Would ISRO Launches Be So Cheap If Indian Labour Were Not Underpaid?

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We know India’s ineffective legislation protects the cheapness of labour – but how do we know ISRO isn’t inadvertently profiting from it?

Engineers around the GSLV D5 ahead of its launch, in the vehicle assembly building, Sriharikota. One reason ISRO is able to keep costs down is that labour costs less in India than it does in many other places. Credit: ISRO

Engineers around the GSLV D5 ahead of its launch, in the vehicle assembly building, Sriharikota. One reason ISRO is able to keep costs down is that labour costs less in India than it does in many other places. Credit: ISRO

When the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched its Mars Orbiter Mission in November 2013, its cost was a matter of much, and well deserved, pride: proximate to a puny Rs 500 crore. However, fixating on the price-tag often drew admirers’ attention away from the fact that the probe was a technology-demonstrator, put together by scientists and engineers to show more than anything else that it could be manoeuvred into orbit around Mars. It succeeded on September 24, 2014. At that moment, the primary mission was immediately completed. What’s been happening since then is the secondary mission. Loftier ambitions, such as those rivalling the NASA Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) probe that launched at the same time, would’ve commanded a heftier investment.

Then again, how much heftier? Would we ever build something at the cutting edge of space exploration or research whose costs we wouldn’t be able to keep down? Further yet, how sustainable are our attempts at keeping costs down?

Shankkar Aiyar, a journalist and analyst, wrote in the New Indian Express (edited for brevity) on January 16:

It cost ISRO roughly $74 million to put Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) in orbit, while it cost Hollywood producers around $100 million to produce Gravity. NASA spent $671 million the very same week for its Mars mission, MAVEN. ISRO works with a fraction of the budget available to NASA. In 2016-17 it was around Rs 7,500 crore or around $1.1 billion, while the 2016 budget for NASA was $18.5 billion. The drum rolls and applause are well deserved. The question is, can India leverage this and other illustrative successes in frugal engineering and innovation for greater good. How does India and how do Indians benefit from the spectacular capabilities of ISRO exhibited year after year? A critical experiment underway may have some answers.

In late 2015, Roads and Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari asked why India cannot shift to electric buses and vehicles [to mitigate air pollution]. The answer: high cost of batteries. Although India does not lag in technological prowess to suffer high costs. Remember the Mars Orbiter, which travelled 622 million km in its heliocentric trajectory towards Mars, was powered by batteries developed by ISRO. … Gadkari approached ISRO and asked if the technology that powered the MOM can be made available. The result: ISRO made available the technology to produce step-down versions of lithium ion batteries for automobiles. The cost of producing these batteries is expected to be a 10th of what it would cost to import these batteries.

For Aiyar, frugal engineering is a legitimate aspiration to work towards and which he’s calling ISRO a leader in. This is indisputable; like the author says, the accolade is well-deserved. However, we must be wary of frugality because from there to ‘making do’ is just a hop. Frugal engineering is a brand of engineering targeted at markets where there is a marked preference for function over form, for “getting the job done” over “making it look good while it’s doing it”. In such cases, optimising for performance has to compete with optimising for cost, and an outcome that is the product of this process won’t be able to do better than it can afford. So while frugal engineering may be a good thing in many environments, it shouldn’t be so for space. Launch vehicles always need to meet a safety threshold; if they can’t afford to, then that’s a deal-breaker. #SpaceIsHard

And #SpaceIsHard no matter where

However, it is undeniable that there is another kind of frugality that ISRO embodies: low cost to space – which brings us to a bigger-picture conflict that has been lurking behind our braggadocio. A friend of mine, who lives in Ottawa, recently remarked that most things cost more or less the same to make in India as they do in the West, and that the difference only really kicks in when human labour becomes involved. In the West, labour is valued more highly than it is in India. As a result, products whose development has benefited by human skill and work have to recover more value through their exchange than do products that have involved no human efforts. In India, human labour costs much less, so human-made things cost not much at all.

