ISRO chief K. Sivan. Photo: PTI.
On August 20, the Department of Space (DOS) organised a webinar entitled ‘Unlocking India’s Potential in Space Sector’. This much-awaited event spanned four sessions and continued for over seven hours, and provided details on a new nodal agency the Government of India has created to ‘open up’ the Indian space sector for private players. The sessions were important thanks in large part to many uncertainties about this agency, called the Indian Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe), since the announcement of its creation last month. Principal among them were its institutional mechanism, industry promotion activities, the application process, opportunities for private entities and the precise role of New Space India Limited (NSIL).
Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) K. Sivan said during the webinar that the international space programme is becoming more diverse and that space-sector startups are working on more and more developmental programs. However, there exist no financial, infrastructural and regulatory mechanisms in place to support them — and so this is why the Government of India created IN-SPACe, a public-sector undertaking empowered to regulate the private sector.
He also said ISRO wasn’t ‘unlocking’ the country’s space sector with a view to privatisation but only to lighten ISRO’s as well as the DOS’s burden, indicating these two state agencies would still helm the space programme. Sivan expressed hope that as a result, investment, technological development, capacity-building, international collaboration and private-sector contribution to national projects would all increase, thus also contributing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Atma Nirbhar’ (self-sufficiency) goal.
On the matter of foreign companies participating in Indian space activities, Sivan said that would require more deliberation, so the scope of the present reforms are limited to Indian companies.
R. Umamaheswaran, the scientific secretary of ISRO, clarified that the DOS’s mandate includes executing end-to-end space activities that require industry contribution to produce specific components.
Scope of reforms
India’s space-based activities have been growing in leaps and bounds this decade. And as its demands and requirements grow, especially in commercial potential, so also must regulations. To this end, the government recently promulgated reforms on four fronts:
1. Private sector participation in carrying out end-to-end space activities
2. Announcement of opportunities to the Industry
3. Focus by ISRO on development of new technologies and facility sharing with the private sector
4. The changed role in NSIL to own and operate launch vehicles, satellites and services
Thus, the DOS will enable private players to accomplish space activities by creating a nodal agency in the form of IN-SPACe to promote and monitor private sector’s space activities. It will enable the promotion and handholding of Industry, sharing of ISRO facilities either free or at reasonable costs and establishment of facilities in DOS premises.
Operational details of IN-SPACe
The composition of IN-SPACe shall include a Chairman, under whom there shall be Full time members, members from Industry, Academia and DOS. The Space Activities Bill and other allied regulation and policies shall regulate the newly created body. A board will be constituted which shall be advised by the Technical, Legal, Safety and Security, Promotion and Monitoring and Activity Promotion Directorates.
The private players will be required to make an application to IN-SPACe for undertaking space activities, integrated launch manifest, launch and sharing of ISRO’s facilities. The application process is devised as a close loop system to make a transparent and accountable procedure along with a process for dispute resolution also. It was also clarified that while companies will have to approach other departments like the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for frequency issues, for space activities, a single window licenses policy will be implemented.
Roles of NSIL
NSIL has shifted from an erstwhile, supply driven model, focusing on Commercial exploitation of ISRO, to a demand driven model having the ability to act as a satellite operator performing highly complex and capital-intensive activities.
The officials accentuated that all this is possible only when we have a regulatory structure and hence, the Space Activities Bill becomes absolutely mandatory. A new SATCOM and Navigation policy is also being concluded. Space exploration, human spaceflight operation and launch vehicle policies are also on the anvil to bring more clarity for private sector to plan and strategise their activities.
Industry leaders and startups
Perhaps, the best part of the webinar was the contribution of Industry in terms of their expectations, inhibitions and suggestions on the reforms. To quote some notable contributions, Sunil Bharti Mittal urged that Policies should be light touch yet very strong in terms of security assertion.
The representative from L&T highlighted that the transition from ISRO to NSIL raises pertinent questions and issues regarding the fate of contracts with ISRO, budget changes, model for risk capital and Tax incentives. Sudhakar Reddy, raised pertinent questions regarding the handholding mechanism, qualification procedures and source of finance and investment.
Answering these concerns, the ISRO Headquarters clarified that more details will be worked on and released for public. It was also clarified that while the present reforms aim at allowing private players to undertake space activities at their own initiative, same demand and requirement will continue from ISRO and NSIL.
During the session, the authors also raised a question regarding the insurance requirements for manufacturers to which it was clarified that the same is a very exhaustive point and shall be specifically addressed by IN-SPACE once it is in place but it will surely be implemented through “user-friendly approach that will be affordable also”.
Unaddressed aspects of reform
Many concerns were raised over non-circulation of any draft policies or laws in the industry for discussions after 2017. Furthermore, the tax regime in relation to the launching sector in India was highly criticised where an international party can use India’s PSLV at zero GST slab while an Indian company is required to cough 18 percent GST for the same service. However, it is unfortunate to note that concerns like these did not meet any substantial deliberation by the ISRO and only assurances were given in this regard.
Bharat, representing Skyroot put forth three important requests. Firstly, production of a detailed whitepaper for eligibility criteria and licensing procedure, Secondly, Floating the space activities bill in current form to take opinion from industry stakeholders and Thirdly, that a Space federation of India should be created to further private sector participation. It is hoped that steps shall be taken to increase accountability and transparency regarding the main provisions.
This webinar was a successful attempt in bringing clarity to the various reforms and in addressing questions put forth by the industry, the academic and public attending the session.
The DOS seems to understand that while private sector needs favourable policies, ease in licensing and handholding by ISRO, the same is to be balanced with a strict regime to ensure security and protect the government against liability ensuing from these activities. The IN-SPACe along with the Space Activities Bill, other regulation and policies shall take care of such requirements. Thus, while the exact provisions are yet to be critically examined, the industry, academia and public seems to be satisfied by the aim of the government and the steps through which this privatisation is furthered.
Kunwar Surya Pratap and Lavanya Pathak are fourth and fifth year students, B.A. LL.B (Hons.), National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi. Biswanath Gupta is an assistant professor of law at the OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat.