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Scientists at war: ISRO 'scandal' right under PMO's nose?

Last updated on: January 31, 2012 10:03 IST

Scientists at war: ISRO 'scandal' right under PMO's nose?

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The punitive action on January 13 against four scientists of the Indian Space Research Organisation in connection with the Antrix-Devas deal leaves many questions unanswered. It does however make it apparent that there have been lacunae in the functioning of one of India's premier scientific institutions, its commercial arm, and the overseeing body.

The order from the Department of Space (DoS runs directly under the Prime Minister's Office) states that former ISRO head Madhavan Nair, former ISRO scientific secretary A Bhaskarnarayana, former Antrix managing director K R Sridharamurthi and former ISRO satellite centre director K N Shankara "shall be excluded from re-employment, committee roles or any other important roles under the government".

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Image: Taking action in the controversial Antrix-Devas deal, the government has barred former ISRO head Madhavan Nair from holding any government jobs


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Scientists at war: ISRO 'scandal' right under PMO's nose?

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The facts that led to this decision, insofar as they are known, are as follows. In 2005 -- when Madhavan Nair was head of ISRO and secretary, DoS -- the commercial arm of ISRO -- Antrix Corporation -- signed a deal with Devas Multimedia offering the latter 90 per cent of the transponders on two satellites, G-Sat6 and G-Sat6A, which were to be launched specifically for Devas' utilisation.

The transponders operate in the S-band of the electromagnetic spectrum, one of the few untenanted bands capable of delivering mobile multimedia broadband services.

Bengaluru-based Devas' partners include former senior ISRO personnel. It acquired investors like Deutsche Telekom, Columbia Capital, Telcom Ventures, etc. There was no competitive tendering. It is claimed that Antrix got clearances for the satellite launch from the Space Commission and the Cabinet without explicitly informing them about the Devas deal. In February 2011, the agreement was annulled.

Two committees, one led by former central vigilance commissioner Pratyush Sinha, and the other by B K Chaturvedi, investigated it. Devas paid Rs 1,000 crore (about $220 million in 2005) for the 12-year agreement. The committees reportedly concluded that this was an underpricing of at least $400 million, given the commercial value. The Comptroller and Auditor General estimated in February 2011 that the potential revenue loss could have exceeded $4 billion.



Image: ISRO chief K Radhakrishnan


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Scientists at war: ISRO 'scandal' right under PMO's nose?

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Clearly, there must be accountability for these decisions. Yet this notification raises as many questions as it answers. For example, neither committee's report has been released apparently due to security concerns. Madhavan, who spearheaded 25-odd ISRO missions, including Chandrayaan, alleges scapegoating by the current ISRO head, K Radhakrishnan.

It is possible that no criminal charges will be brought to bear for similar reasons. In effect, this denies the four scientists the right to clear their names in open court. Furthermore, all those penalised are from within ISRO, although investments by foreign investors into Devas should have required clearances from outside ISRO, too.

Most unfortunately, the scandal has demoralised one of the few islands of relative excellence in the public establishment -- and thus the wider Indian scientific community. ISRO, and Antrix, were allowed a certain degree of autonomy; operating without the checks and balances trammeling other government organisations was intended to help it perform with more speed and agility. One also understands the need for confidentiality. But surely it is carrying secrecy too far if the DoS doesn't know what ISRO is doing? 


Image: The ISRO headquarters in Bengaluru


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