India, only the fourth country to send a probe to Mars. I can’t help feeling a sense of great pride at the technological advancement that this endeavor stands for.


$72 million for a 300-day round trip to Mars. I am trying to understand this. Just $72 million? Frankly it appears like just another sleight of hand in accounting. A shuttle mission, just to park 200kms over the earth for 10 days costed NASA $1.5 billion a pop, even after umpteen missions and the consequent economies of scale.

Frankly, I wouldn’t hang my hat over the Comptroller and Auditor General of India(CAG)’s calculations, or whoever cooked up that figure. I still remember how the CAG calculated India’s 2G scam losses. $72 mill is peanuts. Why, even I could organize $72 million. That is, if I knew where to get 71 million 9 hundred and 90 thousands. Don’t ask me why, but I won’t be surprised if the real cost is over half a billion dollars.

And then there’s the millstone, poverty. Every time India achieves something like this, there are those among the Indian literatti who bridle at the international media’s criticism of India’s ‘lack of focus on its priorities’. They feel that social development and technological development should go hand in hand, not one after the other. The Mars mission shouldn’t wait till the poor are all fed and uplifted, the literati say.

I am tempted to agree. I can understand the yearning for the feeling of having arrived, of sitting at the center table at the ball. I would agree with the literati, had India been just middling poor and not desperately poor as it actually is. A third of the world’s poor live in it – 460 million souls, 40% of India’s population and more than double the number of poor folk in China.

India has more people living in abject poverty than all of Sub-Saharan Africa. It is one of the world’s biggest recipients of long-term foreign aid. In 2012 alone, India received $3.3 billion as developmental aid. Every time I agree to receive aid, I am looked upon as someone who needs help since he is unable to get his act together. I fall in self-esteem as well as in the esteem of others.

Furthermore, donor governments don’t look like Mahatma Gandhis or Dalai Llamas to me. In exchange for those billions that keep pouring in every year, unbridled consumerism has transformed the urban landscape, but the percentage of the population without a toilet to shit in remains pretty much the same. My Canadian colleague still has to wrinkle up his nose as soon as he sets foot outside his hotel in Mumbai.

Here in Canada, numerous developmental projects launched in India are being funded by quasi-governmental agencies, as well as through Canadian NGOs. I donate regularly to one, just like most Canadians do. Oh yes, the spirit of giving is alive and well in Canada. The payment I make is recurring and it goes directly out of my paycheck every week. From the organisation’s published results, I understand that somewhere around $8 million flows through it to India from donors like me every year.

If that $72 million spent on making one orbit of Mars looking for methane, had been earmarked for the same development where my money went, maybe I could have put in a down payment on a new car by now. God knows I need one. (Don’t tell Bunty, my old Honda Civic, though. She is a touchy broad).

Personally, I don’t much care about a bunch of ISRO scientists hopping up and down screaming ‘Look what we found, methane! Isn’t that great for the long-term development of the needy?’

If you ask me, the Indian Government should cut it’s coat according to it’s cloth first, before it desires to be the fourth country to make a trip to Mars. India is already reaping the long-term economic spin-offs from it’s existing space program, which is commendable. The other three in the ‘Yoo hoo there, Mars’ club don’t have a begging bowl ready like India does.

Finding methane can wait. If the guys at ISRO get too impatient, I have methane’s distant cousin, flatulence. Lots and lots of it. They can have as much as they want. Soon as I can figure out how to bottle it.

A colleague at the lunch table at work put it bluntly,”Hey, here I am paying for aid to India through my charity and my taxes and just look at what those guys are up to with my money. They are f—in’ sending rockets to Mars.” Spin it any way you like, but my colleague here in Canada has a right to feel like he is being taken for a sucker.

I pause to wonder why other nations, the highly developed, far richer ones, like Canada, Sweden, Norway, Taiwan, Australia and a host of others do not decide to sent probes to Mars. Are we to conclude that they don’t want technological growth? Or they are worried about a brain drain in case their engineers don’t find work?

I think that the answer is simpler. They just happen to have their priorities right. They don’t have to display their prowess. They don’t have to find methane on Mars to achieve technological and social development.  I only know that when my colleagues in Canada read about a country with a $1000 per capita GDP sends Mars probes with the aid that it receives, they feel like they have been had.


Cartoon by Daniel Kurtzman