Mangalyaan: Why Western criticism to our Mars mission is blatant racism

Image: Reuters
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26 Sep 2014 , 10:51

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in November 2013, when the Mangalyaan was launched from Earth. It has been republished in light of the success of the India Mars mission. 

Balaji Viswanathan

India has now successfully launched its mission to Mars. The mission was achieved at an extraordinary low price tag of $74 million – one-tenth of what a similar mission would cost NASA or ESA. If this successfully reaches Mars, India will be the first country to have the Mars mission succeed on the first try.

The provocation:

Just as quickly as the rocket sped off, Western journalists who marveled the moon walk in their childhood are engaging Indians in an unnecessary provocation. And these are not coming from cheap tabloids, but reputed media houses. It is not the criticism that rankles, but how crudely they are hitting below the belt.

Surface of Mars. AP image
Surface of Mars. AP image

This author chose to include poverty right in the headline: “India Mars Mission to Launch Amidst Overwhelming Poverty.”

What a refreshing headline! Not even poverty. It has to be “overwhelming poverty”. Who are we to launch into space? Should we not ask our British colonial masters before doing anything?

Apparently the other countries engaging in scientific research face no poverty. Apparently, space has something to do with poverty. Apparently, it is between funding Isro and solving poverty. You cannot do both. No sir, no. Next time, when you write about something that Britain did well, sure to remember to randomly incorporate the poverty of Birmingham and the riots of London into the title.

“England wins 10 Olympic golds amidst all the poverty”

“NASA begins its moon mission despite failing to manage hurricane relief”

“European Space Agency launches a satellite despite the inability to control religious riots in Paris and Tottenham, London”.

This CNN author didn’t even pretend to hide the racist idea:

Is India’s Mars mission the latest escalation in Asia’s space race?

For a country like Australia, the space aspirations are extremely pragmatically driven. On the other hand, a country like Malaysia is intent on putting astronauts in space — that’s very prestige-oriented.

Apparently, brown people’s ambitions to reach space is not pragmatic enough. Apparently, the $75 million spent on the Mars mission is the only thing that keeps us from building toilets.

This gentleman at The Guardian makes a thinly-veiled threat: “ISRO to launch India’s first spacecraft to Mars: Critics of Britain’s aid programme in the country have also been angered by the mission. The UK gives India around 300m each year.”

Britain threatens to pull its aid. This is ghastly. What would India do without all these do-gooder British aid? The Indian economy of 1 trillion pounds was badly depending on these 300 million pounds that comes with no strings attached. We are an ungrateful bunch, aren’t we? We are supposed to surrender our national priorities and research work and listen to our ex-colonial masters for a paltry 300 million.

This Economist article is more subtle and even more racist:How can poor countries afford space programmes?

What if the 16,000 scientists and engineers now working on space development were deployed instead to fix rotten sanitation?

Someone from Oxford wants to know why don’t we all Indians work on toilets and potty research?

If this author lived at the time of Renaissance, s/he might have written:

Newton, Michelangelo and da Vinci are wasting time instead of building toilets.Poverty should indeed be an excuse to postpone great achievements. Right?

These achievements are the ones that are keeping our kids smiling and hopeful. This kid has an extra inspiration now. She has extra hope.

The double standards:

This event is monumental for us Indians. Imagine how the Americans felt when they first landed on moon. This is a landmark work for Indian scientists and I am filled with pride, just as the 1960s Americans were filled with pride as Armstrong made his stride. Sure, America had plenty of issues in 1969 – Vietnam war, civil rights, inflation, unemployment. But, those negative news could wait another day. It was time to enjoy the moon.

Actually, these commentators give a squat about India. They don’t have any history of commenting on India’s social needs. This is just outright racism clothed in a patronizing tone. To me they just look like sore losers and cry babies.

The cost:

Many of these journalists cribbing about the cost seem disconnected from India. We spent 450 crores on this mission. Let me put that in context. One of the local cricket teams – Mumbai Indians – alone is worth 1000 crores. Ambani built a home in Mumbai for 5000 crores. Every single day, Indians buy gold jewelry worth 1500 crores. An upcoming Bollywood movie (made about space) is costing over 500 crores. And finally, the Indian central government budget is 17 lakh crores (I actually rounded off this figure and that round-off error alone could fund 130 such missions).

