Defending the Devas deal
Dear prime minister,
I write this open letter after considerable hesitation, not being in the habit of writing such letters to the prime minister. However, recent events have pushed me to do so, to “telling truth to power”. I have been greatly dismayed at the unfair tarnishing of the image of ISRO following the media-created controversy on the Devas-Antrix/ISRO agreement. I know that many former colleagues from ISRO — and, doubtless, thousands of its present staff — feel as upset as I do. While the latter cannot speak up publicly, very few of the former (just one or two brave souls) have chosen to do so; others probably want to avoid getting amidst a controversy.
ISRO has done outstanding work. Its track record of achievements is unmatched by any foreign space agency or by other government entities in India. Starting from Vikram Sarabhai’s days, it has stayed focused on delivering applications that are relevant to India and developing the strategic and other technologies required for these. All this has been achieved amid technology denials, ‘sanctions’ and constraints, within a government system, through teams of highly motivated people of the highest integrity.
It is a matter of concern and shame that such an organisation is being given a bad name on the basis of allegations and innuendo. The agreement with Devas, which has triggered this, is a continuation of a long history of ISRO-industry partnerships. It is such engagement with industry that has resulted in tremendous economic benefits from the space programme in countries like the US. In the case of Devas, the company came up with the proposal for a new and unique service, which did not exist in India. It brought to the table not only the technical, market and managerial expertise to implement this, but the risk capital. Thus, in many ways, it was a true embodiment of an ideal private-public partnership.
In terms of processes this agreement went meticulously through every step: a technical assessment by Antrix/ISRO experts, approval by the Antrix Board, followed by space commission approval. If Cabinet approval was not sought for the deal (as reported in the media), the question is whether it was at all required and whether past transponder deals with private parties had gone through any such specific Cabinet approvals. The method — of leasing transponders at a fixed price — was no different than that followed for the many TV channels who had earlier sought capacity for broadcasting. There has never been a history of auctions by ISRO (nor by any global space agency). Satellite spectrum has always been treated differently from that on the ground, and the comparison is not just a case of apples and oranges, but two altogether different species.
Safeguarding India’s orbital slots and spectrum allocations in an internationally competitive context, and using the unique capabilities of satellite-delivered services (particularly to remote and rural areas) were important elements underlying the Devas-ISRO project. Breaking new ground technologically and creating new applications of space technology for rural areas and possibly for strategic needs were envisaged as integral parts of this effort. Little understanding or discussion of these aspects has been seen in all the mud-slinging that has taken place.
The media has gone to town with fanciful projections of presumed loss to the government (latching on to the word ‘spectrum’ and exhibiting complete — or wilful ignorance — of the vast differences in satellite and terrestrial uses of spectrum). Apparently, CAG — with little understanding of the differences — was cause of much of this. Based on the fact that some of those involved in Devas were former ISRO employees, media has made insinuations about a ‘sweetheart deal’ — as if ISRO management and its processes are so fragile and malleable as to be swayed by such considerations; or as if experts in space technology can be hired from a municipal corporation. As a matter of fact it was (and, presumably, yet is) ISRO policy to encourage competent experts to become entrepreneurs; in many cases, they have become suppliers to ISRO. Organisations around the world do this, so as to ‘industrialise’ R&D.
It is unfortunate that the media now cries ‘corruption’ at every deal, and sadder that the atmosphere in the country is such that most people do believe it to be so. It is reprehensible that the media should, with no evidence or even inkling of any specific wrongdoing, imply that there has been corruption in a deal that is completely above board. Apart from implicating ISRO, innuendoes implicitly point the finger to past senior management of ISRO. This is sad and unfair: with weak laws on defamation, there is no real scope for remedy.
I feel it was for ISRO authorities and others in government (particularly the latter, given that ISRO would be considered an ‘interested party’) to speak up and make clear that there was no indication whatsoever of corruption and no wrongdoing at any stage, that all procedures had been properly followed and that the agreement had gone through all the necessary due processes. The situation called for an unambiguous statement, based on facts, which could have been verified in quick time. Instead, we had a long delay in responding to media allegations, ambiguous statements at a press conference by ISRO chairman (which overshadowed the corrective efforts made by Kasturirangan), and then the knee-jerk reaction of immediate announcement of cancellation which — to most people, and certainly to media — was tantamount to an implicit admission of guilt/corruption.
The deal itself is completely defensible, as is its monetary value. ISRO voluntarily(?) gave up some spectrum in this band, in favour of terrestrial users, some time ago, but yet has a majority of the remaining spectrum (beyond that which would have been used by Devas). Incidentally, there have been no takers over all these years for this (though terrestrial operators — and, therefore, DoT — continue to eye it); nor was there a queue outside ISRO’s doors for this space spectrum when Devas made its proposal. As it stands, a cancellation — without any proven wrongdoing — is sending out a negative message to investors. The ostensible reason (strategic needs and societal applications) is unlikely to find any takers amongst professionals who understand the issue.
At a more macro level, apart from the unease such sudden and unilateral action — with no discussion, no attempt at any possible corrective action like renegotiation — will evoke among prospective investors, the whole concept of a public-private partnership will take a beating. Who, now, will come to the government with innovative ideas — which, by definition, cannot go through a bidding/auction process — for a partnership? Who will bring in risk capital for such new ideas? Which official will now be so foolhardy as to approve an agreement for a partnership? Who, in ISRO, will now dare to go to — leave alone seek out — industry partners to implement new applications or develop new technologies?
It is unfortunate that Devas and its professionals, too, have been most unfairly given a bad name in the process. However, I am more deeply concerned about ISRO and how its standing has taken a beating, thanks to a witch-hunting media which sees a crook behind every door (legitimised by the fact that there is a crook behind most doors), politicians who are willing to destroy painstakingly-built institutions to score political points, and a government that seems unwilling to stand up and defend the upright.
I would urge you, not only as prime minister, but equally as one of the most-respected persons in the country, to defend and restore the reputation and image of ISRO. I would request you to persuade politicians across party-lines (including ministers from your own party) to stop making baseless allegations that demean ISRO and its past leaders. There is little that you can directly do about the media, but the right words from you can correct the falsehoods that are being propagated. The committee that has been set up will determine if there was any ‘scam’ at all, and hopefully end the vague and damaging generalisations that sully and demoralise a vital national organisation. If everything was above board, it will be interesting to know what interests — who and why — triggered this and with what intent.
I was an independent member of the Devas Board for about two years, up to February 9, 2011, and worked in ISRO for over 20 years, up to 1991.
With warm regards,
(An edited version)
Kiran Karnik is a former president of NASSCOM