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Indian comsats
An illustration of India’s family of communications satellites. The Indian government has proposed offering a similar satellite as a “gift” to its neighbors in South Asia. (credit: ISRO)

Improving South Asian space cooperation


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In a recent meeting of foreign ministers of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Pakistan denied its approval for building and launching a communications satellite for the SAARC region, intended as a gift from India.

This project was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to India’s spaceport in 2014. Emphasizing the role of space technology in development, he encouraged the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to build a common satellite platform that would serve communications requirements of SAARC member nations.

ISRO designed a satellite hosting twelve transponders, with one transponder allotted to each of the seven SAARC countries. It is expected to optimize direct-to-home broadcasting, tele-medicine, tele-education, disaster management, and a host of communications services in the region. The costs associated with building and launching of the satellite will be borne by India, while respective countries contribute for their ground stations.

The costs associated with building and launching of the satellite will be borne by India, while respective countries contribute for their ground stations.

The project gained approval “in principle” from Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Pakistan was also willing to debate the idea. In order to allay concerns and expedite formal approval processes from member countries, India hosted a users meeting in June last year. The International Telecommunication Union requires these approvals for granting the orbital slot and frequency registration.

Five representatives from each of the member countries, including Pakistan, attended the users meeting, raising genuine questions. Subsequently, only Sri Lanka granted its formal approval after requested changes were made in the agreement to ensure it would not be precluded from launching own communications satellite in the future. Bangladesh discussed outcomes of this project affecting the launch of its Bangabandhu-1 communications satellite in 2017. Afghanistan asked about the need for more transponders as it recently leased a satellite from Eutelsat. Despite satisfying answers, India is yet to receive formal approvals.

Pakistan’s objections were two fold. It feared India may eavesdrop on its strategic communications. In this scenario, Pakistan could have purposed its transponder purely for civilian communications while routing its strategic communications through other satellites that it perceives trustworthy. It has the sole authority over the ground station that uplinks with the satellite for SAARC.

Pakistan also wanted this project executed through SAARC secretariat and involve its expertise on the subject. India denied this idea on the grounds that this satellite is a “gift” from India to SAARC countries and not a joint project. Besides, India fears involving the SAARC secretariat would delay the launch date beyond 2016. It was therefore careful in naming it the “Satellite for SAARC” and not “SAARC Satellite.”

Pakistan’s disapproval is seen as a setback for India’s foreign policy that now prioritizes “Neighbourhood First” where a peaceful and prospering neighborhood is indispensable for India’s economic growth, domestic development, and fulfilling its international responsibilities. While this is true, India’s approach is to work with its neighborhood for common development rather than dominate. The former approach requires a regional cooperation mechanism like SAARC with equal status for member countries, while the latter works by tilting the balance in bilateral relations favoring its own.

India sees its neighborhood being plagued by some of the same deficiencies in basic infrastructure that once beset itself. Bangladesh and Afghanistan are striving to acquire internal stability and expedite development. Pakistan and Nepal are highly prone to natural disasters. Maldives is facing acute dangers from climate change and a rising sea level. Communication systems are essential to effectively respond to these situations.

Space technology played a critical role for creating the India that exists today. Vikram Sarabhai, father of India’s space program, set the direction of space technology development towards fighting the ills of the society and achieving self-reliance. One television broadcast experiment in the 1970s that instantly connected hundreds of rural villages compelled India to acquire a dedicated fleet of communications satellites for realizing its developmental goals.

India now operates one of the largest domestic communication satellite systems in the Asia-Pacific region, providing telecommunications, television broadcasting, weather forecasting, disaster warning, and search and rescue applications. It also operates a communications satellite dedicated for education by connecting schools and colleges across India.

India should also start prioritizing space cooperation with fellow SAARC members in good faith of its responsibility to distribute public goods.

This satellite for SAARC is also intended to be used for such educational purposes and create employment, which would ensure stability, and respond effectively during natural disasters. India has already decided to launch this satellite by the end of this year, and it would be prudent for other member countries to partake in such a project by granting their approvals.

When a regional connectivity project is at stake that directly impacts more than a billion people, it is absolutely essential to shed deliberately crafted perceptions that might have been politically useful in other situations, especially during the Cold War, when the regional scenario is different. It is now incumbent upon the political centers of these countries to promote economic development and, as such, should not undermine the value of this time-critical project.

India should also start prioritizing space cooperation with fellow SAARC members in good faith of its responsibility to distribute public goods. It does appropriate space resources for disaster management, including activating the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters on behalf of fellow SAARC countries.

In addition, the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System, whose footprint includes the South Asian region, and the GPS Aided Geo Augmented Navigation project, would be of interest to SAARC members. India continues to explore the benefits of fusing space technology with various departmental works like railways, shipping, natural resources, financial management, archaeology, and forestry, among others. This experience can be shared with fellow SAARC members, enabling them undertake development projects in an efficient and transparent manner.

Gaining commitment from member countries is indeed difficult, given the poor political and diplomatic coordination among South Asian countries via the SAARC framework. This satellite project should be considered a mission to reverse these prejudices.

The respective civilian space agencies should be encouraged to communicate, formulate cooperation agreements, and execute those projects beneficial to the region. Given the burgeoning interest in utilizing space assets to support expanding markets and infrastructure projects, a proposal for a consortium of regional space agencies should be tabled. Specific educational institutions representing the SAARC members should be part of this initiative.

Gaining commitment from member countries is indeed difficult, given the poor political and diplomatic coordination among South Asian countries via the SAARC framework. This satellite project should be considered a mission to reverse these prejudices. India should double its diplomatic efforts for bringing all the remaining SAARC members on board before the satellite is launched. A unified and strengthened SAARC is crucial for pending and future region-wide connectivity and infrastructure projects, which are key to enhanced global trade and development.


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