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Department of Space and ISRO: PMO has to bell the cat

Lalit Shastri

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has been grappling with attempts to reform Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Many Parliamentary committees have recommended separation of the post of Secretary Department of Space and Chairman ISRO. Perhaps there is no other organisation in Government of India where a subordinate office controls the main department as it happens in the case of Department of space and ISRO. The result is that ministerial control and parliamentary accountability gets diluted. The chairmanship of the Space Commission under the chairman ISRO has been taken as a virtual Carte Blanche to push it’s own agenda. Seldom are the user departments consulted or a comprehensive review done on where is ISRO vis-a-vis other space faring nations in terms of technologies. A lot many satellites have been launched with 2 to 5 years lag in setting up of ground segments. The recent aborted GISAT-1 launch too falls in the category of disconnect with user departments. The undue weightage given to ISRO vis-a-vis Department of Space has lead to a go-by to procedures, proper project management and monitoring. After all Department of Space is the custodian of procurement and financial control. It is precisely due to these reasons that scandals such as Antrix-Devas happen. Post Devas, a slew of measures were implemented but with the passage of time they have been by-passed or diluted. Department of Space is a pale shadow of itself with a demoralised and sidelined bureaucracy. It is time to bifurcate the top post in ISRO and to codify it’s selection and promotion policy and put it on the net. No institution can grow without public accountability. The same is true of the newly formed directionless New Space India Ltd and Antrix Corporation. The PMO has to bell the cat.

8 Comments »

  1. S K Das. The comments above betray the ignorance of the person about how ISRO really works and how the present administrative configuration has been useful. A remarkable feature of ISRO’s organizational form is the placing of all activities relating to the space programme such as policy information, R&D, product development, project execution, the responsibility for delivering operational space services to the users and marketing, under one single organization led by a single person with unitary authority. The responsibility for the overall implementation of India’s space programme which is executed through a complex network of centres, projects, industries, research institutes and NGOs, is vested in a single person who is held accountable both for the outputs and outcomes. This has been very effective in combining various decision-making levels – technical, managerial, administrative and policy-making – thus cutting down delays. In the process, integration has been guaranteed and conflicts minimized. This has contributed constructively to the evolution of an integrated space programme in a rapid manner with limited resources. Regards.

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    • S.K. Das, who apparently is the person who had served in ISRO/DoS for several years as Joint Secretary, Additional Secretary and Member Finance, and was a Director on the Antrix Board when the infamous Devas deal was approved, has clearly missed the point.

      A unitary command was alright as long as ISRO was in the R&D mode but now ISRO has hit a plateu and is in a hybrid mode part R&D and part production and it has kind of hit a road block.

      The author of this article has gone through reports of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology chaired by Ashwani Kumar which is more or less on the same line as that taken by the author. The Chaturvedi committee report on Antrix-Devas deal also underscores that division of powers was not adequate which led to lax control by virtue of one person holding many posts and there was complete failure of checks and balances. Such a scam could be pulled off because the Chairman ISRO and Secretary Department of Space (DoS) was also Chairman Antrix and Chairman Space Commission. In the Atomic Energy Department such a seperation has been long practiced with director BARC and Chairman Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) being two different persons. It is precisely this argument of being on mission mode which is stunting the growth of ISRO. It is time to seperate R&D from production. ISRO should remain an R&D, design and quality authority. Licencing, regulation, finance, external relations and treaties should be with DoS, and industry – mainly the Private Sector – should take care of production and in future also design, manufacture, launch satellites (at a later stage) and provide a host of other services.

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      • Yes I agree with Lalit. It’s time ISRO
        separates R&D and Production & Operations. These groups need different skill sets. ISRO has to move to the next phase as innovation in Space Technology is moving at a great pace, need group focusing on it, and distracted by day to day operation. Need an operational entity which focuses on commercial aspects . Dr Bala Kumble

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  2. yes. Lalit ji, i tend to agree with you. ISRO has grown and now has multifarious responsibilities. its but right that the organisational structure needs to evolve as per the growing need.

