Saarc: building a constellation of stars?


Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

This column first appeared in Mint, on November 23, 2014.  Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.

With squabbling members and embarrassingly poor integration there are few expectations for the 18th summit of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (Saarc) in Kathmandu later this week. Yet, a reinvigorated Saarc has the potential to improve the lives of its 1.5 billion citizens, including Indians.

Prime Minister Narenda Modi—who has vigorously championed regional cooperation since coming to office—has laid special emphasis on a Saarc satellite and, by extension, greater regional cooperation in outer space.

While satellite-based communications, remote sensing, meteorology, and disaster management has long been recognized as imperative for development, individual Saarc countries—apart from India—have been woefully inadequate in exploiting space-based assets. Presently only four Saarc members—India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and, most recently, Afghanistan—operate satellites. Against this backdrop Modi’s oft-repeated proposal for a Saarc satellite is noteworthy.

Apart from enhancing cooperation to benefit Saarc members, greater space cooperation would also serve India in other ways. First, it would strengthen India’s stature as a space-faring nation. While India is already a major space player taking on a leadership role in the region will only strengthen its credentials globally. It would strengthen New Delhi’s hand in shaping an international space regime.

Moreover, almost all of India’s neighbours who are seeking space assets are inevitably turning to China to build or launch their satellites. By offering these options to its neighbours and taking the lead in building a Saarc constellation of stars, India could also check the inroads of China’s string of pearls and maritime silk route in South Asia.

There are three ways in which India could lead the way to create Saarc’s constellation of stars. First, it could offer to provide data to all Saarc members from its existing satellites. In addition, it could also offer a transponder for Saarc-wide communications particularly in the case of natural disasters. This might necessitate the building of earth stations to receive the signal from satellites, particularly in countries where they do not exist. Here, India could offer to build these by sharing its expertise and labour.

One example of offering the services of an existing constellation to Saarc members would be the seven-spacecraft based Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System (IRNSS—a mini global positioning system (GPS) covering South Asia), which is expected to become operational by 2015. Based on the IRNSS, the Indian Space Research Organisation has developed a GPS-Aided Geo Augmented Navigation (GAGAN) system to assist civilian aircraft for navigation and non-precision approaches over Indian airspace; GAGAN could also be offered to all aircraft operating within Saarc airspace.

Second, India could build, launch and operate a dedicated Saarc satellite for all members. Such a satellite could either be a multipurpose satellite (such as the first generation Indian satellites), or a dedicated single-purpose satellites (such as the Indian remote sensing satellites). Experts have argued in favour of the latter and propose an Earth observation satellite as the first Saarc satellite. Such a satellite would be useful to better manage land and water resources in the entire region and could become part of trans-border efforts to control floods and drought.

Third, India could lead the creation a South Asian space agency—similar to the European Space Agency (ESA)—to pool resources (technical and monetary); to ameliorate costs; and to create a common space programme. Such an agency would still be dominated by India (just as France does in ESA) but would also benefit from region-wide funding, expertise and demand.

Clearly, India has more to gain than lose from building a constellation of stars. Modi’s call is not a flight of fancy but an opportunity for us to ensure that even the sky is not the limit for Saarc.