Sacred Cows and Orbital Dreams in Sri Lanka

It happened 20 years ago, but I still remember the incident. In early 1990, as a young science journalist working for the Asia Technology magazine of Hong Kong, I was being shown around the Pakistani space agency SUPARCO premises in Karachi. At the time, they were readying the country’s first digital communications satellite, Badr 1 (Urdu for ‘New Moon-1’). There was great excitement about its impending launch (which took place a few weeks later on a Chinese Long March 2 rocket).

Being younger, eager and more idealistic, I asked the Pakistani space chiefs if the ‘New Moon’ would also usher in a new era of information disclosure for the hitherto secretive space programme. Pakistan had recently returned to civilian rule after many years of dictatorship, and Benazir Bhutto was Prime Minister (in her first term). The political mood was generally upbeat.

My question only elicited enigmatic smiles. I later found out — from Pakistani journalists and independent scientists — that they weren’t allowed to ask critical questions about the country’s nuclear or space programmes. Or they could ask any questions, but no answers would be forthcoming because that could affect ‘national security’.

The message was clear: democracy or not, some sacred cows always enjoy their privileged status! This has certainly been the case with both the space and nuclear programmes in India and Pakistan: they have been shielded from public and media scrutiny for decades.

For the past few months, it seemed as if we too were following this South Asian tradition. Plans to build Sri Lanka’s own satellites were announced and pursued with little information disclosure and no public debate. The government wanted to launch our very own ‘sacred cows’ into orbit. We the public were to just applaud on cue, and then cough up the money for it…

At least, that was the case until earlier this month. Suddenly, there seems to be a change of heart. In a interview on 6 June 2010 covering a range of issues, head of the Telecom Regulatory Commission (TRC) disclosed that the government was not going ahead with the much-hyped project. At least not in its originally announced form.

Anusha Pelpita, the TRC’s Director General, was quoted as saying: “To set up the satellite, there’s a cost of US$ 20 million. After sending it in orbit, it is US$ 160 to US$ 180 million per annum, which is not feasible.”

He added that the TRC will not proceed with Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), the British firm commissioned to help Sri Lanka to get ready for building and operating its own satellites. The TRC was not averse to launching a satellite per se, but they were ‘exploring other options such as hiring satellites’.

This is the first time in over 15 months that the high costs have been acknowledged. Mr Pelpita gets full credit for being candid and cautious – attributes his agency has not displayed so far in its pursuit of this high-cost, high-tech project. Let’s hope that he will also open up the issue for informed public discussion which has been lacking until now.

LEO and GEO

The satellite project was announced in February 2009 and appeared to gain momentum during the year. Going by official statements and media reports, the plan was to launch not one but two satellites.

The first, to be sent to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), was an imaging satellite to keep a dedicated eye on our island and the seas around it. Moving somewhere between 160 and 2,000 km above the Earth, it was to help us in both good times (economic activity) and bad (disasters).

The LEO satellite was to be named after the late Sir Arthur C Clarke, the visionary writer who was the first to propose the idea of communications satellites (comsats) back in 1945. The geostationary orbit he calculated for such satellites – invaluable for today’s broadcast and telecom services – lies 36,000 km above the Earth, far higher than the LEOs. (The multibillion dollar comsat industry fondly calls it the ‘Clarke Orbit’. In 2000 Eutelsat, Europe’s leading satellite operator, named one of its comsats in Sir Arthur’s honour.)

Sir Arthur, with whom I worked for 21 years, had his own nickname for LEOs: Anti-Clarke Orbits! Indeed, it seemed a bit incongruous to name a LEO satellite after him. (Despite his well known ego, Sir Arthur never sought personal edifices in his memory. When a journalist once asked him about monuments, he said: “Go to any well-stocked library, and look around…”)

But the TRC decided — without asking the Clarke family or Estate — that the LEO shall be named after Arthur C Clarke. The regulator had its eyes set on the Clarke Orbit too: a second satellite was to be launched there a couple of years later, to be used for ‘broadcasting, communications and high speed Internet’. Its cost? An estimated US$ 100 million (about Rs. 11.3 billion).

Such high price tags never seemed to dampen the enthusiasm of the project’s chief promoter, former TRC chief Priyantha Kariyapperuma. In fact, he envisaged potential savings in the very project where his successor now sees none.

He argued that these satellites would ‘bring about a huge foreign exchange saving’ as Sri Lanka was currently dependent on satellites of other countries for broadcasting, telecommunications and ‘even defence-related information’. No specific figures were given.

Mr Kariyapperuma imagined more ambitious uses for the LEO satellite: “Our Exclusive Economic Zone will probably expand this year from 200 nautical miles to about 800 nautical miles. The most efficient and cost effective way to monitor such a large expanse of ocean will be to use the LEO satellite.”

