Ameeta Verma Duggal
India has embarked on an ambitious space journey with the government recently announcing structural reforms to boost private participation in space activities apart from allowing private players access to facilities and services of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). India is among the elite group of countries having advanced capabilities in this sector and signatory to various international space treaties, including the UN Outer Space Treaty.
Space sector plays a major role in the technological advancement and expansion of the industrial base. Space operations when placed within the private sector domain, they are likely to be more efficient and globally competitive. If private participation indeed becomes a reality, it will enable the Indian industry to become an important player in the global space economy, generate employment, retain talent in India and be a revenue churner for the government.
With India becoming a signatory to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) way back in 2016, the draft space legislation has been under consideration. Pending that, the charted trajectory, now unveiled, envisages ISRO to focus on its primary activities of R&D, building new technologies, human spaceflight programmes and deep space missions.
Meanwhile, New Space India (NSIL), ISRO’s commercial arm created last year, inter alia, for the promotion and commercial exploitation of products and services emanating from the Indian space programme, “will endeavour to reorient space activities from a ‘supply driven’ model to a ‘demand driven’ model, thereby ensuring optimum utilization of our space assets.”
The government has also announced the setting up of a new autonomous organisation, Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe), to provide private players a level playing field in building satellites and rockets and launch them using the ISRO infrastructure. IN-SPACe is expected to have members from the Space Commission as well as industry representatives on its board and is expected to hand-hold, promote and guide private industries in space activities like future projects for planetary exploration and outer space travel.
To support these structural reforms, the government has assured a “friendly policy and regulatory environment”. Here lies the catch! While the intent is just what India needs, the implementation of the same (as always) can be a challenge.
The extant regulatory regime governing space activities has thus far been unsuccessful in attracting and sustaining private participation. Currently, regulatory implementation and enforcement vests with multiple ministries/departments. There is a 100 percent foreign direct investment permissible in satellites establishment and operation sector, however, proposals are rejected on the ground that the Satellite Communication (SATCOM) Policy, dating back to 2000, is under review. The fact that private sector participation in the permissible space activities is governed by a fluid policy framework and not by an Act of the Parliament is enough to rattle investor confidence.
The complicated web around the licensing and certification regime involving multiple ministries, like the Department of Space (DoS), Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and the Ministry for Information and Broadcasting (I&B Ministry) does nothing to bolster confidence.
Consider this – under the existing norms, guidelines and procedures for implementing the SATCOM policy, a private player seeking to establish a satellite system would require an authorisation from: i) DoS to own and operate an Indian registered satellite system; ii) the Wireless Planning and Coordination Wing of the Ministry of Communications to operate a Space Station in accordance with the ITU Radio Regulations; and iii) Operating licenses for the services to be provided by the system/network, eg, for broadcasting from the I&B Ministry and for telecommunications from DoT.
The approval itself is a ‘single-window clearance’ granted pursuant to consideration by an inter-ministerial group spanning across DoS, DoT, I&B Ministry, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Defence and the Department for Promotion of Industry & Internal Trade. However, there are no prescribed timelines for granting the approval. Navigating through this complex process is counter-productive, unpredictable, time consuming and expensive depriving it of a much-needed competitive edge.
Even the Space Activities Bill 2019 does nothing to address the existing labyrinth of processes. So, when the recent announcements were backed with an assurance of a “friendly policy and regulatory environment”, the question that comes to mind is whether the draft legislation is merely lip-service to address India’s international obligations or is the government seriously considering evolving a sophisticated yet functional regulatory regime to help India’s space programme breach the final frontiers? Sadly, neither the existing framework nor the draft legislation in its current form support the larger vision of an inclusive and mutually beneficial growth.
The emergent need is a consolidation of the multiple ministries and departments responsible for the implementation of the space policy. Creation of IN-SPACe may just be the answer. It would be imperative for IN-SPACe to function as an autonomous body alongside the industry addressing its concerns while governing its activities.
This body must act as a bridge to carry the stakeholders concerns back to the policy makers ensuring that the draft space legislation is finalised keeping in mind the specific requirements of various space activities, easing the licensing process and providing the much-desired regulatory clarity, including around processes, timelines and costs.
Unless a revolutionary change is brought in the regulatory regime, there is no hope of the space reforms resulting in the creation of a commercially successful and innovation driven space sector.
Using the ISRO facilities for testing and launch of satellites has the potential of making projects cost effective and efficient for the private players, boost the Indian economy, bolster the innovative space technology and make this sector globally competitive. The urgency of successful implementation of the space reforms cannot be stressed enough and will go a long way to make India self-reliant and resilient.
Ameeta Verma Duggal is the co-author of Export Controls in India – Law & Procedures and the founder partner of DGS Associates, a New Delhi-based law firm that offers legal services to corporates in the areas of trade, export controls, civil aviation, telecom, litigation and arbitration. Duggal heads the trade laws practice of the firm.