A fully integrated GSLV inside the ISRO Vehicle Assembly Building, Sriharikota, 2018. Photo: ISRO
- Until recently, and perhaps still, private players in the Indian spaceflight industry have been treated as simply vendors and suppliers to ISRO.
- With a view to mending this issue, a group of industry leaders have come together to launch the ‘Indian Space Association’. PM Modi flagged it off on October 11.
- Despite the association’s bombastic vision for the Indian space sector, the solutions can really only come from another body, called INSPACe.
On October 11, Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged off the new Indian Space Association (ISpA), an industry body that includes representatives of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), telecom companies, providers of geographic-information services, manufacturers and other stakeholders of the Indian space programme.
At the outset, it seems like ISpA will at best be an advocate for improving Indian industry’s engagement with the country’s celebrated space programme. The real work will lie with another body called INSPACe.
In fact, ISpA’s brief is quite bombastic and there are doubts if it can really exert any influence. But before we get to that, let’s start with the basics.
Space activities in India have been crying out for structural changes to allow them to better engage industry in space activities, and to encourage the nascent NewSpace group of entrepreneurs to find their place in this exciting and challenging field.
ISRO has had a technology transfer and industry development cell to transfer useful technologies to industry to commercialise, and to involve industry to develop new technologies according to ISRO’s requirements.
But stakeholders of this sector perceived this to be insufficient. As one booklet, entitled ‘Unlocking the Space Sector’, put it, “In India … players within the private space industry have been limited to being vendors or suppliers to the government’s space program.”
The Indian government took note of this situation and, on June 24, 2020, “approved far reaching reforms in the space sector aimed at boosting private sector participation in the entire range of space activities”. The corresponding gazette notification, dated October 2, 2021, also states that, “pending the enactment of a comprehensive [law], it is necessary to constitute and make operational a body governing space activities, to permit, regulate, promote, hand-hold, monitor and supervise space activities of Non-Governmental Private Entities (NGPEs) in India”.
This was the rationale to create the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (INSPACe), which has been positioned as an autonomous unit under the Department of Space to enable “space activities as well as usage of Department of Space owned facilities by NGPEs”.
Set the market on fire
The creation of INSPACe raised expectations in the industry but also prompted a degree of despondency among ISRO staff, together with a rumour that ISRO was being ‘privatised’. This sentiment found voice among several senior and retired persons. They included R.G. Nadadur, former additional secretary of the Department of Space and former ISRO chairman G. Madhavan Nair. Both of them have made impassioned pleas to Pawan Kumar Goenka (on Facebook) after Goenka assumed charge as the chairman of INSPACe and started his work.
The induction of outside experts into ISRO is not new. Vikram Sarabhai did so from institutions in India and abroad, as did his notable successor Satish Dhawan. Perhaps one of the most famous of such inductees was Yash Pal, who came from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. But this trend came to an end after Dhawan relinquished charge of ISRO, and since then, higher level vacancies have been filled from ISRO’s upper echelons.
So when Goenka, from the automobile industry, was appointed as INSPACe chairman instead of someone from within ISRO, the government set the cat among the pigeons. The decision may not be entirely unfair either: the fact is that while ISRO does have very capable staff members, it doesn’t have the sort of business acumen the organisation needs to substantially increase its share of the global space economy, from its currently measly 2%.
Antrix and then New Space India, Ltd. haven’t exactly set the global space-market on fire. Both these so-called PSUs of the Department of Space – not ISRO – have been led by personnel appointed from among senior ISRO staff. The domination of department and ISRO top-management people in both these units is thus hard to ignore.
The real point to ponder is the board that has been set up to assist the INSPACe chairman. The gazette notification states: “INSPACe will be chaired by a secretary grade officer and will have technical experts for space activities, safety experts, experts from academia and industries, legal and strategic experts from other departments of [the] Government of India”.
