Historic Indian moon landing and the need for a more liberal scientific outlook

Papiya Mazumdar, a Lecturer in Global Health, heralds the proud moment India touched down on the moon but warns of the persistent inequalities in scientific education and opportunity in the country.

: Papiya Mazumdar

It was a proud moment for India when on August 23, as only the fourth country to accomplish this coveted feat, its indigenous lunar mission Chandrayaan-3 had a successful landing on the Moon.  

Creating history with this landing on the unexplored, but highly-promising south polar region of the lunar surface, this mission is considered to have significant potential to contribute to the current understanding of the lunar atmosphere, its environment, and for the future of space explorations more generally.  

With its enigmatic evidence of subterranean ice – and hence a theoretical hint of traces of water which might sustain human life – the south polar region has been considered to hold useful clues to guide long-time quests around establishing human off-earth outposts to advance cosmic explorations.  

Initial findings have already confirmed unambiguous traces of sulphur on the lunar soil, along with preliminary analysis showing the likely presence of a host of other elements including oxygen.  

Following the earlier unsuccessful mission, the last (Chandrayaan-2) by a tantalizingly close last 40-odd km from the lunar surface, the success of Chandrayaan-3 is a further testimony to the steady growth of India’s cutting-edge indigenous science and technology ecosystem.  

The chief of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) S Somnath applauded the strong teamwork of a highly talented and motivated scientific community – several of them young women and men – and the extraordinary level of ambition, enthusiasm, and competent indigenous, cost-efficient new technology entailed for inter-planetary missions.  

India’s space odyssey is now more than 50 years old, with the ISRO established in 1969. Largely credited to the leadership of the charismatic Indian physicist and astronomer Dr Vikram Sarabhai in its founding years, India’s accomplishments in space research, technology development and astronomical missions has been commendable.   

Half crescent moon with black background

Through a rich track record of artificial satellite launches, India has already carved a niche for itself using space systems for communication, television broadcasting, meteorological services, and other systems for resource monitoring and management. 

 ISRO is already on its next mission, with the country’s first solar mission (Aditya L1) successfully initiated on its journey on September 2, 2023, to be placed in the halo orbit of the Sun-Earth system for uninterrupted observation of solar activities. Coming at the heels of several other recent successes, the Chandrayaan-3 is expected to give a further stimulus to inspire young scientists not just in India but globally, particularly in countries outside Europe and the USA.  

The Indian government aspires to harvest this renewed enthusiasm and potential in the space science arena. The Indian Space Policy 2023 has opened the participation of private /non-government entities (NGEs) in the space economy which envisages easing the procurement process of space-based technology or services for consumers, including data services and related assets created by the expanded initiatives.   

However, the government’s interest in expanding the space-based economy and strengthening the overall scientific temperament in the country appears paradoxical due to the disturbing persistence of inequality in opportunities in general and scientific education in the country.  

With the largest mass of humanity in the planet – with a predominance of the highly-productive youth age groups unlike the demographics of most high-income countries in the West – whether India can harvest its demographic dividend to its fullest potential, hinges on successful provision of educational and employment opportunities to the youth. This can be achieved only through well-intended and effective implementation of the constitutional guarantees on the Right to Education (Article 21, amended in 2002).  

Investing in educational and scientific infrastructure that are consistent with the country’s global aspirations can be only realised if access to these high-quality facilities is ensured across the board for India’s children and youth. That is not an easy task due to the well-acknowledged social, cultural, and regional diversities in the country – some rooted deep in its sociopolitical history.   

An appropriate public vision and stewardship, supplemented by strong public discourses and participation of the civil society only can help overcome potential barriers to achieving the yet-elusive equality in educational opportunities.  

India’s emergence in the global economic and political stage has not been free of controversies, both within the country and internationally. This ranges from strong nationalism-flavoured antics (like social media-centric debates on rechristening of the country with a more indigenous-sounding ‘Bharat’ replacing the colonialism-toned ‘India’) to media debates around the rationale of India continuing to receive foreign aid and donations.  

However, it is inescapable that even discounting the fringe debates, any efforts to achieve a global ‘powerhouse’ seat is unlikely to see much success without addressing the most obvious imageries of poverty, squalor and disparities.  

 Backed up by the phenomenal success of the information, communication and technology sector (ICT) since the early 1990s,and an equally-booming post-liberalisation market economy, India’s economic success story has also facilitated the recent spurt of promising growth of technical capacities in data science and related frontiers of machine learning and artificial intelligence.  

The new aspirations set forth by the Indian Space Policy 2023 highlight the focus on strengthening data repositories based on remote sensing technology and to facilitate ease of access to these resources. India’s indigenous data science expertise is well-poised to complement these opportunities and ensure that such strategic outcomes ultimately benefit the country’s growing population.  

But, such a unique momentum for space sciences will need to comply, and be commensurate with the pace of growth in the overall scientific temperament of the country, particularly amongst the political establishment.  

The spirit of rationality, transparency, and scientific rigour needs to diffuse into key areas that matter for the citizens: health, education, employment, and basic amenities foremost among them.  

Undesirable (and politically inconvenient) statistics and evidence need to be accepted with confidence. Timely collection and dissemination of data and statistics, and appropriate safeguards for personal data and information are key ingredients for a robust, effective public scientific system.  

As India assumes the G20 presidency this year, marked with another stellar show of pomp and dazzle in New Delhi last week (Sept 9-10) India’s assertions for the global positioning as the voice of the G-20 need to be based on the true champion of justice, liberty, and equality consistently. Not by hushing unpleasant sights and sounds under the carpet or being intolerant to critical voices.  

Papiya Mazumdar is a Lecturer in Global Health in the School of Politics and International Studies. She has a PhD in Population Studies from the International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), India. Her main research interest lies in areas of global health policy, primarily linking to the interface between climate change, environment and population health outcomes. 

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