Isro: Sacred cow, no more

Isro: Sacred cow, no more

In the press conference that was convened after the Devas controversy broke out, there was one question that stumped the Isro Chairman, K Radhakrishnan. Why the Union Cabinet was not informed that 90 per cent of the transponders in two satellites were being leased to one private company? While no convincing answer emerged, many interpret Isro’s stance as an attempt to take the blame on itself to shield the government.

Two scientists, who have held senior positions at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, were quick to debunk this theory. “The Prime Minister’s Office has representatives in the Space Commission and I believe they knew what Antrix was up to… It is hard to believe that the PMO was not in the know of things,” said one of them.

The second scientist was also skeptical that Isro could hide that it was essentially building two satellites, GSAT-6 and GSAT-6A, for Devas Multimedia. “The Secretary of the Department of Space, is also the Chairman of the Space Commission. It is like claiming that the right hand did not know what the left was doing,” he said.

Question of accountability

While the now aborted Devas deal has sent Isro’s credibility tumbling, there are also questions beginning to be asked on how well the official space body is governed. For long, Isro has been the sacred cow of public sector institutions, whose word is often taken on face value. Deccan Herald contacted a few senior Isro scientists at Bangalore and Thiruvananthapuram, who agreed to speak off the record, on some of the issues surrounding the Devas deal.

A scientist, who is working on a yet to be launched satellite, said the governance norms were different in Isro and Antrix. Isro had the right checks and balances and if a component had to be procured, the number of procedures was simply too many to the point of being cumbersome, he said. “All key decisions typically go through several rounds of reviews by different people,” he added. In contrast, Antrix has always enjoyed more latitude, given that it is a commercial organisation, which had to be fast-footed.

“Antrix has always enjoyed more autonomy… it has had the liberty to bypass certain rules,” the scientist said.  Most insiders say though Isro is a well run organisation, there are growing murmurs about deteriorating state of affairs. A scientist who retired sometime ago from an administrative role said, “Had there been no whistleblower, this deal would have gone ahead and the country would have lost another whopping chunk of money.”

He pointed out that the scope for corruption had increased with Isro’s enhanced commercial engagements. “There was a time when Isro did only small deals. If there was corruption it was limited to showing favouritism to small-time contractors. When ISRO began to send satellites for others, its business went up and perhaps the culture began to change,” he added.

A Bangalore-based senior serving scientist disagreed that the rot has set in at Isro. Conceding that Devas was a bad deal, he insisted that the problem lay not with Isro. “Most Isro insiders see Antrix as a distant entity with a different level of integrity,” he added.

Role of Isro veterans

But even insiders struggle to take a stand on M G Chandrashekar, a quintessential Isro product, who subsequently joined the Devas Board and is now facing allegations of influencing the deal. Known as a good manager, who was keen to help other people, M G Chandrashekar enjoys a good image at Isro. Many say he knew the right people, even back when he was working at Isro.

Defending Chandrashekar, a former member of the Antrix Board, said, “Space technology is restricted only to Isro in India. So how is it surprising that former Isro employees have now joined private sectors? It need not be seen in a suspicious light.”  If Chandrashekar and the other technocrats on Devas Board are being wrongly accused, they have not come out in the open to defend their reputation. The only Devas official dealing with the press is its CEO Ramachandran Vishwananthan.

But critics of Isro have welcomed the increasing scrutiny of the organisation. They say Isro has remained largely opaque in its functioning and has used its good success rate to evade tough questions. But with the failure of the two GSLV rockets, Isro was already on the back foot, trying to justify its expenses on the projects. The deal has only worsened the matters for it.

(With inputs from R Gopakumar)