It can't keep the lights on, but India says it's ready for a mission to Mars

Prime Minister defends project in wake of blackouts that left millions without power

Delhi

India's prime minister confirmed yesterday that his country will launch a space mission to Mars next year in what he said would be a huge leap forward for science and technology, despite some critics complaining that the £50m could be better spent.

During a speech to mark the 65th anniversary of India's independence from Britain, Manmohan Singh said the unmanned orbiter mission would be launched in November 2013 – making India the sixth country to launch a Mars mission.

"Our spaceship will go near Mars and collect important scientific information," he said, speaking from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi. "[It] will be a huge step for us in the area of science and technology."

The mission to Mars is seen as an attempt to develop the space programme and push India's credentials as a growing world power. During his speech, Mr Singh also praised those scientists responsible for the launch earlier this year of the Agni V missile, which is capable of reaching Beijing and other major Chinese cities.

Yet some have questioned the need for a mission to Mars when the country's creaking infrastructure is under such pressure and when countless millions live in wretched conditions. Just weeks ago, two massive power cuts on consecutive days left hundreds of millions without electricity.

Vandana Shiva, a veteran environmentalist, said: "The money could be used on other things. You could make sure no child goes hungry; you could make sure your economy is sustainable and that you don't need to dam every river."

Last week, the former head of the Indian Space Research Organisation said the country's space programme should focus on manned missions rather than Mars.

"[The Mars mission is] only a very small payload with a not very big scientific objective," G Madhavan Nair told the Press Trust of India. "We cannot say we can make an impact nationally or internationally [with that]."

But Mr Singh's plan gained support from some opponents. Brinda Karat, a senior member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said: "There are many pressing priorities. But India has always has always been committed to the development of science. I don't think we should see these things as contradictory."

In his speech, Mr Singh also addressed the question of the country's economy, saying that national security was at risk if growth was not boosted and steps not taken against widespread corruption. In recent weeks, the country has been rocked by populist protests against corruption with a number of activists alleging the prime minister has failed to act.

"We want to create a system in which money from government schemes –pensions for old people, scholarships for students or wages for labourers – can be credited directly into people's bank accounts," said Mr Singh.

The main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, said it was unimpressed with the prime minister's words. Prakash Javadekar, a member of the upper house of the parliament and a party spokesman, said the speech was "disastrous and useless" in relation to the economy. He said: "After eight years, he has nothing to offer. He is playing the blame game."

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