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Catching early

Chinese incursion and Uttarakhand tragedy: Role for satellites

For centuries, the mighty and magnificent Himalayas have remained an integral and inseparable part of the national consciousness of India.

India’s spiritual literature describes Himalayas as the veritable symbol of divinity, nobility and immortality.

As the snow clad abode of Gods, Himalayas continues to be held in reverence by a large segment of the Indian population.

In addition to serving as the sentinel and guardian of the country, Himalayas also stands out as the originating point of the major rivers flowing through the northern and eastern parts of the country.

As such, any development affecting Himalayas could have an impact on the entire country. The tricky issue of the incursion of the Chinese defence forces along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that passes through the frigid and frightening Himalayan heights has for now been settled.

And the massive flash floods in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand that led to one of the worst human tragedies in the living memory, are the two recent events which had as its backdrop the impregnable Himalayas.

That in both the cases, satellite systems meant for various end uses could  have been used to imaginatively to  obviate these twin problems is yet to dawn on the power that be in New Delhi.

Satellite resources

As it is, the massive intelligence failure that the Indian Army suffered before and during the 1999 short lived Kargil conflict with Pakistan has been attributed to the glaring failure of the Indian defence establishment to provide the Indian military with easy access to the satellite resources for purposes such as surveillance and reconnaissance as well as weather watch and communications.

Unfortunately, till date India lacks even a solitary dedicated defence satellite. In distinct contrast, China operates a fleet of dedicated satellites supporting its defence forces.

Of course, the GSAT-7 satellite that Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is planning to launch sometime this year is believed to be an exclusive naval satellite that Indian Navy would use for meeting its communications and networking needs.

Of course, Indian Army can definitely have access to the civilian satellites being operated by ISRO to keep an eye on Chinese adventurism in the Himalayan heights.

But it could be a limited access. It is high time that India acquires both the electronic intelligence (ELINT) and communications intelligence satellite (COMINT) to help heighten the vigil across country’s international borders and obviate the possibility of Chinese troops once again crossing the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and digging deep into the Indian territory.

As it is, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has a plan to build an ELINT satellite with the support of ISRO.

According to sources in DRDO, this high performance ELINT satellite will be for the exclusive use of the Indian armed forces.

This satellite, which is expected to be launched sometime during the current decade, will have the capability to pick up conversations and monitor espionage activities.

As such, this satellite could be of tremendous utility to the Indian defence patrols on the lookout for Chinese incursions in the sprawling and difficult to monitor Himalayan stretch.

On the other hand, the successful launch of India’s first exclusive navigation satellite IRNSS-1A by means of the four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) could prove a force multiplier for the Indian defence forces patrolling the porous Himalayan borders.

In particular, the positional information that IRNSS-1A is capable of providing, could smoothen the task of Indian defence forces engaged in monitoring the incursion of Chinese armed units into the Indian territory.

Because the full blown Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) will have as many as seven spacecraft in its final configuration, Indian armed forces will not have problem accessing the satellite navigation capability.

In fact, the Indian defence forces had problem accessing restricted service offered by the American GPS.

Right at the moment, Indian defence forces have limited access to the IRS series of earth observation and INSAT series of communications spacecraft being operated by ISRO.

But then in the context of the threat of Chinese incursions into the Indian territory and rapid changing dynamics of battlefield scenario, Indian defence establishment is keen to have a constellation of dedicated satellites for applications ranging from surveillance and reconnaissance to communications and navigation.

Space assets

Indeed, the significant impact of space assets on military power in US and the ambitions of many other nations in Asia to give a defence edge to their space programmes is also watched avidly by the Indian defence establishment.

The Geo Imaging Satellite (GISAT) that ISRO is planning to launch during the second shalf of this decade could prove invaluable for the Indian armed forces in so far as getting near, real time pictures of large areas at 50-m resolution.

The multi resolution GISAT will be placed into a geostationary orbit. The 1850-kg fully Indian built RISAT-1 and 300 kg RISAT-II that ISRO realized with the help of  Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), being active microwave remote sensing space platforms, could help Indian defence forces monitor events along and across the Himalayan borders even under the cover of darkness and cloudy climate.

The revisiting capability of RISAT satellites, which is four to five days, is of critical importance to the surveillance.

In particular, the highly agile RISAT-II can be manoeuvred to change its viewing angle as per the shifting needs of the Indian defence forces. From a strategic perspective, these features are ideally suited for reconnaissance purposes.

The Cartosat series of cartographic satellites being operated by ISRO which are capable of providing a good picture of landscape and terrain features are of immense use to the Indian defence forces stationed in the Himalayan heights.

The optical imaging system of Cartosat-series of satellites boasts of resolution better than one metre. The highly agile Cartosat satellites are capable of providing scene specific stereoscopic imageries which have immense significance for defence applications.

But then there is no denying the fact that Cartosat series of satellites fall short of the 10-15 cm resolution featured by some of the best defence satellites in the world.

Incidentally, the TES (Technology Experiment Satellite) launched by ISRO way back in 2001 is known to have served as a platform for realizing the technology of high performance satellite observations systems that can be used by both civilian agencies and defence forces.

But then to tackle the menace of Chinese incursions in the Himalayan region, Indian defence forces would need a variety of satellites including meteorological spacecraft capable of monitoring climatic fluctuations, reconnaissance satellites.

Then that could locate the troop movement and defence build up, electronics ferret satellites gathering data on radio frequencies as well as communications satellites providing real time secure data links among defence forces scattered over a vast geographical stretch.

But then the cardinal question that pops up is that whether India has the kind of resources, manpower expertise and institutional structure required for building and launching exclusive defence satellites with advanced technological features with a quick turn around time.

