space programme, bring tremendous national pride to the nation and its inhabitants, but with roughly 30% of its 1.2 billion population in poverty it begs the question of why India has a national space exploration programme in the first place.

Very recently India was able to achieve the success of launching a satellite into orbit around Mars. In doing so India became the first nation to do it “on its first attempt, and the first Asian nation” in the world to complete such an achievement. The recently elected prime minister, Narendra Modi said: “We have gone beyond the boundaries of human enterprise and innovation.”

The leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) urged India and its population to continue their efforts in “challenging the next frontier.” It is an interesting phrase that seems to suggest a completion of one frontier, and of a moving on process, whereby the next challenge is brought forward for the country to tackle.

The problem I have with such an endeavour is one that many have already highlighted; with the World Bank estimating in 2010 that India has 32.7%, or about 400 million people, living below $1.25 per day, how and why does it have a space exploration programme. Modi may well have said that it is to challenge “the next frontier”, but what seems abundantly obvious to everyone is that the current frontier has not even been conquered yet.

In late 2013, when the Indian space mission to Mars was launched, India faced criticism from some Western media groups and personnel. Amongst which was a rather provocatively titled piece named “India Mars Mission To Launch Amidst Overwhelming Poverty”. Within the article James Fenner speaks about “The Poverty Conundrum” and he has every right to do so. Though some of what he says is unsupported by evidence, namely the claim that “many in the country have objected to vast sums of government money being funnelled into the high-profile project”, he is correct to link India’s budding space programme with the situation the country finds itself in back on earth.

Recently revised World Bank methodology estimates that 20.6% of the world’s poor can be found in India. Though this is an improvement on the position India was in a few decades ago, it is still, quite obviously, a major problem. Malnourishment, especially amongst children, is an issue which refuses to go away with UNICEF estimating that in 2006 there were 7.4 million babies born with low birth weights, 40% of children were born stunted, and 39% of pregnant women were underweight at the time of delivery.

The World Bank states that only 44% of rural households have access to electricity, no city in India provides a full day water supply, and the situation is far worse in the numerous slums that can be found across the country. In a damning article, The Economist spelled out the multitude of problems that face India and its population on a daily basis. The opening paragraph speaks plainly about why 1000 Indian children die from diarrhoea every day. Water levels are “3000 times over the safety limit”, an estimated “700 million Indians have no access to a proper toilet”, and only 13% of sewage is treated before going back into the water system.

The article continues to paint an upsetting and troubling picture of life inside India. The congested roads where in Delhi the average speed is only 10 kph, the dangers of travelling on such roads, where in 2007 130,000 people lost their lives, and the lack of sufficient energy to homes, businesses and industry. Power cuts are frequent and can sometimes last 24 hours at a time, and “some 600 million Indians have no mains electricity at all”. The list goes on, in an almost endless condemnation of the state of society, and the poor standards of living.

By linking India’s space programme’s success and cost with the situation at home, Western journalists have come under criticism. Many supporters of the mission to Mars have accused the West of being biased, and even blatantly racist. In an article for The Guardian on the 24th of September, Priyamvada Gopal argues that though India has great poverty “space exploration should not be the preserve of the rich west”. An article by Balaji Viswanathan goes one further by saying that “Western criticism to our Mars mission is blatant racism”.

Viswanathan’s piece makes some very valid points on the issue, and I agree with a lot of what he argues, but I still believe that India’s space exploration programme is an issue that is worthy of criticism. The difference between myself and the other Western journalists who make such a case, is that I believe that Western space programmes should also be criticised. The media involved in criticising India for their mission to Mars, do not then apply that same logic to space programmes developed by their own nations. It is perhaps less racism, and more a case of intense double standards. India is held to a standard it cannot possibly achieve and so is criticised, yet the USA, China, Russia and the UK are not subject to the same standards.

A top comment, chosen by staff at The Guardian, on an article on their website hits the nail on the head, it reads: “it’s not like other countries were utopian wonderlands when they were investing in space were they?” Though the comment was made in order to halt the criticism of the Indian mission to Mars, the author should realise the depth of the remark. It is not simply a defensive statement used in an attempt to prevent more criticism, it is an attacking statement reversing the argument and putting the focus back on the Western states who already have space programmes. Rather than looking at India exclusively, it places the existing arguments and criticisms against space programmes as a whole. How can any nation justify such an expense, and such an endeavour, when they have such problems on Earth?

A common argument that I hear in order to justify space programmes is that it is in human nature to push the boundaries and to explore. I can understand that, but if members of my family were at home dying in bed due to lack of fresh water, I would not then go out and take a walk around the new neighbourhood. As wonderful as the images and memories of landing on the moon for the first time must be, they are not going to save lives, or improve the lives of those living in poverty. Perhaps on this one issue you can call me conservative, but if I were to be a leader of a nation, I would rather that nation look after its people, supplying healthcare, education and alleviating poverty, than look at exploring other planets in our solar system. Some priorities lie much closer to home.

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This article was originally published on Cultured Vultures on 03/10/14

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2 thoughts on “Space Exploration: An Unnecessary Expenditure

  1. Interesting topic. No one can now take the credit of a successful mars mission in its first attempt. I believe India will continue with more and more space exploration programmes in future because a big majority of those million Indians are scientist and engineers. So they have to do their part.

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