Curiously enough, the satellite project was being pursued by the telecom regulator despite there being other state agencies mandated to promote various space technologies. These include the Survey Department and Meteorological Department – they have been using internationally sourced satellite imagery and data for decades. Our lives are better and safer for it.

Since that first announcement, the former TRC chief made various statements to the media at regular intervals. We heard, for example:

Age of spin

This merry-go-round continued for a full year. The first signs of hesitation emerged in March 2010, when an unnamed TRC official told a journalist that the agency was ‘seriously rethinking’ the satellite project.

He/she was quoted as saying: “We have not decided to go ahead with the project until we figure out whether it’s worthwhile…at the moment we are assessing all options – whether we can lease an existing satellite or if we are to launch, repayment method and pay back period. We have to do this as this is all public funds.” (Emphasis mine.)

To be sure, the TRC is not the only state agency that over-promises and under-delivers. The ICT Agency is another shining example. Vanity and ego-massaging are to be expected in our media-saturated society, but it becomes a serious concern when spin replaces public discussion and debate on national decisions and investments.

We can only guess why the TRC suddenly had a change of mind about the satellite. Maybe its spin doctors will soon explain it away. That would be revealing, but not sufficient.

Meaningful debate can only happen with specific information. Until now, the TRC has not disclosed detailed plans or cost-benefit analyses about this mega project. If these exist, they are not in the public domain.

In this info-vacuum, concerned citizens could ask only top-level questions. As Dr Rohan Samarajiva, a former telecom regulator now heading the ICT policy research organization LIRNEasia urged in mid February 2009:  “Before large amounts of taxpayer money are committed to this project, it would be good to have a broad debate on the pros and cons. I have not been able to identify any pros, but that was not for the lack of trying.”

In his regular column, he also asked (referring to the planned geostationary satellite): “One wonders whether a LKR 11,500,000,000 (11.5 billion) satellite is the highest priority for this little island which seems to be doing pretty well in terms of TV, radio and telecommunications. Satellites are usually required by large continental or archipelagic countries like India and Indonesia.”

The public-funded regulator didn’t respond to these questions from the concerned public. Disappointingly, too, very few others joined the debate. Where are our public intellectuals hiding?

I claim no in-depth expertise in this subject. As a long-standing space enthusiast, I wasn’t convinced this orbital dream was worth its price. So I joined the online discussion, saying: “Building and launching satellites is an expensive business, and operating them once they are in orbit also requires high tech, high cost systems…The bigger issue is what value addition (beyond ego-boosting and chest-thumping) that our own satellite can offer that we cannot commercially buy in the highly competitive satellite services market.”

We were frustrated by the TRC’s complete silence. We were also astonished how the other relevant state agencies – as well as the Ministry of Science and Technology – kept mum when the telecom regulator was encroaching into their areas of expertise.

Charismatic Mega-science?

Astonished, but not really surprised. The silence fitted into a pattern that has been spreading in developing countries for a while. In the late 20th century, many such countries — including some barely able to provide basic needs to their people — started spending scarce public funds on uneconomical ventures such as national cars, national airlines and nuclear reactors. Building one’s own satellite, irrespective of economics, is a continuation of the same practice.

I have called these examples of ‘charismatic mega-science’: exorbitant high-tech ventures that governments love to impose on their people without any public debate. Meant to showcase technological accomplishment, such projects rarely build local capacity or address development priorities. Often they drain funds from health, education or scientific research. In strict cost-benefit terms, many such projects remain white elephants forever. Some are cloaked in secrecy –- real ‘sacred cows’ beyond any criticism or public accountability.

Independent academics, civil society activists and journalists questioning such mega-science projects risk being labelled ‘anti-national’ or ‘anti-development’. (I experienced this last year when I questioned the appalling track record of a government outfit named after Arthur C Clarke which has become a disgrace to the man’s memory. Some ‘reader comments’ sought to shoot the messenger while neatly side-stepping my substantive arguments.)

But let’s be optimistic. Now that the TRC has paused in its orbital adventure, there is yet a chance for good sense to prevail.

The satellite is not the only mega-science project being pursued in post-war Sri Lanka. In June 2009, the Ministry of Science and Technology directed the Atomic Energy Authority to set up a national committee to study technical and financial aspects of setting up a nuclear power plant. Some environmental activists have already expressed concern, highlighting safety and public health risks, high cost of construction and the unresolved problem of nuclear waste disposal. In September 2009, the renowned legal scholar Dr Christopher Weeramantry, former vice president of the International Court of Justice, called for adequate public debate before any final decisions are made.

That debate has also not taken place yet, and there have been surprisingly few voices speaking out. But as long as public funds and public safety are involved, charismatic mega-science projects must take the public into confidence.

Sacred cows – whether orbital or radioactive – can’t be allowed free range.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene worked with Sir Arthur Clarke as his research associate for over two decades. He blogs on media, culture and development at: http://movingimages.wordpress.com The views in this essay are entirely his own.

