Modi’s space diplomacy: Leveraging science in regional integration

Aniket Bhavthankar, an alumni of SAU, who is now with the think tank Society for Policy Studies as a Research Assistant writes about the possibilities that a ‘Regional Satellite’ can bring about.

On Aug 3, 2014, while addressing the parliament of Nepal, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the first foreign leader to address Nepal’s Constituent Assembly-cum-parliament, stressed the need to launch a satellite for South Asia.

Earlier, on June 30, at the launch ceremony of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV – C23) in Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh, Modi asked the country’s scientists to develop a satellite for the South Asian region.

The prime minister saw an opportunity in leveraging India’s leadership position in space applications and satellite launch capabilities to inject further momentum to his fledgling “neighbours first” foreign policy. Modi’s proposal indicates his intent to add substance to ties with neighbours and further his agenda for regional integration.

The idea of a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) satellite is not new. On April 26, 1998, the idea of a SAARC satellite was discussed by information ministers of the member states. Then SAARC secretary–general, Naeem Hasan, had pointed out: “We will examine the financial and technical feasibility of establishing a SAARC satellite.” However, the idea was shelved, largely due to tensions between India and Pakistan. A year later, the Kargil conflict broke out between the two countries, and the idea of a SAARC satellite was relegated to the background. Modi feels it is an idea whose time has come.

India has always recognised that space has dimensions beyond national considerations and can only be addressed through international partnerships. Internationally, India is viewed by space faring nations as an emerging space power, with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) capable of achieving its goals in a cost effective and time-efficient manner compared to its Western peers.

Antrix Corporation limited, the commercial arm of ISRO, has successfully launched around 40 foreign satellites into the earth’s orbit. The Indian-French joint satellite mission, MEGHA-TROPIQUES, was launched in 2011 for the study of the tropical atmosphere and climate related aspects such as monsoons, cyclones, etc.

Space technology is cost intensive, hence  questions are raised about the relevance of space programmes for developing countries like India. However, despite the cost involved, space programmes have the potential to leapfrog infrastructure bottlenecks and provide basic services to the marginalised. The history of South Asia serves to remind us that natural disasters, mainly cyclones, earthquakes and droughts have destroyed life of the region. It is the need of the hour to generate and compile realtime scientific data to avoid natural disasters. India’s remote sensing (IRS) satellites are time- tasted and have a proven track record.

IRS data has been of immense use not only in India but also for the region. The proposed SAARC satellite may prove helpful in addressing these imminent issues and reduce the risk and impact of natural disasters. Besides, space technology makes it feasible to develop a Tsunami Early Warning and protection system and is therefore relevant for those South Asian states having a coastline. Incidentally, India has already developed the Tsunami Early Warning system which warns about impending tsunamis in the Indian Ocean. It would add teeth to regional institutions like the SAARC Disaster Management Centre established in New Delhi.

Another use of a SAARC satellite is to resolve water woes in the region. Water is a burning issue and disputes related to sharing of water are common in South Asia. Water management is one of the ways to provide amicable solution to such disputes. By applying space technology we can undertake resource mapping as a first step towards carrying out water management of the Himalayas, which is the water source for a large part of South Asia.

In addition, Bangladesh, Maldives and India are facing a Herculean challenge in climate change. Rising sea levels have threatened the livelihood of millions of coastline residents of these countries. The proposed SAARC satellite could study the exact nature of the threat and may offer solutions.

The Indian National Satellites (INSAT) series is established for communication, television broadcasting and meteorological services that may prove instrumental in improving the fragile communication infrastructure of rural parts of South Asia. Further, INSAT could be put to use for aid in search and rescue operations during times of natural calamities. At the time of disasters space technology comes in handy to locate human beings and installations of economic importance.

India can push for establishment of a SAARC Space Applications Centre and train countries in the use of space technology. Also, India can assist its neighbours in the establishment of their own space programmes. Besides, India can replicate the Pan African e-Network project in South Asia to enable access to, and share expertise in the areas of tele-medicine, tele-education, resource mapping among others.

The South Asian region is struggling with plenty of problems and this reminds us of the need to work beyond national territories. A SAARC satellite is not a panacea for all of these evils but provides opportunity for South Asian states to work closely for common cause and eradicate many urgent predicaments. Modi should make a strong pitch for developing this idea in the forthcoming SAARC summit in November.

The idea of a SAARC satellite may be a ray of hope for one-fourth of humanity.  By inviting all leaders of SAARC, in addition to Mauritius, for his May 26 swearing-in ceremony, Modi already pulled off a diplomatic coup and has now launched ‘space diplomacy’ through reviving the old idea of a SAARC satellite.

Modi is known for his out-of-the-box thinking, and development of a SAARC satellite will add a new feather to his cap.

The original article can be accessed HERE.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of South Asian University.