Why does India's space adventure cause unease in the UK

Why does India's space adventure cause unease in the UK
Why does Indias space adventure cause unease in the UK

India's recent anti-satellite missile system (A-SAT) test resulted in aftershocks of a different kind in Britain, which does not own similar hi-tech hardware. “The UK is still bankrolling India despite its recent launch of the satellite - a hi-tech piece of hardware that the UK does not even own within its own defence systems,” noted a UK daily soon after India's headline-grabbing space experiment. Mission Shakti propelled India into an elite club of four countries, alongside China, Russia and the US, to successfully deploy the A-SAT technology by destroying one of its own satellites in space. “India has always been a nation of peace, but we also defend ourselves. It is with that intention that we achieved this capability,” noted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the nation. In line with the extreme reaction a similar test by China had attracted back in 2007, there was some consternation within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) circles over fears of stray debris from the satellite destruction endangering the International Space Station (ISS). India has been categorical on having taken all necessary precautions, by conducting the test in lower atmosphere - at an altitude of 300km - to ensure that there was no debris and that whatever was left would "decay and fall back onto the earth within weeks". But in the UK, the debate generated by Mission Shakti took on a very different hue, with the India-UK development relationship being thrown centre-stage. As has been the case whenever India has taken any major strides in space, including the Chandrayaan-2 lunar probe launched back in January, the immediate implication is for sections of the UK media to question why Britain continues to provide any kind of development assistance to a country with such a hi-tech space programme. According to most recent estimates, the UK has ear-marked an average of £98 million in such assistance to India between 2018 and 2020. This largely takes the form of partnerships with local organisations in ensuring livelihood, education and other opportunities for groups in need in different regions of India. Britain is committed to spend around 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid but India seized as a recipient country in December 2015, when the India-UK aid relationship was modified into one of project-based “technical assistance”. The UK's Department for International Development (DfID) now focuses on a project-led approach aimed at strengthening wider India-UK ties. This seems to be the fine-print that gets lost in the often-extreme reaction to any major developmental stride made by India. Any bilateral relationship, especially one pitched as special as in the case of India and the UK, such project-based tie-ups are the natural corollary of any wider trading partnership. The reason why the India-UK relationship continues to struggle to meet its potential is because of these archaic perceptions of the exact nature of the relationship that exists in the 21st century between the two countries. It is no longer one of a third world country holding out the proverbial begging bowl to its former colonial chiefs but more of a relationship of equals, where both countries stand to gain from expertise on either side. As DfID notes: “Our partnership with India helps enhance investment and trade; increase prosperity and jobs in both countries; strengthen joint action on global issues of mutual concern; widen access to knowledge and technology and support the UK's global security objectives.” The mission has very clear goals and cannot be seen at odds with India's efforts at investing in aspects such as bolstering its space programme, which in the long term would also benefit the wider global order. As a result of the country's own financial constraints, Indian scientists at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) have repeatedly thrown up economically viable options in line with what has been dubbed the great Indian “jugaad” or frugal innovation. The UK Space Agency no doubt keeps a close eye on all such Indian innovations and the hysteric reaction in Britain will be hugely frustrating in their efforts to forge closer links. After all, launching a lunar mission that costs less than the budget of a blockbuster Hollywood film must be a welcome development for any corner of the world - especially for the UK as India's key development partner.

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