India on Friday launched the politically charged “South Asia satellite”, which it says will provide communications services to other countries in the region. The Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, which carries the Rs 235-crore South Asia satellite, took off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, at 4 pm.

The GSAT-9 satellite, India says, will help improve communication, disaster management, weather updates and connectivity for six other nations in the region – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. During a meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in 2014, Modi had dubbed it a “priceless gift to India’s neighbours”. However, Pakistan had later pulled out of the Rs 450-crore project. Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Nafees Zakaria said Pakistan had been interested in participating at first, but rescinded as India was “not willing to develop the project on a collaborative basis”.

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Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan already have communication satellites in space. India’s project is expected to especially benefit Bhutan and the Maldives, which do not have space programmes of their own and are particularly susceptible to climate-related disasters.

The launch is viewed as a move by India to emphasise its role as the power centre in the region and gain trust from its neighbours at a time when China is making similar inroads. Experts say this is the first time India has launched a satellite with a clear foreign policy agenda, as against a commercial, defence or scientific one.

Reactions from the neighbourhood

The successful launch of the GSAT-9 satellite was welcomed by leaders of the Saarc countries. “The launch of this satellite will boost regional cooperation and bring about common progress of our region,” ANI quoted Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay as saying. His views were echoed by Afghanistan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, who said, “If cooperation through land is not possible, it is certainly possible through sky and we are confident that we will integrate. Development must become citizen-centric,” Ghani added.

“I congratulate the government of India. I hope this will open a new horizon of cooperation in the region,” Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said. Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena expressed hope that the initiative would support all regions, enhance economic conditions and help eliminate poverty.

While Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal said the satellite would help provide communication services in its hilly regions, Maldives President Abdullah Yameen took a leaf out of Modi’s book and said the initiative was an example of ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’.

Modi, too, emphasised on the uniqueness of the project and described the launch as a “historic” day for South Asia. “With this launch, we have started a journey to build the most advanced frontier of our partnership,” he said. “I congratulate the team of scientists who worked hard for the successful launch of the South Asia Satellite. We are very proud of them,” he added.