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  3. I fully agree with SK Das The organisation structure of Atomic energy and space departments are identical as conceived by Dr Homi Mohan’s and Dr Vikram Sarabhai Secretaries in these depth TS report to minister as in any other depts of GOI Considering the strategic nature the PM holds these depts directly and these secretaries report to PM The commission mode is unique band PMO is represented in this by the minister in charge of PMO, Principal secretary National Security Adviser andCabinet Secretsry This commission mode of working perfectly well for 60 years This is conceived by Dr HomiBhaba to ensure hazel free functioning of these agencies That’s the only reason they are able to perform in an exemplary manner
    Secretary DOS reports to PM Space commission is responsible for defining policies and monitoring the immplemation The entire PMO is there in the commission
    Spce program also implemented through its centre’s like Vssc Lpsc Sdrc Ursc sac etc and fully empowered Directors are in charge of these The commercial activities are managed by Antrix and NSIL
    ISRO is only a virtual organisation to ensure proper coordination among its centre’s and units ISRO is under DOS an otherway as reported by the author

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    • Mr G Madhavan Nair,
      From a person of your stature, it was not expected that an attempt would be made to defend the defenceless. One finds that you have made some observations with blinkers on. I am pointing this out as you did not consider it necessary to respond to all the issues raised by me point-by-point. Instead, you took the path of describing in brief the working structure of the Union Government to back and support what Mr Das had observed in his comments without following the letter and spirit of my Edit piece and also my reply to Mr. Das.
      I respect your right to hold an opinion contrary to mine and I could have left the matter at that but since I have raised the ISRO issue and have been investigating and writing on matters relating to ISRO for the last several years in national interest- first as Special Correspondent with The Asian Age when on 6 February 2012, I had brought to the fore “systemtic failure” with reference to the S-band deal, i.e., the alleged scam linked with the 2005 agreement between Antrix Corporation Limited (Antrix) of Department of Space (DoS) and Devas Multimedia Private Limited for lifetime lease of 90 per cent capacity of S-band transponders of two Indian satellites and then as Editor-in-chief of Newsroom24x7.com.
      You have explained the organisation structure of Atomic Energy and Space departments adding that both are identical and the Secretaries in these departments report to the Minister as they do in any other department. Then you have drawn attention to the strategic nature and pointed out that since the PM holds the portfolio of these departments, their Secretaries report to the PM and also that the entire PMO is in the Space Commission, which is responsible for formulating policies and implementing them. You have also stated that the Commission mode is working perfectly well for 60 years.
      You have also concluded by stating that ISRO is a “virtual organisation” to ensure proper coordination among its centres and units, which you have pointed out have fully empowered Directors and that the commercial activities are managed by Antrix and NSIL.
      You have also underscored that ISRO is under Dos and not the other way.
      My Edit piece says: “Perhaps there is no other organisation in Government of India where a subordinate office controls the main department as it happens in the case of Department of space and ISRO.” You are stating ISRO is a virtual organisation and also that it is under DoS. You may mark that I too have called it a subordinate office but at the same time emphasised that it is controlling the main department. The case in point is that when ISRO is a virtual organisation, why orders -even appointment orders – are being issued in the name of Chairman ISRO, why DoS is being bypassed and even appointment and policy matter related files are not being routed through the department (DoS).
      One subterfuge followed by ISRO is to put up appointment files, procurement and policy files directly to Secretary DoS/chairman ISRO marking them as Secretary DoS/Chairman ISRO while all the time by-passing the DoS and not routing the files through it. Dos, over a period, was either staffed by yes men or wise men, the latter realising that what did not pass through their hands won’t harm them. Even orders relating to fitment of scales, incentives etc are often routed through ISRO leading to huge deviations. Often even such administrative issues are decided in committees chaired by scientists and not the Jt Secretary DoS. It is this lack of checks and balances that has led to the gradual decay of the organisation.
      The Edit in focus raises many issues that you have preferred to overlook. Once more I feel it necessary to underscore the points raised earlier. They are as follows:

      • The chairmanship of the Space Commission under the chairman ISRO has been taken as a virtual Carte Blanche to push it’s own agenda.

      • Seldom are the user departments consulted or a comprehensive review done on where is ISRO vis-a-vis other space faring nations in terms of technologies.

      • A lot many satellites have been launched with 2 to 5 years lag in setting up of ground segments.

      • The recent aborted GISAT-1 launch too falls in the category of disconnect with user departments.

      • The undue weightage given to ISRO vis-a-vis Department of Space has lead to a go-by to procedures, proper project management and monitoring.

      • After all Department of Space is the custodian of procurement and financial control. It is precisely due to these reasons that scandals such as Antrix-Devas happen.

