India’s space madness amid astronomical poverty

India's space mission

By Graham Peebles

In a macho violation of common sense and the needs of hundreds of millions of people living in crushing poverty, the ruling elite of India (that’s the government and multinational corporations who own the country) recently launched a satellite that “after a journey of 300 days and 420 million miles… arrived to orbit around Mars”. The USD74 million “Mars mission” is “cheap by American (or Chinese) standards”, the Economist says, but amounts to a fraction of a much more expensive – not to say insane – space programme that drains USD1 billion a year from the national budget. This “is more than spare change, even for a near USD2 trillion economy”.

“Delusional quest for superpower status”

The “Mars Madness”, or Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), to give it its official title, makes India one of four (the US, the EU and Russia being the other three) that have ventured to our closest cosmic neighbour, and constitutes a conspicuously extravagant part of what economist-activist Jean Dreze accurately describes as “the Indian elite’s delusional quest for superpower status”.

While hundreds of millions in the sub-continent live impoverished, degrading lives, the Indian government is investing the nation’s income in sending a rocket to Mars!

Competition and nationalism drive such escapades, not the quest for knowledge and understanding. The space race between the US and the Soviet Union, for example, “was not an affordable luxury undertaken for the sake of knowledge, but intrinsically tied to the military-industrial complex”, the Guardian rightly states. India’s primary competitor in all things economic is that other mammoth nation, China. The Chinese space programme is advanced (in 2012 it put a Chinese woman in space and last year launched its first un-crewed lunar mission), and therefore intensely intimidating to the Indian nationalists psyche.

This stellar statement of Indian male virility (only men would instigate such a policy) represents the insanity permeating the political pantomime not only inside India but worldwide. While hundreds of millions in the sub-continent live impoverished, degrading lives, the Indian government is investing the nation’s income in sending a rocket to Mars! The Economist asks the rhetorical question: “How [can] a country that cannot feed all of its people find the money for a Mars mission?” As well as, we should add, shelling out USD32 billion on defence each year, making India the world’s biggest arms importer with the fourth largest air force.

Yet India (which has its own overseas aid programme worth GBP328 million a year) is still receiving international aid amounting to around USD1.6 billion (World Bank 2012 figures) a year. Much of this flows from the coffers of nations (Britain and the USA, for example) who cannot – the politicians proclaim – invest adequately in public services or pay public sector workers a living wage.

Rocket science versus sanitation

A third of the world’s poor – that’s almost 1 billion people – are in India. And despite 20 years of so-called development, the World Bank records that not only has this number not been reduced, but, “the absolute number of poor people in some of India’s poorest states actually increased during the last decade”. These marginalised men, women and children from rural India are driven from their land by the commercialisation of the countryside to the slums of the cities. In Mumbai alone – a city with a population of almost 21 million – two-thirds live in rambling slums.

The majority of the population – over 50 per cent – do not have the luxury of a toilet, and are forced to defecate in public.

It is estimated by the World Bank that as many as 68 per cent of people (or 885 million) in India are living on less than USD2 (the official World Bank poverty line) a day and that over half of these are persisting on an income of under USD1 a day. Surviving on such a pittance is virtually impossible: parents cannot feed their children or themselves every day, or pay for health care or education; families live in suffocating conditions, – a family of five, six, seven perhaps sleeping on the ground in one small room, which functions as kitchen, bedroom and living room. The majority of the population – over 50 per cent – do not have the luxury of a toilet, and are forced to defecate in public. In a recent report on worldwide sanitation, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) found that, “globally, India continues to be the country with the highest number of people (597 million people) practising open defecation”.

Perhaps some of the 16,000 scientists and engineers working on the space programme could be employed to design and install a nationwide sanitation system.

“The polluted image of a divided nation”

The needs and rights of the marginalised masses who are primarily from the scheduled castes, the Adivasi (indigenous) and Dalit (previously referred to as “the untouchables”) groups are consistently abused and ignored. State health care, for example, particularly in rural India, is virtually non-existent, the government spends a mere 1.2 per cent of GDP on public health, which as the Economist says, is “dismally low” (Afghanistan, for example, spends 8.7 per cent, the Democratic Republic of Congo 5.6 per cent, according to World Bank 2012 figures). In fact, I could find no country in the world that spends less.

The truth is that the ruling elite care not for those living in abject destitution, they are an embarrassment to the Delhi/Mumbai set, the billionaires (India has 66 of the world’s richest), multi-millionaires and comfortable middle class who are desperate for India to be recognised as a shiny democratic consumer state, albeit a violent unjust nationalistic one…

It is the polluted image of a divided nation, ruled by an uncompassionate, materialistically driven Hindu minority that would shame the vision of the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi