India's Planned Mars Mission Irks Critics

India turned 65 on Wednesday, and amid the great pomp and ceremony of National Day celebrations, the prime minister announced plans for a mission to Mars. India plans to send a research satellite to the Red Planet in November next year — at a cost of $82 million. Critics say the money would be better spent on the nation's creaky infrastructure, and connecting the 400 million Indians who are not on the national electricity grid.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Sixty-five years ago today, India awoke to independence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Today, the country marked National Day, which comes at a time of deepening economic woes. Despite a downturn in the once hot Indian economy, the prime minister laid out an ambitious agenda, including a mission to Mars.

From New Delhi, NPR's Julie McCarthy tells us more.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: On this day on August 15th, 1947, at the stroke of midnight, the British Raj ended and India was free. Sixty-five years on, it remains a day of unalloyed national pride. Indians celebrate in small gatherings in cities and villages across the country, in neighborhoods like my own in the nation's capital. School children...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN SINGING)

MCCARTHY: ...assembled before the prime minister's platform, performed the national anthem.

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MCCARTHY: It is their Fourth of July. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took the occasion to stir his countrymen's patriotic fervor. Beneath the ramparts of Delhi's imposing 17th century red fort, a symbol of India's sweeping history, the prime minister confirmed what had been leaked earlier in the month. India would send a space probe to the red planet.

MANMOHAN SINGH: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Recently, the cabinet has approved the Mars orbiter mission, the prime minister announced. Under this mission, he said, our spaceship will go near Mars and collect important scientific information. This spaceship to Mars will be a huge step for us in the area of science and technology, the prime minister said.

But ponder what India's 400 million citizens who are not connected to the national electricity grid make of a trip to Mars. Critics say India would do well to spend those billions at home before venturing out into space. Two and a half weeks ago, a massive power failure affected 600 million people. Half the population was left without electricity. The record blackout was a wakeup call for a government that came to power in 2004 promising to provide electricity to all of its citizens.

SINGH: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: The prime minister said today, since then, more than 100,000 villages have been electrified. Our next target, he said, is to provide electricity to each and every household in our country in the next five years and also to improve the supply of electricity. The supply can fluctuate with daily blackouts affecting especially the poor for up to several hours a day.

Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of the Center for Science and Environment, says the energy crisis is deepening the gulf between India's haves and have nots and is risking violence.

CHANDRA BHUSHAN: You know, this country very frequently witnesses riots because there is no electricity. People come out on the street, they protest and they fight over electricity, so there is also a social cost for not supplying 24/7 electricity to everyone.

MCCARTHY: How India pays for its ambitious plans as its economy slows is a looming question. Manmohan Singh cautioned today that a lack of political consensus on a range of issues, including ways to deal with inflation, corruption and foreign investment, was impeding India's economic growth.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.

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