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Decline of ISRO

Lalit Shastri

Considering the achievement made by India in the field of Space technology, the best approach for the country is to allow only Indian registered satellite system ie., satellites that are coordinated internationally through the Union Government to operate over India. By adopting such approach, Government requirements for critical sectors like the armed forces as well establishments operated by India based entrepreneurs can flourish in the long run.

Newsroom24x7 has published a series of reports on ISRO, including our latest online diary titled “What ails ISRO”. During my investigation into the working of this prestigious organisation, the Cabinet Secretariat, Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), Department of Space, and Department of Atomic Energy were asked under the Right to Information Act about the number of Apex Scale Posts that have been sanctioned by the Union Cabinet in the Department of Space and Department of Atomic Energy.

Responding to the specific query, ISRO replied with some hesitation that it had only the post of Secretary while other Apex scale posts were approved by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet as and when required. The organization ducked the question conveniently as to whether the posts are sanctioned or not. Usually up to the level of Joint Secretary, the power to create posts vests in the Finance Minister. Above that it is the Union Cabinet that decides. In the Merit Promotion scheme practiced by both departments, there is a cap at the level of Director. But beyond that, successive Chairmen have created and operated posts with impunity. In fact in every proposal sent by the Department of Space to the DoPT in this regard, the first line has always conveyed the lie that the Department of Space has “two sanctioned Posts in the Apex Scale”.

Take for example the apex post of scientists other than Chairman. ISRO has conveniently lied to the Appointments Committee since a long time that it has sanctioned posts in the apex scale. The beneficiaries of this subterfuge have been many scientists, including Dr Radhakrishnan, Kiran Kumar, and Dr K. Sivan, the present Chairman. By promoting them against a non-existant post, a myth has been created that they are already in the Secretary’s scale and senior to all others and hence only eligible for the Chairman’s post. The government too chose to pass the buck when information was sought from the Cabinet Secretariat in this regard under the RTI Act. How much matters have been complicated can be illustrated by the fact that an honorary advisor to the Chairman was a member of the selection committee for filling the Chairman’s post and nobody saw any conflict of interest in this.

The beneficiary of a badly worded order of the current chairman “stripping” a senior scientist of all responsibilities is the new Satellite Director who is being put in place for the succession battle. The order smacks of manipulation obviously to keep Tapan Mishra out of reckoning for the post of Chairman. Mishra has been shifted from the post of Director Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad and appointed as advisor in the headquarters.

The game is being played by bringing P Kunhikrishnan, a launch vehicle man, to the U R Rao Satellite Centre (URSC) and then by elevating him to the Apex scale, it will be shown that he is senior to others whereas the fact is to the contrary. The exposure to Launch vehicles is to pad up his CV. This has made the role of the Senior Staff Review Committee, comprising of retired scientists, suspect. Most of the retired scientists lean heavily on the incumbent Chairman for their perks,  travel, honorariums, awards and security at the expense of the tax payers. No wonder such advisory bodies are not independent but mere rubber stamps. It is hoped that the Government will sit up and take note before incalculable harm is done to ISRO. In fact all the Scientists who have been shunted out to innocuous paper pushing posts from the Satellite Center are senior to the new Director. They include the first lady Project Director for satellites.

The other important question relates to transfer of technology and productionisation by the industry for the PSLV project. In his capacity as Chairman, A.S. Kiran Kumar had undertaken the laudable initiative of transferring the entire technology and production to a consortium of Industries that had already made headway in manufacturing components.

Under this scheme only quality, design and mission planning were to remain with ISRO and the first industry manufactured rocket was slated to take off by 2020-21.

As a curtain raiser, the Government had informed Parliament about this plan in July 2016 by stating that “discussions were being held with the Indian industry towards formulating a plan & strategy to enhance the capacity and capability of managing the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) programme on an end to end basis.” Even the PM had proudly announced this initiative. In the meanwhile, a one time missile man and former head of Brahmos was asked to prepare a report that was accepted by the Government but the present Chairman and his coterie virtually boycotted this committee and with a change of guard the project has been quietly jettisoned and replaced by a plan to make a mini launch vehicle with a dubious market demand.

The Moon man of ISRO, Dr M Annadurai, who has been awarded the Padma Shri, too has made an unsung exit. Dr. Annadurai was Director, URSC from April 01, 2015 to July 31, 2018. Dr Annadurai’s contribution to the realisation of India’s first Lunar Mission, Chandrayaan-1 is exemplary. His other landmark achievement has been the successful Mars Orbiter Mission – that too in record time.