This author has received anecdotal information on multiple occasions that ISRO seldom pays for overtime while freely asking it – and particularly so ahead of MOM’s launch. Overtime for the sake of helping your employer out is sweet but it shouldn’t come at the expense of allowing your employer to make a habit of it. And if an employee doesn’t want to do it, she should be able to opt out. A well-structured pay-scale that clearly defines what counts as overtime work, and how much an employee will be paid for it, is essential to feeling like one’s work and time are being valued and are not being taken for granted. Further, as a UN Development Programme report put it in 2015,

While work is generally beneficial for people, the quality of work can be affected by doing too much work. A culture of overwork is increasingly common, facilitated by all kinds of mobile devices that enable constant access to work. The pressure of a round-the-clock work culture is particularly acute in highly skilled, highly paid professional service jobs such as law, finance, consulting and accounting. The overwork culture can lock gender inequality in place, because work–family balance is made more difficult for women, who bear a disproportionate share of care work.

It is true that a fledgling space organisation in a developing nation with a puny budget is trying to do amazing and “world class” things. At the same time, how do we know that such practices aren’t privileging us to delay a reevaluation of human labour, and to formulate and impose fairer wages? Because every employee who agrees to work for cheap is also cheapening labour as such; it is incumbent on all of us to insist on being paid fairly.

This is undeniably a leading reason ISRO, or any successful public-sector organisation in India, is able to keep costs down. Imagine paying a domestic worker Rs 10,000 a month instead of Rs 1,500; now imagine what other costs would go up as a result.

In this exercise, all of it might seem arbitrary, that the price of commodity X rises with income Y, and that X might as well be x (<X) because we’ve been able to keep Y at y (<Y). This is wrong: we’ve not been able to keep Y at y as much as your household help’s salary, and her economic class, down. If onions cost, say, Rs 200 a kilo, even a technology-demonstrator of a mission to Mars could cost Rs 4,800 crore instead of the Rs 480 crore it did. Should this make us cheer harder for how much we and our country value human labour or quieter for no longer being able to claim our interplanetary mission cost less than a Hollywood movie?

Public-sector undertakings (PSUs) are a high-wage island in India, which is why people are eager to join them. But it doesn’t mean the wages are great in absolute terms. This is a reflection of low living standards across the board that even higher PSU wages alone may not remedy.

Opportunities in disparity

This isn’t to decry all forms of disparity as much as to highlight an impending conflict we are faced with. For example, a major part of ISRO’s recent success has been attributable to the fact that launch costs in Europe and the US are very high, and have been kept down in some cases by feats of managerial, engineering and administrative excellence. But by and large, the costs are sky-high and frequently unaffordable for payload makers and operators from developing nations. ISRO has used this disparity to build low-cost launchers. And by exploiting this disparity, India – through ISRO – has reduced the disparity between itself and developed nations in some other sector, for example by reinvesting profits. Clearly, being able to do things on the cheap results in an economy of opportunities that evaporates the longer it is sustained, with good effect.

However, there needs to be a line such that this ‘exploitation of disparity’ doesn’t go all the way, such that individuals are not bled for the sake of broader sectoral gains that may or may not reach them. For example, workers who clean open drains in urban India are paid a pittance and not given any safety equipment worthy of the name. This allows municipal authorities to keep drain-cleaning costs low. This is wrong, concretising as it does an ethic that is antithetical to the idea of ‘exploiting to gain’.

Similarly, launching a PSLV rocket at $15 million apiece shouldn’t ever be squared off against cleaning drains for a couple hundred rupees. Yes, should this person have to be paid, say, Rs 1,000 for every 100 metres of drain cleaned while wearing protective clothing, the difference between a PSLV and, say, a Ukrainian Dnepr would fall from the already-thin $9 million (Rs 61.3 crore) that it currently is. Even the lithium-ion batteries that Gadkari wants to power electric buses are liable to have profited from cheap labour, from the ineffective legislation that protects the cheapness of labour.

In June 2016, in the Anna University, Chennai, campus, two labourers died while trying to seal a tank (part of an experimental setup to see if pressurised air could store energy). But despite there being no less than sixteen laws claiming to protect their lives, not even one was contravened in their deaths. Thomas Manuel wrote in The Wire at the time:

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) statistics from 2003 claimed that 403,000 people die from work-related problems in India. This translates to about 46 people dying per hour. No updated statistic seems to be available. Per the ILO website, India has only ratified five conventions on occupational health and safety; more than 12 are pending. This includes convention 155 that discusses the fundamental tenets of an occupational health and safety policy that a country must implement. There is even an economic angle for improving working conditions. The loss of productivity and subsequently revenue, directly and indirectly, due to injuries and accidents in the workplace has been quantified in countries like China to be to the tune of $38 billion.

