Making the case for India’s National Space Policy – Excerpts from the Kalpana Chawla Annual Space Policy Dialogue 2017

This is the second article wherein I present my takeaways from the panel discussions on Making the case for India’s National Space Policy during the 3rd Kalpana Chawla Annual Space Policy Dialogue.

Click here for the first article that covers the panel discussions on Transponder Capacity for Broadcasting and Broadband over India.

Continuing the format of the first article, I will similarly provide a brief overview on the current state of Indian National Space Policy before proceeding to describe the panel discussion.


The setting up of the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) in 1962 marked the beginning of the Indian Space Program. ISRO was formed in 1969 followed by the Space Commission and the Department of Space, in 1972. The period between the 1960s and the late 1970s did not see stringent export controls on high technology. By the time the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) was established by Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Great Britain, and the United States in 1987, ISRO had already initiated its process of capacity building in space activities by securing the baseline technologies. After India’s nuclear tests of 1974 and 1998, ISRO and several other R&D and production entities pursuing space and missile technology came under heavy sanctions by the US, locking them out of western technology. For instance, the agreement between ISRO and Russia’s Glavkosmos for the supply of engines and cryogenic technologies was limited to the sale of only seven KhimMach KVD-1 engines, under U.S. pressure and sanctions imposed in 1992.

The Indian space program has always been focused on societal applications of space technology, emphasizing on cost-effective pursuit of its space ambitions. Since its inception, the Indian Space Program had comprised all the three major elements of conducting space activities – satellites for remote sensing and communication, space transportation services and application programs. This article gives a brief history of these three elements of ISRO that sheds light on the important role played by international entities especially from the Soviet Union, the USA, France and Germany in kickstarting the Indian Space Program.

Background – Law and Policy

During its formative years, the Indian Space program had a strategic advantage with its space programmes being completely under the government’s control without any intervention of specific national space legislations. However, having ratified the first four UN Treaties (the Outer Space Treaty (1967), the Rescue Agreement (1968), the Liability Convention (1972), the Registration Convention (1976)) and being a signatory to the fifth (The Moon Treaty (1984)), implementing India’s international treaty obligations with national law will represent a physical link between its universally declared stand on outer space and its national application. But in international law, harmonization of international conventions with national law is immaterial for a state, since it is required to fulfil its international obligations in good faith.

Article 51 of the Constitution of India read with Article 53 enables the Government to fulfil India’s international treaty obligations with the objective to promote international peace, through the exercise of executive power without imposing the mandatory pre-condition of enacting national laws. However, one exception is when money is to be withdrawn from the Consolidated Fund of India for making payment to discharge liability to a foreign entity. (Refer Pg 158 of this book)

Moreover, the envisaged acceleration and expansion of civilian space applications and the domestic industry as a whole by the current Indian Government will result in increased bilateral, multilateral and transnational interactions and expect a clear, transparent and user friendly legal regime based on easily accessible information. Towards this, there exist several papers, articles and books composed by experts from the Academia, Industry and also the Department of Space, India making the case for a well-designed legal framework and elaborating on issues to be addressed for a streamlined functioning of the complete ecosystem. I have presented a consolidated report on the same in this article.

It is to be noted that there does exist a policy framework under which ISRO and the Department of Space operates and works towards the utilization of outer space for social-economic development of the country. A brief overview of these policies are given below.

  • Industry Participation Policy towards the promotion of active engagement of the domestic industry by – promoting sub-system level designs and supply, encouraging industry’s utilization of ISRO’s facilities, facilitate technology transfer to industry, offer ISRO’s technical consultancy services to the industry players.
  • Commercialization Policy for sale and lease of Indian space assets and services such as – commercial dissemination of earth observation imagery through International ground stations, lease of transponder space on-board INSAT to governmental and non-governmental users, launch services by PSLV and GSLV, Telemetry & Telecommand (TTC) support for foreign satellites, design, development & manufacture of communication satellites for international customers internationally through Antrix Corporation.
  • Remote Sensing Data Policy that contains modalities for managing, permitting the acquisition & dissemination of earth observation imagery with Department of Space (DOS) of the Government of India as the nodal agency
  • SatCom Policy to facilitate use of INSAT satellites’ transponders by private players and also build and operate communication satellites for them
  • International Cooperation Policy to facilitate bilateral and multilateral cooperation programmes for mutual growth, by allowing non-ISRO and foreign payloads to piggyback on Indian satellites; also participation of scientists and policy experts in international discussions
  • Human Resource Development Policy so as to retain the critical contributing workforce by offering incentives; sponsored research for creating capacity in the academia
  • Effective user participation to promote utilization of space assets and services by other departments and ministries via the INSAT Coordination Committee (ICC), Planning Committee of National Natural Resource Management System (PC-NNRMS) and Advisory Committee on Space Sciences (ADCOS)
  • Technology Upgradation Policy towards realization of indigenous cost-effective space systems and subsystems for the satellites, launch vehicles and the ground support systems.

