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ISRO: A great institution's fall from grace

The state-run space agency’s 50-year good image seemed to crash on the eve of the country\'s 63rd Republic Day.

Published: 26th January 2012 01:18 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 06:22 PM   |  A+A-

BANGALORE: From humble beginnings of ferrying rocket parts on a bicycle to launching satellites of other countries and landing a craft on the moon, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has occupied a pride of place among Indians. However, this now seems to be taking a knock.

Boosting the feel good factor was that ISRO had not landed in a row in over 50 years of its existence, a rare feat indeed when almost every other aspect of life in the country was mired in controversies.

The first rocket was launched in 1963, a proud moment for Indians.

The good image seemed to crash Wednesday, on the eve of the country's 63rd Republic Day, with ISRO's former chairman G. Madhavan Nair launching a blistering attack on his successor K. Radhakrishnan and saying the agency "has gone to the dogs".

Nair's blast is bound to send shockwaves in space agencies around the world as most of them -- from the famed NASA of the US to the fledgling space establishments in West Asian countries -- were doing business with ISRO's commercial arm Antrix Corporation Ltd.

It is Antrix's deal with a private firm Devas Multimedia, finalised during Nair's term as ISRO chairman, that has set off events culminating in his fusillade against his former organisation as well as the central government.

Antrix came into being in 1992 to commercially exploit India's expertise in space science -- satellite launching to mission support services. It became a mini-ratna company in 2008.

The Antrix-Devas deal for providing S-band airwave was cancelled by the central government last February after a controversy that the pact will cause a huge loss to the country.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has estimated the loss to the exchequer at Rs.2 lakh crore from the deal, under which Antrix was to provide 70 MHz S-Band spectrum to Devas.

In Nair's view, the CAG had gone wrong in its estimation of the probable loss of revenue in the Antrix-Devas deal.

"Satellite spectrum cannot be equated with land-based spectrum as its usage is restricted. The CAG has extrapolated the land-based spectrum usage to space-based one," Nair maintained.

But, as often happens in such cases, everyone forgot about the controversy and it was business as usual at ISRO.

But it has re-surfaced after the central government banned Nair and three others from taking up any government assignment in future.

It is not clear when the government took the decision and why it became public now; particularly after Nair was appointed after he retired from ISRO to head a committee to design a civilian aircraft for Indian needs that can be built in the country.

Nair, who headed the ISRO when it launched the moon mission Chandrayaan-1 in October 2008, has set off an ugly spat with the central government, his successor K. Radhakrishnan and his former colleagues at the space agency.

The reverberations will be heard in the coming days as the central government and Radhakrishnan will have to defend themselves and the ISRO.

The war of words will only scar the pristine image ISRO and Indian space scientists hitherto enjoyed, though the battle may not mean loss of business to Antrix.



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