ISRO and UN SDGs – A Short Critique

Let’s look at some numbers around ISRO’s popular Tele‐education, Tele‐medicine, Village Resource Centre and Disaster Management System Programmes. Do go through this post for a table that maps the major national projects/initiatives of ISRO to UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The multitude of initiatives and programmes that ISRO has undertaken towards social development are commendable given the meager budget for the Indian Space program of about $1.4 B for the year 2017-2018 which accounts for less than 0.06% of the country’s GDP.

The biggest benefactors of ISRO’s various socio-economic programmes will be the rural and remote populace who cannot otherwise have access to these facilities. This has been achieved through their Village Resource Centres (VRCs) with assistance from NGOs/, Trusts and state & central agencies for taking telemedicine, Tele-education, Panchayat Planning, Vocational Training, Weather Information, Marketing information, Drinking water facilities, Watershed development to the rural populations. The 461 VRC nodes set up in 22 States/Union Territories include 81 Expert Centres. 6500 programmes have been conducted addressing areas such as Agriculture/horticulture development, Fisheries development, Livestock development, Water resources, Telehealthcare, Awareness programmes, Woman’s empowerment, Supplementary education, Computer literacy, Microcredit, Microfinance, Skill development/vocational training for livelihood support and were used by over 500,000 people so far.

As per the press notes released by the Planning Commission of India in 2013, there are about 269.3 million poor people in the country according to the survey it conducted during 2011-2012 of which 216.5 million are from the rural and 52.8 million from urban areas. Assuming that the 500,000 users of the Village Resource Centers of ISRO belonged to the poor sections, only 0.23% of the urban poor had ever accessed the space-based services. Moreover, there are no clear metrics on what percentage of this 500,000 users have continued using the space-based tools and services for upgrading their lives. Similarly, the telemedicine network of ISRO covers about 384 hospitals with 60 specialty hospitals connected to 306 remote/rural/district/medical college hospitals and 18 Mobile Telemedicine units. As per the Open Government Data (OGD) Platform of India metrics of 2013, there are 35,416 government hospitals in the country, of which 26,604 are in rural and 8812 in urban areas. Again, the penetration is less than 1.5%. More importantly, given mobile coverage slowly reaching the rural and remote locations, these tele-education and telemedicine initiatives require better infrastructure in the form of large projection screens and monitors than simple connectivity, given the global trend of moving towards knowledge economies.

Major Limitations

The biggest limitation to the otherwise successful and meticulously planned space application programmes of ISRO is the inability to reach out to the majority of the population that actually needs these services and benefits. Though the drafting of these programmes, some of which had begun six decades ago, has been exceptionally visionary in anticipating the benefits of space technology, the existing implementation methods of operating primarily under the control of the Department of Space, are preventing them from scaling to the entire population.

The shortcomings of the ISRO originated implementation method can be especially sensed in the area of Earth Observation. Though acquisition and basic processing of satellite data is more or less automated, deduction of meaningful information from parsing satellite imagery for understanding climate and weather, monitoring natural resources, planning of developmental activities and assistance towards good governance requires intensive analytics. Performing data analytics and image analytics is a highly customized exercise and is manpower intensive for developing the task-specific algorithms. For instance, the two ISRO applications of identifying heritage sites and urban planning can be accomplished using the same high-resolution satellite imagery. However, the analytics algorithms developed for one project cannot be used for the other.

In spite of participation from several local administrative bodies, NGOs and trusts, the methods of engagement and service dissemination have been largely traditional. For instance, the tele-education program does not take into account the extensive repository of free online education material in the form of videos, lectures, exercises and even complete courses from primary to university level education. Instead, the components of the existing tele-education network connecting 59,700 schools (of the 15,16,865 schools and 38,498 colleges in the country) are receive-only and interactive classroom terminals with content such as lectures, training, lab sessions, databases being generated mostly within the network, though have a thoughtful feature of catering to users with special requirements. Similarly, the telemedicine initiatives also do not provide access to globally available resources but are restricted to their limited network. Therefore the second limitation of these space application base social programmes is the lack of integration with modern day technology and resources. OECD, 2012, OECD Handbook on Measuring the Space Economy, Paris, DOI: 10.1787/9789264169166-en

Possible Solutions

Solving the first limitation of scale and increasing the penetration of space technology tools can be achieved through recruiting more dedicated personnel to achieve wider penetration of the space technology services. However, this results in a large financial burden on the exchequer. An optimal solution is when the same mass penetration can be achieved through a commercial player ecosystem that reaps benefits while taking these space technology tools to the remotest populations. Inviting participation from startups in the fields of education, healthcare, social entrepreneurship ventures would give the required innovation momentum to the utilization of space technology tools in sustainable development and also solve the second problem of outdated content and implementation methodologies. However, in order for these efforts to make a convincing business case for these space applications disseminating companies, the space technologies, and services themselves should be available at an affordable cost. This, in turn, can be achieved by a thriving SME eco-system on both the upstream as well as downstream space sectors that would integrate space-based products/services into traditional industries such as energy, agriculture, retail, transport, internet/connectivity, etc. This dynamic integration precisely forms one of the strong pillars of NewSpace companies.

Moreover, NewSpace companies are planning to pick up the buck where traditional space companies have flattened in technology and growth. For example, there is a whole new ecosystem of Earth Observation (EO) downstream applications ventures that want to go beyond traditional Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) but using satellite data with ground-based sensors in creating data stacks that can add specific industry and decision intelligence to an array of industries.

A thriving newspace ecosystem would by itself cater to supplying the necessary space technology tools and services for sustainable development in the areas of climate change, disaster management, urban planning, resources monitoring, natural resource conservation while indirectly aiding large-scale dissemination of space technology-based tools and services in the areas of education, healthcare, poverty eradication, economic growth, sustainable practices.

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