Indian Space Scientists Protest the Blacklisting of Colleagues

NEW DELHI—India's scientific community is turning up the heat on the government over its controversial sanctions of four former officials of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for alleged missteps in a satellite deal. In the latest protest, Roddam Narasimha, an aerospace scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore, resigned on 24 February from the Space Commission, India's top space policy body. Narasimha wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the "actions taken against the scientists could demoralize the Indian Space Research Organization's scientific community, and adversely affect its ability to take the kind of technological initiatives—not always without risk—that are the hallmark of an innovative organization."

Last month the government banned four scientists—including former ISRO head G. Madhavan Nair, who oversaw India's successful Chandrayaan-1 lunar probe in 2008—from holding a government position for the rest of their lives. The unprecedented punishment cited "procedural lapses" during negotiations to lease two communication satellites to a private company. The other three are K. R. Sridhara Murthi, former head of Antrix Corporation in Bangalore; K. N. Shankara, former head of ISRO's Satellite Center in Bangalore; and A. Bhaskaranarayana, former director of ISRO's satellite communication programs. The action against Nair and the others was intended as "a warning to scientists," V. Narayanasamy, minister of state in the Prime Minister's office, told Manorama Online earlier this month. Nair and his colleagues have denied wrongdoing.

Senior Indian scientists blast the ban. It "has done a lot of damage to morale. … Nobody will want to take risks or do anything bold or out of the box," says Anil Kakodkar, a nuclear engineer and former chair of India's Atomic Energy Commission. "Top scientists who have served the country well have just been dumped and thrown out like garbage," adds Singh's science adviser, C. N. R. Rao, a chemist at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre. He calls it "an insult to the Indian scientific community."

Nair has gone on the offensive. He and his colleagues "have given [our] sweat and blood to the country," he wrote in a 24 February letter to Singh. Nair, president of the International Academy of Astronautics in Paris, asked Singh to hold off on implementing the ban and he sought an impartial inquiry into the imbroglio.

The controversy dates to 2005, when Antrix, ISRO's commercial arm, inked a $250 million deal with Devas Multimedia Private Limited to custom make two high-powered communication satellites that would give India seamless multimedia access even in remote areas not served by landlines or mobile phones. The two satellites were to transmit over S-band, in the 2 to 4 gigahertz range. In February 2011, the government, citing "increased strategic needs" for defense applications, annulled the contract and returned $14 million that Devas paid in advance for the satellites' manufacture. Devas has since claimed damages against ISRO in an international arbitration court; a hearing is scheduled for 12 April.

Two government investigative committees last year found that the four scientists did not inform the government in writing that ISRO was manufacturing and leasing communication transponders to a private company. "Not informing the government about such a private contract is a big lapse," says M. R. Srinivasan, a nuclear engineer and former member of the Planning Commission, a government body that crafts India's 5-year plans. "There is no justification for keeping the government in the dark, as it involves taxpayer money," says Srinivasan, who was not a member of either investigative committee.

Nair insists that the deal did not violate government rules. He claims his successor, ISRO Chair K. Radhakrishnan, is leading "a witch hunt" against him and "pushed his personal agenda to make out a case by misrepresenting and misdirecting the government on this whole issue." Radhakrishnan says he has no personal agenda. The government last week sought advice from India's attorney general about whether the ban on the scientists has legal standing.