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Live and Let Live…….

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Dr. Tapan Mishra, Sr. Advisor. ISRO. 25th. June, 2020. When you are engrossed with finer details, you sometimes tend to lose bigger picture. Many scientists, with very nature of their profession, belong to this category.

Yesterday Honourable PM cleared in cabinet meet, the restructuring of India’s space programme. Though this initiative received a favourable welcome, the dramatic changes are yet to sink in. Scientists have a problem, more often than not, they get slightly perplexed with the usual parlance of official communique.

I was besieged today with lot of queries of my colleagues, both seniors and juniors alike. I could sense, two major pillars in reform announcement need a bit more clarifications.

1. Why do we need to invite private players?

A common refrain is: why do we need to invite private players? I gave them a unitary maths problem :

Let us assume, one cow eats maximum10 kg of grass per day and gives maximum 10 litres of milk per day. If I want 100 litre of milk per day, what should I do? Obviously, I cannot feed the cow100 kg of grass. The cow will die. Instead I should bring 10 cows.

ISRO in terms of turnover have reached near saturation point. With 13000 employees, our turnover is hovering around Rs. 10,000 Cr. I see no possibility of enhancing further. But some ball park estimates indicate that country can target for space business almost 10 times the present turnover of ISRO, paving the way of proportional employment generation. So the restructuring is being done to expand space business by similar factor or more. We need more players. We need many more ISROs, but in private sector. When urge for profit combines with scientific quest, the results can be much more effective than in Government environment. This is the essence.

There is another side of this expansion. Space industry will spread far and wide across India. Presently most of the space facilities are concentrated in a narrow geographical corridor, denying the country to exploit the full potential of Indian talents.

This policy change will be a boost to people aiming to open start ups, restricting the brain drain. We have been creeping for long about this menace. But this boost is a positive counter to our issue of flight of talents and many missed opportunities.

2. Why should we allow private players to use ISRO facilities?

ISROites are naturally quite possessive of ISRO, which they built painstakingly over many decades, fighting many odds, many naysayers and periodic restrictions imposed by super powers. ISRO built formidable facilities for production, testing and qualification of myriad space hardware. Definitely there is a feeling why should we share those facilities with private players? Let them build their facilities.

I gave them a counter. Beautiful Muncipal gardens are built with initiatives of certain Muncipal officials and they are nurtured by many selfless gardeners. Do we restrict the gardens to Muncipal officials and those who tend it? No, we keep it open for general public. The reason is simple: though the garden is built because of initiatives of a few, ultimately it has been funded by taxpayer’s money.

ISRO facilities, though built by ISROites, have been funded by Government. These facilities will probably may cost a few tens of thousands of crores – with hard earned money by all the faceless taxpayers.

Also the facilities are not busy 100% of time. Many facilities are free for quite significant portion of time. ISRO can monetise the free time of its facilities and also benefit the nascent players.

Consider a start up is in the process of building an imaging radar. A practical costing of radar will come to around Rs. 100 cr. To test this radar with full space qualification, it has to build facilities with land, with a practical costing of around Rs. 150 cr. If the start up has to compete, it has to scout for investment of around Rs. 250 cr., pushing up the cost of its radar. But hiring ISRO facilities for this purpose is not expected to be higher than Rs. 10 cr. ISRO, by renting its facilities, can enable a start up to make considerable saving. Money costs a lot. For every start up, any monetary saving means a God given lifeline.

I can sum up this reform, from view point of ISRO : Live and Let Live. It augurs well for future of space technology in India.


Dr. Tapan Mishra. Sr. Advisor ISRO.

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