The noted architect A. Srivathsan once defined beauty in a way that has seemed conceptually relevant in a variety of fields (this author took his classes at the Asian College of Journalism). He said, “Ugliness is marked by erasure and beauty is that which is marked by permanence.” So by repeating and repeatedly celebrating ISRO’s frugality, we are beautifying it – and uglifying that which stands in opposition to it. At times like these, we should be careful to not uglify the dignity and value of human labour itself in pursuit of what happen to be circumstantial gains. Or, in the name of this or another frugality, we will soon seek to erase them.

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  • Arun

    How do we know? Isn’t that the task of investigative reporting?

  • Arun

    The scientists and engineers who develop rockets and satellites are also paid a pittance compared to Western rates; and that is also a large component of the cost of rocketry, as far as I know. Supposedly half the cost of even a rocket type manufactured many times is R&D.

  • Sintvm

    Labour rates in Kerala is highest in India and comparable to Gulf countries. You cannot hire a maid for 1500 Rs. The going rate is 7000 Rs and above.
    The Labour wage and other overheads vary from 5 to 15 %. Hence the total impact of Labour rates on overall cost is much less.
    The cost difference between Maven and Mars Orbitor mission is not because of cheap labour but because of the complexity and mass of the scientific payload which is higher for Maven.
    ISRO employees are paid as per central govt norms. The entree salary of a Technician in ISRO is 3 times higher than in Oct sector that too with 8 hrs and 5 working days a week. There are other perks as well. Same is the case for engineers. Salary is linked to cost of living and is inflation corrected.
    Now ask the same questions to software industry which are running sweatshops in India as well as post Indians abroad on-site at much lower salary than the prevailing norms in that country

    • Ujjwal Dalmia

      I agree that one reason MAVEN costed more was the complexity, but the cost of labor had a huge effect on the final price tag associated with the two missions.

      Yes in India labor costs are about 5-15% of the costs but in other countries that share is higher too.

  • Arup Dasgupta

    As an ex-ISRO hand let me add my two paisa worth. ISRO makes a virtue out of working hard and working beyond office hours. While Group C and D staff do get overtime, it is the Group A and B staff who do it for the love of the work and to improve their chances at a very competitive promotion scenario where promotions are based on performance and output as evaluated in the Annual Confidential Reports as well as by an interview by seniors and, at the senior-most levels, by peers. Cost sensitivity, as opposed to cost cutting is the norm. We work on the basis of the Lowest Technically suitable offer, not just L1. We work as per Central Government Norms.

    However, I do agree that there is a certain amount of exploitation at the commercialisation level, mainly by Antrix Corporation. All the work needed to fulfil the orders acquired by Antrix are done by the same engineers. Thus the engineers work for a PSU but get the salary and perks of a R&D engineer in the government. In fact the joke is that Antrix is just one and a half person outfit backed by the might of ISRO’s R&D staff. I had occasion to have a discussion with an ex-Chairman and MD of Antrix (who also was a friend) about the travel arrangements made for our staff who had to travel abroad for Antrix work. Cattle class would be a compliment to the travel arrangements made by Antrix for officers who, if travelling on Government duty would get Business Class and 5 star hotel accommodation. My friend averred that for him profit was above perks, Further, the profit made by Antrix using this free labour was never distributed to the engineers in any form but due to my protestations and a very supportive Director we could extract a certain sum exclusively for buying books for our library. Next year the Director was transferred and the practice, as far as I know, stopped.

    What is needed is for Antrix to be spun out of ISRO as a full fledged PSU and the concerned staff who work on Antrix orders should be treated at par as a PSU engineer rather than as free labour at least for the duration of the work. Profit from Antrix should be shared with the centres and a part can be distributed as a one time bonus for the staff.

    • Rohini

      Good analysis. As I said in my comment, the people at ISRO are highly talented and also very capable of speaking up for themselves and organising themselves, if they need to fight for something. At the moment, it is the ability to do cutting edge work that would be otherwise unthinkable for Indian scientists that might be motivating a large number of these people.