Coming back to aberrations, what is to be noted is that great institutions falter and decline when placed in the hands of incompetent people. It remains to be seen whether or not the Government and the PMO will see the writing on the wall.

The other problem that ISRO faces is vested interests in Delhi who are trying to push an open sky policy for Satellites. There is a particular Broadband forum which has the ears of senior bureaucrats in DOT and is constantly at work to achieve their goals. These interests represent foreign entities in disguise. A large number of satellites (in several bands like Ka, Ku, C etc) are operating over India for which orbit-spectrum rights were obtained by different countries through International Telecommunications Union (ITU) mechanism on first-cum-first-served basis. Rights obtained in such a manner by foreign nations are channeled through private commercial entities to operate over India.

If the Indian government permits commercial satellites acquired through a foreign country to operate over India, it will lead to curtailing India’s ability to acquire new orbit-spectrum/orbital slot. The rights that India possibly would lose in this process will be for a period of 30 to 40 years and even beyond.

It may also be noted that allowing foreign satellites through open-sky approach to service over India will also result in severe bottlenecks for the government when it comes to using satellites for armed forces in the days to come. Ability of any future coordination by India for any civilian satellite mission and to incubate an Indian company to operate satellite will become extremely difficult and even if it is feasible, Indian companies will have to pay a heavy price for operating over India as compared to any foreign registered satellite. Neighbouring countries like China closely guard landing rights over their territories and do not permit any foreign satellite to operate over their territory. Many Hong Kong registered Chinese satellites also beam over India.

Advanced countries like the US, Russia, and China are amassing orbit-spectrum resources through international coordination process for the government and private use whereas India will not be able to compete with such nations commercially. If open-sky policy is encouraged and if the current trend is allowed to continue, India will not be able to meet the requirements of a critical sector like Defence in spite of substantial technological achievement in launching and building satellites.

Considering the achievement made by India in the field of Space technology, the best approach for the country is to allow only Indian registered satellite system ie., satellites that are coordinated internationally through the Union Government to operate over India. By adopting such approach, Government requirements for critical sectors like the armed forces as well establishments operated by India based entrepreneurs can flourish in the long run. Finally, considering the neighborhood of India, it is advisable not to adopt the open-sky approach. In fact no country allows this over their territory.

Capacity shortage is touted as one of the reasons for open skies but even if it is announced, what cannot be overlooked is that neither satellites nor orbital slots are available off  the shelf. It will take at least a decade before any worthwhile accretion to capacity will take place. If ISRO follows its own road map, it will be able to offer surplus capacity in communication satellites in a few years. Besides only so long as a Nation takes care of its own technology needs, will R & D prosper and progress. The best way to kill ISRO is open it up to foreigners, which is what some vested interests are doing. Whether the current ISRO management can rise to the challenge is to be seen.

To sum up, the Government has committed a blunder in not extending Kiran Kumar’s tenure and doing a wider search for a successor. The excessive hurry in this matter, it appears, was to keep a major contender out of reckoning and to promote a rank junior so that he could be within sniffing distance of the Chairman’s post when it falls vacant the next time. The government would do well to split the post of Secretary Department of Space and Chairman ISRO between a bureaucrat and a scientist to prevent concentration and misuse of power.

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13 Comments »

  1. The article would have done more justice if it spells how capacity should be enabled in with no-open sky policy than just going on a rant that ISRO will get killed or that appointments in ISRO are being made hastily.

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    • We have done our research and pinpointed the loopholes, flaws, and games being played by vested interests that have been stooping too low and indulging in maneuvers to give backdoor entry to foreign players to monopolise the skies, and the blatant act of sidelining senior scientists to promote rank juniors, reoeatedly telling a lie to DoPT for serving narrow ends and ensuring all authority is vested in a coterie….You want to know how capacity could be enabled without the open sky policy. One is wondering whether or not you have read the entire piece. What about the plan to involve private players. There was a plan to engage Indian industry in formulating a strategy to enhance the capacity and capability of managing the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) programme but it was shelved. The article says a lot more. Just read it.
      More on how capacity should be built… A few crucial suggestions have been offered. Also don’t forget there is an elected government, then there are also the top bureaucrats, scientists, experts and the Space Commission. It’s for them to apply mind and address the issue.

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  2. This article is focused only on one side of the coin. 50% news only correct in this article. Last 5 years ISRO’s achievements are being result of current chairman’s hard push and vision when he was in VSSC & LPSC. New URSC Director is expert in So many areas and he is capable among so many Seniors.

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    • Dear Dr. Rajasekhar,

      You have categorically stated that only 50% of the news is correct. Hence according to you, half of what’s been written is not correct. Please point out what’s wrong in the article and we would give a point-wise rebuttal.