However, only the Satellite Communication Policy of 1997 and the Remote Sensing Data Policy (RSDP) of 2011 are explicitly mentioned under India’s Space Policy on ISRO’s website.

Panel Discussion

This panel had an interesting mix of speakers from the defense, law, government and industry domains.

Gp Cpt Ajey Lele from the Institute for Defence Studies Analyses, an India think-tank on security and strategic studies, began the panel discussion presenting three arguments against India having a space legislation.

Argument 1 A decade ago, nobody believed that ISRO would reach the Mars, and this impossible feat was accomplished without having any space law in place. The future missions can be accomplished similarly, sans space law.
Argument 2 ISRO is yet to make its GSLV Mk-3 operational. Formulating a space law can be considered after the current projects are complete.
Argument 3 ISRO has been displaying immense potential and capability, having a space law would only limit its innovation.

These arguments might have been the reason behind the lack of political will towards enacting a space law in the country. He strongly opines the need for independent policy frameworks for the commercial, social and strategic space sectors given the different motivation and modus operandi of their space missions. He also emphasises that the domestic space policy should evolve keeping in mind India’s stance on outer space on the international front. India has always followed the norms of the five major space treaties it is signatory to, has accepted the norms of Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures (TCBM) in Outer Space, the International Code of Conduct for Outer Space, and has never opposed the PPWT (Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects). The strategic space policy of India should be framed in such a manner as to not support weaponization of outer space. He also underscored the need for a structural mechanism, wherein the India Space Command would have a Military Space Commission similar to the current Space Commission of the Department of Space. Also required are a robust legal architecture, space situational awareness mechanism and importantly, counter space mechanism.

(Note Speaking of weaponization of outer space, given the ASAT tests by the US, Russia and China, there exist equally strong arguments in favour of and against India demonstrating ASAT capability, especially after the former DRDO Chief VK Saraswat declared India’s readiness for ASAT. The argument against demonstration cites the philosophy of the Indian Space Program since its inception of utilising space technology as a tool for the benefit of the mankind. It is concerned that the international image of India as a peaceful democracy would be tarnished, not to mention the space debris the test would create. The argument in favour draws a parallel with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty NPT that only accepted those states (which are also UN Security Council permanent members) as nuclear power states that had acquired nuclear weapons capability before 1970. India only carried out the first nuclear explosion in 1974 and had since been under several sanctions as coercion to make it sign the NPT (India, China and NPT). If India doesn’t demonstrate its Asat capability, the three states who have already proven theirs might formulate a similar non-Asat treaty and India would again get coerced to accept the same and refrain from carrying out an Asat test. Asat capability will give India significant leverage in international bilateral and multilateral negotiations, which will be forever lost if such an anti-Asat treaty comes into force.
A good compilation on the history of ASAT-tests is published here)

Ashok GV, a lawyer with clients in the defence, aeronautics and space sectors focused his talk on the commercial industry and startup community perspectives of space policy. The key players in the Indian space ecosystem are currently ISRO, the Department of Space and the commercial arm Antrix Corp. He opines that the biggest challenge to the domestic space law will be in balancing the competing interests of all stakeholders while simultaneously considering national security in times of rising trends of weaponization of space, preserving the socio-economic oriented legacy of the Indian space program, regulations of international space law treaties and directives, and the emerging commercial space players. The liability aspects of the domestic law should be especially robust given the increasing number of commercial launches of ISRO. With the Department of Space acting as a regulator while its ISRO acts as a service provider, there is a clear case of conflict of interest and measures should be taken to inspire confidence among the emerging private players. As a solution, he suggests increasing the role of Department of Telecom as a regulator, since they have already experienced the Indian Telecom sector ecosystem and their insights can benefit the SatCom arena, while also incentivising the participation of domestic private players. Moreover, the role of regulator should be clearly defined with strict guidelines for transparency and accountability in place. An interesting point he made, was the need for a clear code of conduct in times of national security threats such as debris collisions with our critical satellites or direct attacks on our space assets such as Asat.

