Mars Madness Amidst Astronomical Poverty

Insanity in India

In a macho violation of common sense and the needs of hundreds of millions of people living in crushing poverty, the ruling elite of India (that’s the government and multinational corporations who own the country) recently launched a satellite that “after a journey of 300 days and 420 million miles…arrived to orbit around Mars,” reported The Guardian. The $74 million ‘Mars mission’ is “cheap by American (or Chinese) standards”, The Economist says, but amounts to a fraction of a much more expensive – not to say insane space programme that drains US $1 billion a year from the national budget. A sum, which “is more than spare change, even for a near $2-trillion economy.”

The ‘Mars Madness’, or Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) to give it it’s official title, makes India one of four (the US, the EU and Russia being the other three) that have ventured to our closest cosmic neighbor, and constitutes a conspicuously extravagant part of what economist-activist Jean Dreze accurately describes as “the Indian elite’s delusional quest for superpower status.” Competition and nationalism drive such escapades, not the quest for knowledge and understanding. The space race between the US and the Soviet Union, for example, “was not an affordable luxury undertaken for the sake of knowledge, but intrinsically tied to the military-industrial complex,” The Guardian states. India’s primary competitor in all things economic is that other mammoth nation, China. The Chinese space programme is advanced (in 2012 it put a Chinese woman in space and last year launched its first un-crewed lunar mission), and therefore intensely intimidating to the Indian nationalists psyche.

This stellar statement of Indian male virility (only men would instigate such a policy) represents the insanity permeating the political pantomime not only inside India but worldwide. Whilst hundreds of millions in the sub-continent live impoverished, degrading lives, the Indian government is investing the nation’s income in sending a rocket to Mars! The Economist asks the collective question: “how [can] a country that cannot feed all of its people find the money for a Mars mission?” As well, we should add, as shelling out US $32 billions on defense each year, making India the world’s biggest arms importer with the fourth largest air force.

And yet India (that has its own overseas aid programme worth £328 million a year) is still receiving international aid amounting to around US $1,600 millions (World Bank 2012 figures) a year, much of which flows from the coffers of nations (Britain and USA, for example,) who cannot – the politicians proclaim – invest adequately in public services or pay public sector workers a livable wage.

Rocket science versus sanitation

A third of the world’s poor – that’s almost 1 billion people – are in India. And despite twenty years of so-called development, the World Bank (WB) records that not only has this number not reduced, but, “the absolute number of poor people in some of India’s poorest states actually increased during the last decade.” These marginalised men, women and children, live in rural India and, driven from their land by the commercialisation of the countryside, the slums of the cities. In Mumbai alone – a city with a population of almost 21 millions – two-thirds live in rambling slums.

It is estimated that as many as 68% of people (or 885 millions) in India are living on less than US $2 (the ‘official’ World Bank poverty line) a day, over half of whom are persisting on an income of under US $1 a day (WB). Surviving on such a pittance is virtually impossible: parents cannot feed their children or themselves every day, or pay for health care or education; families live in suffocating conditions, a family of five, six, seven perhaps sleeping on the ground in one small room, which functions as kitchen, bedroom and living room. The majority of the population – over 50% – do not have the luxury of a toilet, and are forced to defecate in public. In a recent report on worldwide sanitation, The World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF found that “globally, India continues to be the country with the highest number of people (597 million people) practicing open defecation.”

Perhaps some of the 16,000 scientists and engineers working on the space programme could be employed to design and install a nationwide sanitation system.

The needs and, indeed, rights of the ‘marginalised masses’ who are primarily from the scheduled castes, the Adivasi (indigenous) and Dalit (previously referred to as ‘the untouchables’) groups, are consistently abused and ignored. State health care, for example, particularly in rural India, is virtually non-existent.  The government spends a mere 1.2% of GDP on public health, which as The Economist says, is “dismally low” (Afghanistan, for example, spends 8.7%, the Democratic Republic of Congo 5.6%, WB 2012 figures). In fact, I could find no country in the world that spends less. The truth is that the ruling elite care not for those living in abject destitution. They are an embarrassment to the Delhi/Mumbai set, the billionaires (India has 66 of the world’s richest), multi-millionaires and comfortable middle class who are desperate for India to be recognised as a shiny democratic consumer state, albeit a violent unjust nationalistic one. A Hindu state thrusting itself into the global limelight, with a strong army – powerful enough to crush and intimidate its own people – and a US $1 billion a year (a figure worth repeating) space programme to rival other superpower contenders. It is the polluted image of a divided nation, ruled by an uncompassionate, materialistically-driven Hindu minority that would shame the vision of the Father of the Nation.

Graham Peebles is an independent writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in India, Sri Lanka, Palestine and Ethiopia where he lived for two years working with street children, under 18 commercial sex workers, and conducting teacher training programmes. He lives and works in London. Read other articles by Graham, or visit Graham's website.