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    Very interesting subject to debate Nalaka. I remember you at Marga 20 years ago when I too was young.

    But my knowledge of science is limited to A/Ls and the occasional science documentary on TV. Any road up, If this LEO satellite is to profit us in the long run do you think SL should invest in this project so that we would not go on a continuous borrowing spree which the next three generations would have to pay?

    Or do you think we should continue to lease or hire foreign satellite for our use? Will this not mean the foreign owners of these sattelites would be privy to our communications and thus endanger our own natinal security?

    Please ignore my questions if they are not worth answering. I am just curious.

    As you rightly pointed out will this project cause long term damage to our already degraded environment.

  • http://movingimages.wordpress.com Nalaka Gunawardene

    Pearl, Thanks for comment. You have, no doubt inadvertently, echoed some considerations cited by the former TRC chief in promoting the satellite project.

    Charismatic mega-science projects are typically marketed to a country’s public on factors including self-sufficiency, self-reliance, national pride, distrust of foreign suppliers/sources, and that catch-all excuse of all governments – national security! We can’t analyse each one here, but let me respond to the ones you have mentioned.

    Note that those of us who have asked for informed public discussion are not fundamentally opposed to the idea of Sri Lanka having its own satellites (LEO or GEO), as long as the high costs are justified by sufficient benefits. In other words, a sound business plan that goes beyond rhetoric and intangible claims. This requires the pooling of knowledge and experience of those familiar with technology, economics, geopolitics and other relevant areas. To the extent we know, the TRC has not carried out a feasibility study, nor produced a business plan that considers pros and cons of investing billions of public funds (advanced by Treasury or borrowed internationally).

    Also, is the telecom regulator the right state agency to commission, supervise and manage an imaging satellite proposed for low earth orbit (LEO) which involves no telecom services at all? Do we need a new space agency when there are other technical agencies with competence in using space technologies? These question need an early answer as this is a national decision involving multiple sectors, not just an internal matter for the TRC.

    As for trusting ‘foreign’ suppliers and sources, what’s local/national and what’s foreign in today’s delightfully mixed up world? Pragmatism, if not strict economics, requires that we don’t try to do everything ourselves in this globalised world (that’s impossible anyway). A few examples:
    - airmail and surface mail with rest of the world has relied on international cooperation for over a century;
    - air traffic control is essentially sharing and trusting of real-time data and decisions of neighbouring countries controllers;
    - tsunami and other disaster warnings are regionally shared, trusted and used to save lives;
    - international phone and data communication relies on so many telecom operators willingly sharing systems to enable flow; and
    - the global Internet is inherently supranational.

    Even insular countries like Burma and North Korea – that clearly don’t trust anything ‘foreign’ – are pragmatically part of these international systems without which they will be back in the Stone Age. Within these and other globally integrated systems, technology allows countries to take precautionary measures such as encrypting their sensitive communications (so that only those with authorised access are privvy to those).

    Technical solutions and policy choices are available. Sri Lanka has been a willing customer and beneficiary of international satellite services for decades. As I said in the essay, a competitive market allows customers to drive a hard bargain (just think of Lanka’s domestic telecom market has boomed with competition – remember the bad old days of monopoly SLT?)

    Finally, there is no known environmental risk of LEO or GEO satellites. But there can be serious public safety and environmental concerns from having our nuclear reactor for electricity – that’s where I mentioned such risks towards the end of the essay. That’s another charismatic mega-science project that needs separate public discussion, continuing what Justice Weeramantry has started.

  • http://www.warunasat.com Indika Perera

    Thanka Nalaka Gunawardene, nice article! well done! keep it up!

    Regards
    Indika Perera
    http://www.warunasat.com
    Sri Lankan Satellite Television Discussion Forum

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    It is a sad irony our very own space scientist cum journalist like Nalaka has written an article of much importance to the future security and advancement of this country and this evoked hardly any response.

    Is it because Nalaka has no match to elucidate his points or there is complete apathy towards advanced science.

    Sadly we are hung up on vacuous politics and pipe-dream political theories.

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    It is a sad irony our very own space scientist cum journalist like Nalaka has written an article of much importance to the future security and advancement of this country and this evoked hardly any response.

    Is it because Nalaka has no match to elucidate his points or there is complete apathy towards advanced science.

    Sadly we are hung up on vacuous politics and pipe-dream political theories.

    I repeat this because we need a national debate on the topic.

  • The Buddhist

    We Buddhists need a satellite of our own. We cannot trust Christian, Zionist, Islamic or Hindu operated satellites. We must launch our own satellite no matter whatever cosrt. Those who oppose the SInhala Buddhist satelloite are the ones who want us to be forever using Christian, Zionist, Islamic or Hindu services which can contaminaate and brainwash our Buddhist minds. After we have our own satellite we must ban other satellites from hovering over Sri Lanka except without our governments permission.