In case I’ve failed to make it clear in the rest of this analysis, the point of comparing NOAA’s and U.S. administration’s disaster responses to those of the ISRO and the Indian government is to show process and philosophical differences between those two nations. It doesn’t prove that the U.S.’ process/philosophy is superior (because there are SO MANY instances that demonstrate it is not) or that India is a lesser nation. But, there appears to be some decisions being made in India which will inadvertently negatively impact India’s space industry while also negatively affecting its citizens.
At a fundamental level, technology is created and used to make a human’s life better. Whether the technology is something as simple-seeming as irrigation, fire, and the wheel, or as mundane as a plastic soda bottle with a screw top, each one has contributed to making the lives of humans a bit less frantic and a little more comfortable. Some governments have taken this lesson to heart in their attempts to keep citizens safe and healthy, but not without friction. Often nations and their people receive harsh lessons as reality and nature impose their wills on humans’ superstitions, guesses, and theories.
As the lessons have been given through various “methods” (earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.), governments have lost military fleets, states have lost cities and towns, and people have lost their loved ones and property. Any combination of those consequences is why some countries invest in technologies and processes that provide people a fighting chance. Space technologies, particularly Earth observation (EO) and remote sensing (RS) satellites, are beneficial, if expensive, investments governments are willing to make.
The More You Know (Can Save Your Life)
In the U.S., for example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) uses all the resources it can buy and create, with the talent to back it up, to help keep U.S. citizens safe. Satellites, computer mainframes, scientists, mathematicians, researchers, custodians (Yes, custodians! Clean workplaces are important.), etc., all have a part in working with collecting information of and above the Earth. They use this information, attempting to understand not only what nature’s current population-whittling tools are being pulled out of the shed but where those tools, such as hurricanes or tornadoes, are likely to be used.
NOAA then informs the nation of impending disasters, providing updates as reasonably possible. It did this with Hurricane Ian in September of last year, with each update showing shifts in Ian’s direction, wind strength, and possible cone of destruction. It used all its available tools: satellites, aircraft, buoys, and more. Even for those paying extremely close attention and using NOAA’s information as it became available, some storm shifts came surprisingly quickly. However, at a guess, without those updates, the storm’s consequences could have been so much worse.
It’s very likely NOAA, other government agencies, and first responders, are still attempting to distill Ian’s lessons. As with all natural disasters, there’s much that can be improved in how humans respond to them. Populations grow, and technology changes. The technology used to warn large populated sections in Florida, such as the Tampa Bay area, provided an edge to those willing to use the information constructively. NOAA and others reported that information to U.S. citizens without hindrance. In the instance of Ian, the U.S. government provided the information and allowed its citizens to decide what to do.
But what if one part of a government hinders another part of the same government in disseminating useful, potentially life-saving information? Especially if the government agency forbidding the release of that information is the one that’s supposed to protect a nation’s citizens. That’s what seems to be happening in India regarding the town of Joshimath.
Excellent Data, Paved Over with Good Intentions?
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) released satellite imagery of Joshimath and the area surrounding it. The ISRO had been monitoring the area and collecting data from satellites that passed overhead from 2020 through January 2023.
According to the collected data, the town subsides about 6.6 cm (2.6 in.) per year. However, that rate accelerated in 2022/2023. The space agency’s remote sensing institute noted in those releases that in 12 days, between December 27, 2022, and January 8, 2023, some parts of the town subsided (sank) 5.4 cm (2.12 in.). Earlier, from April through November 2022, those parts had already sunk about 9 cm. (3.5 in.), which means in 2022 alone, the land Joshimath sits in sank nearly half a foot.
“In its communication to the heads of organisations and institutes on Friday, the NDMA said it has observed that various government institutions are releasing data related to the subject on social media platforms and also they are interacting with the media with their own interpretation of the situation.”
The NDMA, the agency responsible for aiding Indian citizens against natural disasters, actively required the removal of useful information. That information was collected by tools (expensive satellites) and examined by (high-salaried) professionals whose work was paid for by Indian taxpayers. The rationale provided for directing the removal of the Joshimath information? It will confuse residents.
“The statements on Joshimath are creating confusion not only among affected residents but also among citizens of the country, the NDMA said.”
Other incentives may be at play in suppressing the information. From The Hindu:
“Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami also asked the media not to portray images that Joshimath was “literally sinking”.
“We are all set to witness an international winter games tournament in Auli next month. Even the Char Dham Yatra will start in April. The kind of sentiments being created across the world that entire Uttarakhand is in danger. This is not right. I understand that development is happening very speedily in the State, as said by some people. So, we will try to make a balance between economy and ecology in future,” Mr. Dhami said.”
Ignorance is one thing. But purposely keeping potentially life/property-saving information out of the public’s hands is criminal, no matter the rationale.
Squandering the Opportunity to Make Life Better
The satellite-collected information shows sinking and does not predict Joshimath’s future. It does, however, indicate the likelihood of subsidence in that town and where it’s most likely to continue. It also shows that the subsidence increased in 2022, which should concern people. And Joshimath’s residents aren’t stupid–website pictures from that town show something is happening with the ground there. They are looking for the Indian government to help them, not get in their way.
India is a nation operating a better-than-average constellation of EO/RS satellites, many dedicated to helping its citizens stay safe. Similar to NOAA, the ISRO has the technology and talent to build and operate those satellites. But the actions of a few of its politicians risk making the data from those satellites irrelevant. Those decisions may force some of India’s citizens and media to turn to other data sources. Commercial companies and other nations operate satellites with radar payloads (a growing sector). In some instances, they might provide better products at a higher revisit frequency. They certainly could, without any Indian interference, post similar data about Joshimath on the internet, just as the ISRO did. That would set a precedent with inertia that the Indian government would find hard to overcome.
India’s satellites, and its technologies, are only useful if the government provides citizens the information so that they can help themselves. Their purpose is to make the lives of Indian citizens better. If the government is worried about confusion, append a note to the already released information, explaining why those images and reports aren’t the whole story. That’s an opportunity to show the value of the government and the technologies it’s using instead of displaying ineptitude while devaluing India’s space tools.
But for goodness' sake, whatever the Indian government does, it should never use a Sharpie on the images.