Sri Lanka’s Sacred Cows and Orbital Dreams: Asking difficult questions

Holy cow! How does she do it?

Cows have been a part of South Asian cultures, economics and societies for millennia. Many among us are connected to cows in one way or another – some worship them while others feast on them. Even a secular vegetarian in South Asia – like myself – can’t avoid bumping into the occasional cow on our delightfully messy streets…

We probably gave the term ‘sacred cow’ to the English language. It means an object or practice which is considered immune from criticism, especially unreasonably so. As the Wikipedia explains, “The term is based on the popular understanding of the place of cows in Indian religions as objects that have to be treated with respect, no matter how inconvenient.”

Well, some of us beg to differ on modern-day sacred cows. My latest op ed essay, just published on Groundviews.org, is all about sacred cows in rapidly modernising South Asia. It starts with my experience as a young science journalist covering the impending launch of Pakistan’s first digital communications satellite, Badr 1, in early 1990.

At the time, 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. But I soon 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.

In Sacred Cows and Orbital Dreams in Sri Lanka, I write: “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.

What price for having our own?

“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…”

The essay is a critique of Sri Lanka’s much hyped plans to build its own satellites. The 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.

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. The reason: the very high cost, and the need to ‘explore other options such as hiring satellites’ instead of building our own.

Hmmm. Better to be wise later than never. This is the first time in over 15 months that the high costs of this high cost project have been acknowledged.

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.

Again, this mega project has not been opened up for public discussion and debate, in spite of a few citizens and activists expressing concern, highlighting safety and public health risks, high cost of construction and the unresolved problem of nuclear waste disposal.

I end the essay arguing that as long as public safety and public funds are involved, sacred cows – whether orbital or radioactive – can’t be allowed free range.

Read the full essay on Groundviews: Sacred Cows and Orbital Dreams in Sri Lanka

A compact version appeared in The Sunday Times, 13 June 2010: Sri Lanka’s Satellite: Lost in Space?

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