Rocket over roti: India's mission to Mars

India's sky-high ambition to be a world space power turns a blind eye to its down-to-earth problems.

That is what critics of India's Mars Orbiter Mission, which took off from Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh on Tuesday, are saying.

"I think it's so strongly symbolic of an extremely unequal society," Mr Harsh Mander, director of New Delhi's Center for Equity Studies and a former adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on social issues, told the Los Angeles Times.

"We continue to have something like 230 million people who sleep hungry every night, and millions die because they can't afford healthcare. Yet these are not issues that cause outrage."

Prominent scholar and economist-activist Jean Dreze, who had conceptualised and drafted the first version of the MNREGA - a rural aid scheme - is critical of the mission to orbit Mars, maintaining that it "seems to be part of the Indian elite's delusional quest for superpower status".

Mr Jason Burke, writing for The Guardian, also questioned the purpose of the mission.

He said: "A plunging currency, ailing economy and the state's seeming inability to deliver basic services have led many Indians to question whether their nation is quite as close to becoming a global superpower as it seemed in the heady years of the last decade, when economic growth pushed the 10 per cent (mark)." But scientists have defended the flight.

They say that it costs only a little more than 6 US cents (7.4 Singapore cents) per capita in a nation with a population of 1.2 billion, roughly the same as an aircraft, and brings pride to the country, reported The Los Angeles Times.

"There are social benefits", including weather satellites that save lives, Mr Ajey Lele, a research fellow with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a think-tank, told the newspaper.

It will also promote the capability and affordability of India's commercial satellite-launching service. So far, India has launched 35 satellites for other countries, Mr Lele said, and is eager to do more.

A top government official told the BBC the arguments against rocket launches are not new.

He said: "We have heard these arguments since the 1960s, about India being a poor country not needing or affording a space programme. If we can't dare to dream big it would leave us as hewers of wood and drawers of water! India is today too big to be just living on the fringes of high technology."

Yesterday, the spacecraft completed its first stage. The launch vehicle will now stay in Earth's orbit for nearly a month, building speed to break free from our planet's gravitational pull, reported NDTV.

It will then begin the second stage of its nine-month journey to orbit Mars.

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