      We have focused on propriety and not questioned the achievements of the current chairman or the new URSC Director. The question we have raised is about the senior-most scientists who have been sidelined in the most shabby manner. For example, you have the case of Tapan Mishra, who is considered to be the father of the spy satellite. The way he has been shifted from the post of Director Space Applications Centre has come in for sharp criticism.

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  3. There were so many seniors in SAC, when he become Director SAC. In his tenure he never followed seniority in his center.

    Now why we have talk about seniority.

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  4. Dear Mr Lalit, First of all, kindly note that there is no decline wrt ISRO either in its activities or efficiency. This is the only govt. organisation in India that is up to date technology in bringing benefits to its people, all by itself through indigenisation during the last four decades. Yes, a few actions taken by the present chairman could give a feeling of negativity. I’m sure that you are fed with wrong and malicious info by some at senior level as one of the affected has given an interview to NDTV, if I’m correct. Whomsoever has given has betrayed the organisation through which he or she has grown. Nothing wrong in appointment of any senior as advisor and it should not be seen with a squinted eye. This has happened with many directors in the last two decades, though I don’t want to name anyone. Also please note that the previous chairman’s term couldn’t have been extended as he had crossed 65 and the youngster and smarter seniors had to be given a chance and hence it’s not a blunder. The present chairman is one of the best or the best, I can say as he is very knowledgeable and a simple character. In my opinion, no one should be given extension beyond their superannuation, due to the same reason started above and in this regard, there is nothing wrong wrt previous URSC director’s retirement. The Apex level posts though not available, the capable ones are elevated to shoulder the responsibility for the larger and bigger space missions in the forthcoming years, nothing wrong though I agree that the accelerated pushing could’ve brought in some amount of discontentment among the other scientists which need to be corrected by the present chief.
    Your article straight away discredits which is unfair in my opinion. I’d like to see your open response without any favour or support to anyone.

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    • Dear Mr Balki,

      There was no attempt to run down a great organization based upon the instigation by some disgruntled senior in ISRO.

      Newsroom24x7 has always highlighted ISRO’s achievements in the past. However it does not mean blind adulation of whoever is in the driver’s seat, irrespective of what he or she does. There are some factual inaccuracies in your rebuttal.

      Newsroom24x7 had filed questions under the RTI many months back and not just at the happening of this incident. Many scientists are in the habit of bending rules to their advantage and in the past events like the Antrix-Devas embarrassment would not have happened if organisations of the stature of ISRO had stuck to their own rules and procedures. As regards extension for A.S.Kiran Kumar, you may not be aware that the rules for the Chairman were amended during Madhavan Nair’s tenure to make the retirement age as 66 years. I would have appreciated your view point if somebody junior and smart had been made the Chairman. Dr Sivan had crossed 60 years of age and was on an extension.By granting a non-sanctioned apex scale, a myth is sought to be perpetuated that he was already in the Secretary’s scale and that it was not a promotion. The same myth was perpetuated for his two predecessors. What prevents this august organisation from seeking a Cabinet sanction for say a number of Apex scale posts and promoting all their Center Directors to that scale and then making a fair and equal selection? Accelerated pushes are taken care of in the Merit Promotion Scheme in place which rewards outstanding contributions through a process of peer reviews. To manipulate it at the top reeks of favoritism, nepotism and a subversion of laid down procedures. This is what Newsroom has been highlighting rather than belittling ISRO’s achievements. If the community is so sensitive to criticism, it should have the capacity to introspect when mistakes are done and order mid-course corrections.

      Please see my earlier write-up on What ails ISRO

      Also Check: Losing contact with GSAT-6A puts ISRO authorities in dock

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      • What is given by Lalitji is incomplete. ISRO is the greatest R and D organization in the country. But spolied by the recent top management. It all started with the backdoor entry of dr radhakrishnan as chairman. The present ursc director is his pick. Just got a BTech only. In ugc or aicte one need to have Doctorate to get an entry. But in Isro u need only a basic diploma to be a scientist!
        Lalitji is Right. The many present outstanding and distinguished scientists are elevated out of the way.

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  5. isro reputation is getting hurt as successive promotion have been so manipulated that eventually the Chairman position is occupied by a regional lobby. No chance from other region since last 37 years. This may be looked into as to why so.

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  6. I don’t know about the internal workings but the article is bang on with respect to long history of capacity shortages, lobby of foreign satellite operators running a mis-information campaign and the need to allow Indian Satellite Systems as per the policy.

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