      • Post Devas, a slew of measures were implemented but with the passage of time they have been by-passed or diluted.

      • Department of Space is a pale shadow of itself with a demoralised and sidelined bureaucracy. It is time to bifurcate the top post in ISRO and to codify it’s selection and promotion policy and put it on the net.

      • No institution can grow without public accountability. The same is true of the newly formed directionless New Space India Ltd and Antrix Corporation.

      For the gullible, the uninitiated, less or ill-informed, your take would pass muster. However, it remains a mystery why you have chosen to ignore the points raised by me in my Edit piece and have dealt with the matter in a cursory manner.
      Please go through the exclusive news coverage by Newsroom24x7.com on ISRO. We would appreciate your response to the whole gamut of issues raised by us.
      Here are a few links:

      https://newsroom24x7.com/2020/03/21/the-myth-called-isro-and-the-fictitious-post-of-isro-chairman/
      https://newsroom24x7.com/2020/02/22/isro-the-fault-line-and-the-siege-within/
      https://newsroom24x7.com/2019/12/27/isro-was-in-news-more-due-to-leadership-deficit-in-2019/
      https://newsroom24x7.com/2019/12/18/isro-time-for-change-of-leadership/
      https://newsroom24x7.com/2019/10/07/save-isro-nation-cannot-remain-mute-spectator/
      https://newsroom24x7.com/2018/08/06/what-prevents-isro-to-seek-cabinet-approval-for-more-apex-scale-posts/
      https://newsroom24x7.com/2018/08/03/decline-of-isro/
      https://newsroom24x7.com/2018/07/20/what-ails-isro/
      https://newsroom24x7.com/2016/08/11/cbi-files-charge-sheet-against-former-secretary-of-space-and-ed-of-antrix-corporation/
      https://newsroom24x7.com/2016/08/11/cbi-files-chargesheet-against-former-secretary-of-space-and-ed-of-antrix-corporation/
      https://newsroom24x7.com/2015/03/20/antrix-devas-agreement-national-security-and-cbi/
      https://newsroom24x7.com/2015/03/18/cbi-registers-case-in-the-huge-antrix-devas-scam/
      https://newsroom24x7.com/2018/07/12/antrix-devas-case-and-pca-bipa-with-mauritius-needs-to-be-relooked-at/
      https://newsroom24x7.com/2018/04/26/process-is-on-to-offer-ka-band-services-without-auction-is-it-a-backdoor-deal/

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  4. Dear Reporter,
    You have conveniently, ignored my comment, which I had posted a week back.
    My point was, Scams and unproductive spending of public money, do happen in many government departments, and sometimes in private establishments too. The so called preferred administrative structure exists in all other government departments according to you. Then how you can be so sure that the root cause of DoS issues are the administrative structure, which gives more power to the isro chairman.
    Infact, DoS is considered, one of the best government department, which deliveres.
    Your, points are misleading, as the past performance of isro, is much better on a comparative scale.
    I hope you will publish this without deleting.

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    • At the outset, one would like to enlighten you by underscoring that what you have commented on is an editorial and not a report.

      This is a serious column with hard fact-based pointers and there is no room for entertaining random off-the-cuff remarks aimed at burying the issue.

      You have cursorily compared the administrative structure of different Government Departments that are not free from corruption and scams with Dos and the virtual organisation called ISRO while emphasising what’s wrong in giving more power to the ISRO chief. You have concluded by stating that the points raised by me were “misleading” as the “past performance of ISRO is much better on a comparitive scale”.

      Regarding the unnecessary comparison, if you were familiar with the adage “two wrongs don’t make a right”, you wouldn’t have tread the path of writing what you wrote in the first instance.

      One would have appreciated a point-by-point rebuttal of the issues raised through the editorial. One can understand, why you have chosen to avoid the pitfall.

      Finally on the “past performance of ISRO”, who would ever deny the trailblazing success achieved by the Department of Space and its various Centres over the years. But this fact should not be used as a smokescreen to cover up the lapses, follies, diabolic machinations to sideline merit when it comes to promotions at the top and the vested interests of a few who want to take the whole system for a ride by maintaining the status quo. Also what about the short-sighted ill-concevied goals (for example launching of many satellites without setting of ground segments) and alleged acts of impropriety – a case in point is the Antrix-Devas agreement.

      One would have appreciated, if you had disclosed your identity.

      Like

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