      • Arup Dasgupta

        I should add that ISRO employees do look forward to the Pay Commissions! However, we all know/knew that if you wanted to work on the cutting edge of technology there was no other place in India. Most ISRO colleagues who succumbed to the lure of the $ have since regretted their choice. Their pay jump was phenomenal, the opportunity to visit other countries was equally attractive but the job was mind deadening. Most ISRO people think of ISRO as a family and always say “In our ISRO”, never in a passive, impartial voice. This commitment and ownership needs to be studied by OB people.

        • Rohini

          Thank you for your gives a much better picture, when tagged on to your first comment. Of course, a raise is always welcome, to everyone. 🙂 After all, we are not working for charity or only for passion. We are working for that pay packet coupled with intellectual satisfaction. The ISRO jobs seem to give both. Good luck to you and your collagues and thank you for everything. As an Indian, I feel VERY proud of mangalyaan and all the other successes of ISRo.

  • sid

    isn’t the perception presented in the article biased?
    Did you take factors like supply-demand, cost of living, environmental standards etc into factor when computing what a fair pay has to be?

    There are far more things than this that effect the pay scales. As far as overworking is concerned, I agree. Quality degrades with over work and that should be avoided at all costs. And to achieve that a streamlined process has to exist.

  • R V Subramanian

    The author is splitting hair! All costs including executive, scientific, technical , skilled and unskilled manpower costs in India are much cheaper than those in Western countries! This is very much in keeping with the general levels of income in the country. Again when people enjoy their work, overtime is not a pressure. It would all depend upon the working environment .

  • Rohini

    In the top jobs, the most sought after jobs, people do NOT work nine hours and do not get paid overtime. Why scrutinise only the ISRO pay checks..why not look at the hours for management consultants, engineers at IBM, Google, Infosys, Microsoft etc. Do they watch the clock and clock OT hours? Nope…and that’s where the word ‘passion’ come in..within reasonable limits of course. We are not talking about 18 hour days everyday. We are talking about special projetcs that may at times require extra hours to meet the goal.
    What about journalists – do they get paid overtime?
    And its is ironic that in that ONE organisation that is run by the govt where people work with passion and achieve the impossible without watching the clock, we have masters like this author who find something to criticise even in THAT! Damned if you do, damned if you do not. I think the scientists at ISRO are perfectly capable of talking for themselves if they feel ‘exploited’. We do not need such ‘champions’ that barely understand what they are speaking about.

    • Pratik Gupte

      ISRO is simply an example, and is singled out here *because* it’s been so widely touted as an example of efficiency and frugality that other sectors in India should emulate. The point stands that labour is valued at nothing in India, no matter if the labour is of a literal rocket scientist, and should be valued more if there’s to be any hope of retaining talent (which is also valued at zilch).
      Also, don’t confuse pressure to deliver with passion.

  • Rambler

    Cost of toor daal in US $6 (inr 420) for 1 kg. Cost of toor daal in India inr 200 for 1 kg.
    Is the daal any different? No
    It was probably grown in Mozambique for both countries.
    What I am trying to explain is that cost is not always a function of quality. There is a component of profit and Standard of living wages.
    In the US, NASA outsources a lot of work to the private sector thus bringing in the factor of profitability whereas ISRO does most work in-house saving money.
    Person earning $100,000 in the US will have a similar lifestyle to a person earning inr 2,000,000 in India (roughly). So there is saving there was well.

    Have you heard of overtime in the banks in America? No, salaried employees are NOT paid OT.

    • blueblood88

      While I agree with the crux of your post, toor dal is nowhere close to Rs 200 anymore. It used to be at the time of toor dal shortage panic but now it is selling at nearly Rs 70 at local shops and around Rs 80 at online stores.

