SOURCE: VIDHI BUBNA / FOR MY TAKE / IDRW.ORG.
While the much anticipated Chandrayaan 2 mission (2019) successfully put an orbiter around Earth’s moon, it however failed to land its rover Pragyan on the moon’s surface, a loss not just on the scientific and economic front but one that was equally emotional and heartbreaking for every Indian.
While the country was still reeling from the loss, there came in different stories questioning the leadership in the organisation. While many might argue that the internal politics of the organisation should have nothing to do with the success or failure of any mission but the very fact that the ethics and the scientific temperament might have been undermined for personal gains or non-professional differences is something that needs to be questioned. It is also important because ISRO is one of the world’s only organisations to have achieved scientific breakthroughs and hopefully continue to do so and the intersection of politics and science at the same place might be dangerous and intellectually regressive for anyone associated with it.
It all started when Tapan Mishra criticised the leadership (without naming K. Sivan) when he was demoted from his position of Chief of Space Applications Centre of ISRO, one of the first decisions that Sivan took after being made Chairman around mid-2018. While many on the official count believe that it was due to the differences in how the organisation was functioning, primarily ISRO’s speculated shift to the privatisation of the body (including building major spacecrafts), which Mishra strongly resented. Many scientists and space experts wrote to the President (of India) feeling the same and asking him to intervene, all of which was in vain. Mishra also strongly criticised the work culture in the organisation – its bureaucracy, its top-down administration and how the leadership always fails to listen to the advice of the peers and the juniors, thus claiming that the Moon mission was already a failure before its actual launch; the very backbone responsible for its speculated success was fractured.
Keeping the analogies aside, it is no doubt disheartening to read such claims coming out of a place that is considered as a pillar of scientific vigour globally. Mishra’s claims are something that can be related to the present scenario of a structured leadership or bookish, conventional institutions – on which he further stated that adherence to rules more than the science, holding discussions just for formality, a heavy stash of paperwork are only some of the faultlines in an organisation that has become morally corrupted. It is a strong word to use but a leader is one who also inspires not one who only ‘manages’ and this work behaviour if trickled down to the future generations coming to work at ISRO or any equivalent science research examples will thus set a bad precedence. It will, of course, deaccelerate any progress and undermine research, ultimately reaching a stage where it becomes a toothless body managed only as puppets by the political and corporate heads. It might sound too far-reaching but we should remember that this is India, and people, the mass will only see the ‘benefit’ of anything in its wrath and not worth.
The interplay between science and capitalism is not always a negative thing. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are already exploring the stars and different planets but it depends on the intent – no industrialist or corporation in India has the capacity or is ready to venture into space for the mere benefit of science and mankind. Profiteering is the only goal here- sad but true.
Dissent and constructive criticism should be welcomed in any workplace. Opposing views arise not because someone is anti-establishment or against the system but because one is unhappy against a certain procedure or method within that establishment. Talking about ISRO only, it should realise that the more discussions and brainstorming ideas generated and the more expertise and experience on the plate, the better. Criticisms should be welcomed and dealt with an equally constructive response. The behavioural changes are necessary to avoid making it like any other government body – more red-tapism than effective work.
Maybe and not certainly, the Moon mission might have been a success had been its backbone not internally fragmented and its conscience not lost.
Failures do happen and will continue to happen so but one must not lose hope; there is always time for reforms and corrections. We all learn and grow from the experiments of life. With its long line up of missions due in the coming years (Gaganyaan, Aditya L1 to study the Sun, Mars mission, Chandrayaan 3 and Chandrayaan 4, and many others), it will be interesting to see how everything pans out both internally and in space. Investments in these missions will not be a problem as the Government of India has spiked up the amount of money spent in recent years on space exploration – from 0.35 per cent of total government spending in 2014-15 to 0.46 in 2018-19, a figure which amounts to Rs. 11,538 crore (2018-19) and a recent Rs.14000 crore demand for 2020-21 if made possible will pave the way for future groundbreaking ISRO missions. Private investments have also gradually been increasing and will play a major role in the coming years, something as significant as building rockets. This is a positive sign, a ray of hope amidst all the internal ruckus but it should all come and be managed responsibly – at the end of the day, one should realise that the very existence of Science and its core purpose is Humanity and the embedded values of humanity…. in practice and in form.
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