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Last Updated: Monday, 16 February, 2004, 17:35 GMT
Fishermen get space guides
Some experts say Isro has paid for itself several times over
Fishermen in the southern Indian state of Kerala are receiving a much-needed boost in their efforts to find dwindling shoals - from the country's space programme.

For many generations, fishermen in the area have relied on traditional methods such as reflections in the moonlight - or even their sense of smell - to find the best places to cast their nets.

But as competition for the fish becomes more intense - with several foreign vessels now in the waters - the boats are using satellite technology to track fishing grounds they may have overlooked before.

"When you consider the human labour involved in the operation, when you consider the fuel costs, and then compare it against the quantity of fish caught, this is economically viable," VS Pelies, a fisheries consultant and former director of the Marine Fisheries Research Centre in the city of Kochin, told BBC World Service's Global Business programme.

"The satellites help it remain so. The satellites reduce the searching time.

"We waste lots of time in searching for a sizeable shoal... satellites have given them at least an area.

"Luckily for us, the current is very strong and the wind and wave action is very strong. The shoal will not get distributed at least for a day or two."

Commercial spin-offs

Once the satellites have spotted a shoal, the information can be distributed to the fishermen via mobile phones and the internet.

Alternatively, some fishermen travel with a larger ship, equipped to receive the information from space - and then relay it to smaller fishing boats.

Insat satellite
Satellites are able to track fish from space...
It is one of the practical results of the Indian space effort, which began 40 years ago in Kerala.

Vikram Sarabhai, the "father" of the Indian space programme, said his vision was to "connect the people, connect the world."

Another way the space programme is being put to use is in a new hospital at the Amrita Institute of Medical Science in Kochin.

There, large screens show patients in beds 4,000 km away. Experts at the institute can examine the patients via satellite TV beamed from space in what is known as "tele-medicine."

This, its pioneers believe, saves time and money by abolishing the frontiers to treatment in the vast sub-continent.

Some critics, however, point out that the internet could probably be used in similar way.

Others argue that tele-medicine and other schemes like it are a gloss put over to disguise the fact that, in their view, social benefits from the space programme are being put aside in favour of commercial spin-offs.

Selling information

The Indian Space Research Organisation, Isro, has tried to be as self-reliant as possible in the technology it uses - despite a tiny budget in comparison to, for example, Nasa, the US space agency. And it has a substantial commercial arm in the form of Antrix, based in Bangalore.

Fish market, Calcutta
...which then end up on sale in the market
"When we started this programme, we stated that as a policy, whenever we could go to industry, we would go to industry - rather than doing it in-house," Isro's Srinaner Murti said.

"This is one of the important policies we have taken."

Isro's budget is $450m annually, 40% of which is spent on Indian industry.

One example of Antrix's activities is the taking of data from satellites, and selling this information in the market.

"Particularly downstream, there are a large number of companies which operate in the computing market," Mr Murti said.

"That way, space could be seen as a catalytic investment - particularly the satellite and launch vehicles provide a basic infrastructure for a large number of industries for the downstream services."

Bangalore has been benefiting from the space programme since it was established in the 1950s. Around 1,000 industries are partners of Isro, some supplying the extraordinary specialist equipment needed for rockets and space exploration.


But some feel that there is too much money in the space programme - money that could be spent easing the tremendous poverty in some areas of the country.

"I don't believe that not enough resources are going into the requirements that are uniquely Indian," S Shandreshaker, a consultant at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, told Global Business.

Bangalore is the hub of India's technology revolution
"We have a large number of people who are illiterate. We have a large number of people who don't have access to adequate health care.

"If India is to sustain itself as a major economic power, or a major power of any kind, you have to cater to these people."

However, Madhavan Nair, the chairman of Isro, said that India's space programme was tackling these problems too.

He said Isro's drinking water project had been able to increase usage of available water to 90%, up from 30%.

"That is the direct impact... it goes down to the common man," he said.

And he also stressed there were benefits to education.

"40% of our population are illiterate. We have used satellite media to bring an education programme to villages scattered all over the country," he explained.

"That provides additional quality of life to them, and also communicates them better skills for cultivation."

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