Anita Anand | India dreaming: Can we land on the moon and build toilets too?

The Asian Age.  | Anita Anand

Opinion, Columnists

Are the 1.4 billion Indians dreams and ambitions elevated by the space odyssey or the landing?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (PTI)

On August 23, India made global news by landing its Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft on the hitherto unexplored south pole of the moon, becoming the first country in the world to do so.

“This moment is unforgettable. It is phenomenal. This is a victory cry of a new India,” said an exultant Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He added that Isro’s moon mission was writing a new chapter in India’s space odyssey and elevating “the dreams and ambitions of every Indian”.

Are the 1.4 billion Indians dreams and ambitions elevated by the space odyssey or the landing? The “space race” as it is called, was a race between the then Soviet Union (now Russia) and the United States, an outgrowth of the mid-20th-century Cold War, a conflict of ideologies of capitalism and communism. In 1957, the Soviet Union successfully sent Sputnik, the world’s first orbital satellite into space and a year later the US launched its first satellite, Explorer 1.

The race to the moon was just that, a race. In the context of the US, Michelle Hanlon, executive director of the Centre for Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi, says: “We were just sort of rushing to get to be the first, get to the moon first. And that was all about prestige, geopolitics – who’s a better country? Whose system is working better?”

India as a newly independent nation in the early 1950s had ambitions of its own. Scientists like Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, with the support of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, worked to initiate the nuclear and space research programmes. Both were staunch nationalists, came from well-to-do industrialist families, studied in England, and believed that science and technology could leapfrog India into the 20th century, making it a global player. Leapfrogging is a phenomenon where a developing country can skip stages of the path taken by the industrial nations, enabling them to catch up sooner, particularly in terms of economic growth.

A space programme at this time seemed practical. “If we do not do it now, we will have to depend later on buying the knowhow from other countries at much greater cost. There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose,” said Sarabhai.

The significance of India’s landing on the south pole of the moon is because of the water. According to Hanlon, for scientists it is important to be at the place where they are doing their scientific experiments and research. “We need to send people to the moon for long periods of time, and in order to do that, they need to have water. We can’t send them with all the water they need because that’s just simply too heavy. And water has to be separated into hydrogen and oxygen for use in propulsion, for space exploration beyond the universe, if we want to get to the asteroid belt, which have those rare earth metals that are going to make mining on Earth obsolete. To get the rockets to the asteroids a boost will be needed from the moon, as it would be cheaper.”

Bhabha, Sarabhai and Nehru were talented and visionary men. However, their vision was slightly obscured by the stark reality of Indians emerging out of colonialism. The essential needs were housing, livelihoods, healthcare, electricity, water, schools and infrastructure, at every level.

India had entered the space race wanting to be included among the superpowers, not to be left behind as a poor nation. Being among the greats stems from a sense of inferiority, camouflaged as superiority. Neither the Soviet Union or the United States have shown much greatness as superpowers and global leaders in their own and other countries, strategically meddling and instigating conflict and war. This continues.

What can Indians be proud of today? Besides the moon landing, some advancements in the standard of living, a modern economy, part of the globalised world and muddling along despite the many challenges it faces. We can be prouder if we bring more people out of poverty, making livelihoods, education, health and sanitation a serious priority. A 2020 World Economic Forum study found “some 220 million Indians sustained on an expenditure level of less than Rs 32 a day, the poverty line for rural India, by the last headcount of the poor in India in 2013”.

The attention and resources allocated for creating a space and nuclear energy programme could have been done for poverty alleviation or meeting the minimum needs of India’s poorest. When Sarabhai was asked if the space programme was relevant to the country that needed toilets more, he replied: “We can have a space programme and toilets.”

While the space programme has been successful, the attempt to bring toilets to most Indians, however, has not. The World Bank estimates that inadequate sanitation causes India economic losses of $53.8 billion -- equivalent to 6.4 per cent of its GDP. These losses arise from health-related impacts, including premature deaths, the cost of treating disease and productive time lost due to illness, the impact of women not going to work due to related illnesses and of girls missing school. There is a serious shortage of functioning sewage treatment plants and the estimated 800 treatment plants across the country operate at around 30 per cent capacity.

When a fourth of 1.4 billion Indians live below the poverty line, can we be proud of this?