Narayan Prasad, co-founder of space and energy companies in India and the US said that we should look at national space policy as space infrastructure rather than a mere regulatory framework. From his decade long experience, the biggest lacuna is the absence of a detailed study of the overall space economy. There is not a single metric that gives the size of the Indian space economy, other than the book by U Sankar, but it is a decade old and doesn’t apply today.
(Note ISRO does release an Outcome Budget annually, but the report only mentions the expenditures of ISRO’s missions and doesn’t include any breakup of the industry contributions nor the industry revenues)
He says that despite the Indian market being very big, there is no startup support ecosystem in India. More important than providing economic incentives to the domestic SMEs is contributing towards their scale and global presence, so that instead of rotation of tax money they would eventually bring foreign revenues to the Indian space sector. An annual study whose metrics include the private industry and integrate India’s space economy is the need of the hour.

K R Sridhara Murthi has spent three decades of his career between ISRO, Antrix and now the academia. He compared the decade long debate on India’s space policy to the story of blind men touching an elephant. Policy is driven by goal and so far the goal of the Indian space program has been societal development and has resulted in the operational status of today. India’s space budget is about 0.05% of the nation’s GDP which is much lower than that of other major space faring countries. In spite of this and its fragmented framework of policies such as the Satcom policy, RSDP, Technology Transfer Policy, Industrial Trade and Security related policies as per international treaty obligations and guidelines, ISRO has successfully carried out the Space Capsule Recovery Experiment (SRE–1), and the cost-effective Mars and Moon missions. It has tapped into the commercial space through Antrix by providing launch services and lease of satellite transponders. It has even collaborated internationally with other space agencies such as NASA, CNES.  Therefore, he says, the question is whether India needs to renew its space policy. Given the unique opportunities for India such as its young demographic, expanding education, urbanisation, there is a great growth potential for India to become a major economic power. However, this transition would be greatly aided by positioning space technology to offer solutions in convergence with ICT technology and growing mobile environments. Space technology in the form of GIS can solve many governance challenges. Therefore, he says, there is a need a need for the space policy approach to move from being space agency centric towards facilitating a national space ecosystem.

Very soon, disruptive technologies in the launch market will change the entire price structure of launch services and ISRO should start focusing on developing reusable launch vehicles. As Prof Satish Dhawan, former ISRO chairman, had said, ISRO should refrain from doing what the industry is capable of and instead concentrate on R&D. Since space is all about long-term, he said ISRO now needs a new program and direction, now that it has achieved operational status. There needs to be a new wave of drive for R&D and innovation with the major motivation being societal benefit, but through a long-term vision of development of the space economy and space ecosystem as a whole.

Marco Aliberti, a Resident Fellow at the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI) in Vienna, was the only non-Indian speaker at the session and presented an outsider’s view of the Indian space program. He quipped that the most frustrating aspect of the Indian Space program is that whatever one says about it, the opposite is also true. He says the apparent absence of need for a declared space policy amongst the policy makers can either be because of the lack of a strategic vision or the intention to provide flexibility to actors. However, he says, a declared space policy would clearly communicate to new players the opportunities and the boundaries. It is also of utmost importance for international cooperation, in that, it would help foreign players to better identify the scope of collaboration and frame their terms and offers of cooperation in more practical ways. Moreover, it is highly essential for Outer space Transparency and Confidence Building Measures. He opines that the current B2B environment of the Indian space ecosystem is non-structured, scattered with no sharing of vendor information between ISRO’s centers. He says their is a need for clear regulatory mechanisms to stimulate and streamline the B2B environment and also the ecosystem as a whole.

The speakers were then asked by Mukund Rao of National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) from the audience for their take on the underlying purpose of a national space policy in one sentence. Their answers can very well summarise the panel discussion.

Expansion of national economy.

Addressing the existing last mile ambiguity.

Identification of national security and economic priorities.


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