Over the past couple of days, four men who were among the most celebrated in the space-science community of India have been blacklisted, and banned from holding any government-affiliated jobs in future.
Madhavan Nair, former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chief, K Bhaskaranarayana, former scientific secretary of ISRO, K N Shankara, former director of the ISRO satellite centre, and K R Sridharamurthy, managing director of Antrix, the ISRO’s commercial wing, were apparently being penalised for their role in allocating S-band spectrum to private company Devas.
That deal was annulled last year, and the reason given was that the spectrum was needed for strategic purposes by the nation. So, why are the scientists in trouble now?
What is the Devas Deal?
On January 28, 2005, a deal was signed between Antrix and Devas, a private company headed by M G Chandrashekhar, a former scientific secretary at ISRO, stating that ISRO would lease 90 per cent of the transponders using the S-band (2.5-5 GHz) on two satellites that the ISRO was planning to launch in 2013. Devas was to use these transponders for digital multimedia broadcasting purposes. S-band wavelength is usually reserved for a country’s strategic interests.
Devas was to pay Antrix $300 million (`1,500 crore at the time) over 12 years. ISRO later admitted that no competitive bidding procedure was followed. According to reports, Antrix got permission from the Space Commission and the Union Cabinet to launch the two satellites, at a cost of `400 crore, without informing the agencies about the deal.
The policy guidelines say that private sector providers can use spectrum only on a non-exclusive basis, and the deal went against this. Later, the Department of Space called it a security risk to allot so much spectrum to a private player. In February 2011, the deal was cancelled. According to Radhakrishnan, who had succeeded Madhavan Nair as ISRO chief by then, this was done because there had been no prior intimation that the satellites were meant mainly to fulfil Devas’ business purposes, and that the government had decided to hold on to the spectrum for national “strategic and social priorities”.
What Were the Controversies Then?
Newspapers reported then that the deal gave Devas 70 MHz of S-band spectrum for about `2,000 crore. This was compared to the figure of `67,000 crore, which was acquired by the government by auctioning 15 MHz of airwaves for the 3G spectrum allocation.
While some people maintained that the two entities could not be compared, and the PMO rubbished claims that there was a revenue loss, the Opposition BJP held that the Prime Minister, who heads the Department of Space, is responsible for this.
There was controversy on two counts — that Devas could sell equity in the spectrum it had acquired for profit, and that the scarce resource of S-band spectrum was needed for defence and strategic purposes.
On February 17, 2011, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh formalised the annulment of the deal. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) was also said to be looking into the deal.
On January 13, 2012, a two-page order from the Department of Space, signed by its director Sandhya Venugopal Sharma, said the four scientists “shall be excluded from re-employment, committee roles or any other important role under the Government.” It also said “these four former officers shall be divested of any current assignment/consultancy with the Government with immediate effect.”
Why is the Business Murky?
Questions are being raised because there has been no explanation from the government about the circumstances under which the deal was struck, and what the role of government officials in the business was.
What Led to the Signing of the Antrix-Devas deal?
Reports in the media said the Department of Space (Dos) had sent a note to commissions set up to look into the deal, saying only four of the eight members of the Antrix board had approved the deal, and the decision to go ahead had been made in a hurry. Even more strangely, the agreement was reached before permission had been acquired for the satellites to be set up. But in an earlier note to the CCS, the DoS did not mention these issues at all, only saying that the spectrum was needed for strategic reasons.
There is also some concern that the four scientists have been banned from holding government office, without being given a chance to speak for themselves. This has led to speculation that the PMO is trying to hide the government’s role in the deal. The PMO has said the action was taken based on the report submitted by a five-member team headed by former Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) Pratyush Sinha. Nair’s successor Radhakrishnan was part of this team, and Nair has accused him of pursuing a personal vendetta against him.
Also, the team was constituted following a report submitted by a two-member high-powered review committee, comprising Planning Commission Member B K Chaturvedi and Space Commission Member Professor Roddam Narashimha.
Neither of the reports were made public. The only report that has been made public is the initial CAG report, which pegged the potential loss to the government as `2 lakh crore.
What were the Reactions?
Madhavan Nair called the government order “discriminatory and unfair” and said that he may take legal action as he had been given no opportunity to defend himself.
The next day, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office V Narayanasamy hinted that the scientists had been made an example of, saying, “The government wanted to send a strong message to our scientist community that no wrong-doing will be tolerated.” Professor C N R Rao, Head of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, defended the scientists, saying angrily that they had been “thrown out like garbage.”
He also hit out at Narayanasamy, saying, “I don’t know where he got his basic education.” Two days after the row broke out, Nair was said to have told friends that he intends to focus on the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), headquartered in Paris, which he is now president of. Incidentally, he is the first man outside the US to hold its presidency.