This is an issue that the ruling dispensation in New Delhi would need to address seriously and without any loss of time.

From military incursion to the natural disaster, it is a far cry. The mid-2013 unprecedented flash floods in the Garhwal Himalayas in Uttarakhand which besides causing widespread destruction and devastation left yet to be estimated number of pilgrims and adventurers dead, is a clear pointer to the vengeance that nature has unleashed as a response to the human folly  by way of encroachment of the river bed and unplanned infrastructure development.

Indeed, a number of studies on the fragile eco system of Garhwal region carried out using satellite imageries in tandem with GIS (Geographic Information System) over the last few years make it clear that the unplanned, haphazard and indiscriminate encroachment of the river bed and unchecked construction activities on the hill sides have contributed in a big way to the natural disaster in the ecologically sensitive Himalayan region.

Disappearing forests, crumbling mountain ranges, decreasing snow fall and depleting rivers, as seen by the vigilant eyes in the sky, were all the contributing elements to the tragedy that was awaiting to unfold in the ecologically sensitive Kedar valley which continues to reel under the impact of huge flow of pilgrims year after year.

Satellite study

Even as the politicians were busy with blame game, environmental activist and Magasaysay award winner Chandi Prasad Bhat accused the Uttarakhand Government of sleeping over a fact filled report on the destruction in and around the Kedaranath shrine that the Hyderabad based National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA)-now renamed National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC)-of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

This report based on the analysis of satellite imageries was submitted to the Uttarakhand Government in 2001.

“The scale of destruction at the Himalayan shrine could have been far less if the state government had paid attention to the report of NRSA whose scientists had identified the natural calamity prone and hazard prone areas of Uttarakhand,” noted Bhat.

Giving details, he pointed out that the “report identifies the areas around Kedaranath  including Rambara, Gaurikund, Ghindurpani and Garuriya, which have been the worst  hit in the recent tragedy as highly prone to landslides and natural calamities”.

The Ahmedabad based Space Applications Centres (SAC) of ISRO and Dehradun based Regional Remote Sensing Service Centre (RRSC) and Indian Institute of Remote Sensing (IIRS) too have carried out extensive studies on the eco fragility of the Himalayan Garhwals by making use of the satellite data.

Many of these reports also speak of human contribution to the process of eco-degradation in the region. The rapid and unplanned construction carried out at Kedaranath as the tourist inflow boomed over the years has been one of the causative factors for putting excessive strain on the finely tuned eco system of the region.

Clearly, the Uttarakhand tragedy had the trappings of both the natural and human elements. “In this case, rampant construction on Mandakini river had strained the eco system. The river had to react at some point of time. Such things like cloud burst and glacier melting do happen in Himalayas but it became a disaster as man made activities led to huge number of deaths” observes Bhat.

Satellite based studies have revealed that expanding human settlements and urbanisation have brought about a drastic a change in land use pattern resulting in the increased flood fury.

Further environmentalists also point out to the hazards associated with building hydro power projects across the rivers flowing through this Himalayan state.

For they say that harnessing of water resources through the construction of dams could weaken and destabilize the geologically young mountain slopes.

Further, it is argued that most downstream damage in otherwise flood prone areas is caused by dams and barrages which at times release large volumes of water, especially during the monsoon season.

Early warning

There is no denying the fact that ruling dispensation in Dehradun had enough prior warnings on hand to plan for minimizing the impact of the tragedy in Garhwal Himalayas which is projected as “Deva Bhoomi” or “Land of Gods” in the tourist literature.

But it preferred to sleep over the warnings. On its part, a CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) report submitted  three years ago had noted that there was a hydro electric project at a distance of every 5-6 km, with more than 40 already operational and  with many more in various stages of implementation.

This kind of development, the CAG had observed, could pose a serious threat to the fragile and finely tuned eco system of the region.

Further, this CAG report had alerted both the state and central governments over the fact that mushrooming hydel power projects on Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers were causing damage to the hillside besides adding to the possibility of flash foods.

According to a study by the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) too many hydro power projects, underground tunnels, roads as well as encroachments of riverbeds by building coupled with deforestation, could possibly have increased the fury of flash floods.

“We do not have credible environmental impact assessment of infrastructure projects on those highly ecologically sensitive areas,” says Himanshu Thakkar of SNDRP.

He goes on to say that “neither is there any credible mechanism to assure compliance with environmental regulations. These are areas where there is a heavy influx of tourists and pilgrims. The collapse of buildings like a set of playing cards shows these were encroachments on the river bed and flood plains.”

Incidentally, the satellite phones made available by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) ensured the smooth coordination of rescue teams engaged in identifying pilgrims trapped in  remote and isolated locations of the flood hit areas of Kedar valley.

Meanwhile, ISRO which is studying the extent of destruction wrought by the flash floods with the aid of satellite imageries believes that human element did play a role in increasing the fury of the flash floods.

The satellite imageries analysed by ISRO reveal that haphazard construction in the areas around Kedaranath shrine did contribute to prevent the free flow of water.

Following the massive tourist influx, the influential construction lobby has been hyperactive in putting up unplanned structures on the ecologically fragile areas of the valley.

The RISAT-1 and RISAT-II active microwave imaging satellites being operated by ISRO which can work under conditions of cloud, darkness and haze, have been used for mapping the extent of destruction caused by the flash floods in Kedar valley.

With the satellite resources data on hand, India should go about preparing for situations like Chinese armed forces incursion and Uttarakhand flood tragedy well in advance. It is better to be forearmed and forewarned.