India doesn’t have more toilets, not because we don’t have extra 450 crores, but because of our poor execution of things. Don’t heap your blame on poor Isro for India’s social conditions (ironically, a non-trivial portion of this poverty & hunger is due to the colonization under a power from where you are writing these articles).

Desi wannabes:

The Mangalyaan vessel: PTI
The Mangalyaan vessel: PTI

Not to be outdone by the firangis (foreigners), our Indian wannabes joined action:

Amidst euphoria, some voices question cost of Mars Mission

Social activist Harsh Mander termed the mission as a “remarkable indifference to the dignity” of the poor.

Arre! Poor are so hurt now, ouch because of some big words! Of course, when Mr. Mander teaches from an AC classroom at a business school or gives lectures from comfy podiums, the dignity of the poor is not so much hurt.

An ex-ISRO head was quoted extensively by everyone: “It is not value for money… It is more disturbing that somebody is making a claim that they are going to find presence of life on Mars. This is really moonshine.”

Moonshine? Wow! Of course none of this bitterness and disgruntlement is due to him being an ex-employee who was expelled from ISRO after the S-band scam. He carries out an open war with the current Isro chief and of course we can expect him to be unbiased & honest in this issue.

Why India needs a Mars program:

It is exciting for children and teenagers, many of whom might take up a career in science, technology and research. These kids deserve an inspiration in the sky. If we can get a couple of hundred of these kids into hard sciences, the mission would have paid for itself completely.

Isro is already using the technology to help other countries put their equipment in space (for a lucrative fee, of course). If we continue to innovate in cost and speed, we could become a big hub for space projects. That would mean employment for 1000s of engineers and lot of foreign money.

India needs to prove its technological capabilities as it is building up the technology hub of the future – not just space, but everything. If you could launch a Mars mission at the cost of setting up ERP in an enterprise, you could build anything. There are both direct and intangible effects of this demonstration. This would really benefit India’s tech companies. This is actually rocket science! Again more money.

India needs to spend on research to master the science of the future. NASA had plenty of spin-offs resulting out of its space program that advanced other fields such as medicine, apparel, food and navigation.

We could have made the “Model T” of spacecrafts – inexpensive and quick. The mission was completed in just 14 months and $75 million with little prior expertise. More importantly, the mission got off the ground on the first try. China, Japan and Russia have had to abort Mars missions in the past 2 decades due to launch failures. That is an outstanding engineering feat worth of salute.

Indians have always been fascinated by space since antiquity. Our ancient scientists spent all their lives looking at space. In the recent times, scientists such as Subramaniam Chandrashekar (Nobel laureate in astrophysics), SN Bose (Boson was named after him) have electrified the field. This mission is deeply fascinating even from a cultural perspective.

Imagine the potential for humanity if we could launch hundreds of inexpensive missions in our search for alternative life forms and alternative planets. Four years ago, India helped confirm that there is water on moon – the confirmation of which has eluded global researchers for five decades. This mission sent to detect methane could be the start of a new life for Indian science. Aryabatta and Bhaskaracharya would be really proud of the lads who worked on this mission.

We need our Renaissance. We have to start breaking the chain of poverty by thinking outside the box. That would mean boldly assertive. People in other walks of life can surely draw inspiration from our scientists. This day is so refreshing although I have zero connection with anything Isro did. If we can reach Mars, we can do anything – from politics, arts to science & sports.

Outsiders have no idea of what this all means to Indians. Even a poor, hungry kid could dream for a Math Olympiad, can’t she? In the same way, even a poor hungry nation can participate in a scientific mission, can’t we?

We launched a peace project – not a bomb. We didn’t go around fighting a poor country citing the presence of fake WMDs. We didn’t build a vessel to conquer unsuspecting third worlders. We launched a mission to help humanity and the advancement of science. More importantly, we launched it with our money. We didn’t ask for your money nor help. Who are you to patronise us this way?

These journalists are like the rich bullies who enter a poor man’s house and mock at the books kept by the poor man – “You poor people can’t afford to eat rich food and you can afford to buy more books?”

Yes, these journalists pretty much appear to me like those bullies.

Balaji Viswanathan writes for Quora’s finance blog:Zingfin.com. This post originally appeared on Quora.com. It has been reproduced here with permission of the author.


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