The board currently has an IAS-cadre person on deputation to the Department of Space, two government nominees from the space sector and one government nominee from the Ministry of IT, two PSU members, one industry member and four academicians. That there are no legal, strategic and safety experts on the board is puzzling. None of the 11 other members can claim to be experts in these areas.
The biggest gap is in the area of regulations. This board cannot be expected to influence the regulatory environment, collectively or otherwise, unless it includes representatives from the Union home and defence ministries.
Also puzzling is the lack of representatives from the many startups, which together form a significant part of the NGPEs.
Indian space activities are conducted under the ambit of the UN Outer Space Treaty. There are issues of safety, space environment and liabilities for which there should be a legal expert on the board who is well versed in space law – and the same goes for an expert on strategic matters, who has been missing even though the ISpA inauguration stressed on this point.
Ball in INSPACe’s court
Now, while INSPACe will act as a gateway through which industry members can access the Department of Space and ISRO, they will be expected to do so on an individual basis, depending on their needs. This is a problem.
Before the INSPACe chairman had been appointed, several startups had already signed separate memoranda with ISRO for support and use of its facilities. The Indian space industry doesn’t have a common platform to interface with INSPACe. There are several industry associations, like ASSOCHAM, CII, FICCI and NASSCOM, and some of their members are in the aerospace industry and have special interest groups to address this niche.
In addition, there are two groups – the Association of Geospatial Industries and the Satcom Industries Association – pertaining to space applications, which address Earth-observation and satellite communications, respectively.
But apart from SpaceFed, which represents aerospace industry startups, there is no dedicated association that represents the interests and concerns of the private aerospace industry.
ISpA fills this need.
The October 11 inauguration of ISpA highlighted the need for just such an association, and outlined problems that the industry faced, mainly due to the infamously complicated multi-window regulatory process and the exorbitant prices attached to technologies that ISRO had developed using public funds, among others. All this background information is also the proper context in which to assess the genesis of and scope for ISpA.
The ISpA brief, circulated during its inauguration, makes for interesting reading. It aspires to be the “apex space industry body,” which will be “the collective voice of the Indian space industry”, and will “undertake policy advocacy and engage with all stakeholders of the entire Indian space domain, including the government and its agencies, to make India self-reliant, technologically advanced and a leading player in the global space arena.”
It is unclear how these things will be possible without addressing the concerns the industry stakeholders have been raising for years. This is why the ball is firmly in INSPACe’s court now. If it doesn’t deal with them, it won’t matter how expansive ISpA’s vision is.
Need for speed
For starters, the government, INSPACe and the Department of Space need to move faster. The government announced that it would form a body called INSPACe on June 24, 2020, but actually created it, and appointed Goenka as its chairman, only 17 months later. Granted, there was a devastating epidemic in between, but that shouldn’t have slowed the Department of Space.
In fact, some news outlets have reported that 40 applications are already pending before INSPACe. How are they being managed? The INSPACe board will need to thoroughly vet each of these applications before being able to deliberate on the final recommendations. So the board will have to be assisted by specific directorates that address technical, safety, legal and strategic issues relating to these applications. But there has been no visibility on the creation and staffing of such directorates.
Then there are the policy issues that will impact the work of INSPACe. The modified geospatial policy that the government announced in February 2021 is still to be finalised It is only then that we can begin to figure out how we can harmonise its precepts with those outlined in the 2020 Remote Sensing Policy, the 2021 Satellite Navigation Policy and the 2021 Drone Policy.
Some industry members are also going ahead with designing and implementing space-based ‘internet of things’ setups, even though we don’t yet have a policy for low-bitrate communication applications.
In sum, the Indian government’s initial enthusiasm to support space activities with a wider range of industries and industry leaders is commendable. But our expectations should look beyond the zest and should in fact be tempered by how quickly and how well the government can follow through.
This article has been jointly published with Geospatial World.
Arup Dasgupta is the managing editor of Geospatial World and former deputy director of the Space Applications Centre, ISRO.