      • Rambler

        That strengthens my point 🙂 thanks

  • Arun Shaji

    The current economics followed in the world is western educated concepts which in essence is structured to maintain supremacy of white race. Almost all the western currency are over valued where as Indian currency is highly undervalued hence i am at odds with the comparative study done by author.
    If I am to manufacture the product in Mars where my social structure and economic structure runs will there be any meaning to do a comparison with a country like US.
    The way the west has pictured the macro economics is that the rest of the world always feel to be at the odd end. What do you think is the cost of producing IPHONE in Afghanistan where there are abundant raw materials or for that matter in Mars. Don’t weigh the entire world in US dollars it is a bubble waiting to be pricked 😀

  • Ravi Rikhye

    Cant say much about our space program as I am ignorant, but I’m not sure we can compare our Mars mission to latest US. In weapons I can tell you that though our labor costs are low, our productivity is even lower. Our unit costs in most case have crept up to 75% of US, and that’s without taking into account into quality difference. On the labor, clearly we lose big numbers of talent to the foreign. Those same Indians then help US develop tech which is sold to us. I dont know what the solution is, though. I have no doubt ISRO folks need to be paid better. But wont other government agencies freak out? I dont know – I’m asking

  • Kiran MVV

    The rest of the article is fine, but this is where the deal breaker is:

    “So while frugal engineering may be a good thing in many environments, it shouldn’t be so for space. Launch vehicles always need to meet a safety threshold; if they can’t afford to, then that’s a deal-breaker.”

    Does the author mean to suggest that ISRO launches space modules WITHOUT conducting QA tests on them? Or does he mean to suggest that an organisation which knows HOW to cut down it’s costs, which takes tremendous calculations into considerations which many space organisations do not, do NOT perform checks and counterchecks before they loan out our missile technology for other nations??

    This is nothing more than a ridicule of the highest nature. The writer may have caught one point that makes sense but that doesn’t mean he stretch his freedom of expression and paint everything that ISRO does as whimsical in nature…

    Yeah I agree that NASA is the top dog because it’s been around a whole lot longer than any other space organisation has… If any of you people remember the PSLV-1 launch i.e., the First PSLV launch, it was failure – not in a way you expected where the rocket flies into the skies and detonates like it happened for NASA many many times… The launch was aborted by the automated systems because they detected a leak in the fuel system and that was why the launch was called off. The second launch was a success – in launch and the satellite failed to reach orbit…

    The above examples are just to show that ISRO has also made mistakes so they know how costly they are. Suggesting that we launch tin cans into space and to think that the other Nations which don’t have space programs of their own would use our rockets and services without going through Quality checks is nothing more Ridiculing our own Space organisation…

    • The Wire

      Kiran: That line isn’t an accusation of ISRO at all. It states that when engineering for safety, you can’t cut corners. And I’m not even suggesting that’s what ISRO does to cut costs.

      • Plebian

        This is article also appears to be hinting at VSSC contract employee agitation.

  • S.Thiyagarajan

    Frugal engineering practices are not peculiar to ISRO, in fact every successful company worth the salt adopt frugal techniques, the are successful because of that. They are frugal not only in labour aspect but also in every aspect of the process from procurement, fabrication and assembling. It is the frugal practice that got us the CRYOgenic engine at a much cheaper cost when the same was denied to us by Russia. It is a cause and consequence situation. The author has tried his best to paint one of the few internationally successful indian entities in a bad light. The article is more confusing than revealing, like the comparing the drain workers to that of the ISRO workers. Let us take pride in what the ISRO has achieved and dont go on nit-picking.

  • Ashish Kothari

    Before asking this question did you ever wonder how Chinese economy grew to the second largest in just 2 decades?! Yes it is cheap labor and more population, more workers.

    Similarly ISRO does have an advantage of cheaper labor costs as compared to what NASA and European engineers would get paid, but isn’t it how global market eco system works, so why complain about that?!

    The main issue here is not just cheaper labor, but the success rate with which ISRO is launching its satellites and mighty complex projects all within their paltry budgets.

    Your cheap Chinese made toy or furniture would fail and nothing will happen. You’ll go back and buy another one. But can ISRO’s cheaply paid workforce afford to produce cheaper results like Chines products?! NO. They just don’t work for money alone, they work for pride and a sense of achievement.

    When most IIT’ians go abroad to join tech-giants like Google, Microsoft, CISCO, for fat pay checks, ISRO scientists choose to stay in India to accomplish their dreams of working for one of the best scientific organization in India – ISRO.

    They know that what they are doing today will not only keep our borders safe, but also protect our citizens from natural calamities, improve productivity, communications, agriculture, health and education, and eliminate poverty in years to come.