India’s ‘gift to the region’, GSAT-9, better known as the South Asia Communication Satellite took to the skies from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota Friday evening. This gives seven of the eight SAARC countries—India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives—a platform which helps in natural resources mapping, telecommunications, telemedicine, education, weather forecasting and disaster warning, among other things. It also gives each country gets at least one transponder for telecasting local programming. The project, seen as PM Narendra Modi’s initiative and part of the country’s Neighbourhood First policy, was first mooted by him during the 2014 SAARC summit.
But altruistic reasons aside, India has other strategic motives behind the launch. For one, it helps reinforce India’s image as a regional power, and the only SAARC member capable of launching satellites. It is also aimed at countering increasing Chinese influence not just in the region, but in space as well. Both nations are jockeying for a position as a space power, and China already launched satellites for Sri Lanka, and of course its all-weather ally, Pakistan, which stayed out of the Indian project, ostensibly for security reasons.
Later, however, Islamabad changed its narrative. Dismissing speculation over espionage concerns as “unfounded”, a foreign ministry spokesman said Islamabad was keen to participate in the project. “However, as India was not willing to develop the project on a collaborative basis, it was not possible for Pakistan to support it under the umbrella of SAARC.” In February, ISRO set a record by launching 104 satellites from a single rocket. Then there’s Mangalayan, Asia’s first successful Mars orbiter, which at $74 million cost less than the $100 million spent to make the space thriller Gravity. With ISRO officials boasting that they can launch a satellite at less than half the price quoted by other nations, India seems well on its way to conquer the final frontier.