As part of the Rs 21 lakh crore economic package, privatisation of space activities was announced by the Centre

As part of the Rs 21 lakh crore economic package, privatisation of space activities was announced by the Centre. This was followed up, with rocket speed, by the announcement to set up IN-SPACe for promotion of private participation in Indian space programmes, including exploration of planets. The Centre’s recent move has been welcomed by many but several questions—why is it needed at this time of Covid-19, what are the tangible benefits and whether adequate preparations are made—remain unanswered.

The Indian space program is under a fully empowered Space Commission, directly reporting to the prime minister. The Commission is entrusted with implementing all activities related to space research in India. It has done exceptionally well as demonstrated by the development of homegrown technologies for satellites and powerful rockets for taking them to outer space. It is an excellent example of Atmanirbhar Bharat.

The result is India has emerged as a global player in this field on par with developed nations. The uniqueness of ISRO is that it has evolved innovative techniques and put them to use for the benefit of the common man. Disaster management, telemedicine, tele-education and natural resource surveys are notable among them, not to mention applications to meet national security needs.

The uniqueness of ISRO’s management system is that almost all technologies are available under one roof. This enables total system realisation end-to-end, starting from concept to detailed engineering, manufacturing and testing in a seamless manner. The space body’s unity of command, participatory management and totally transparent review system, that can be summed up as ISRO culture, is responsible for its unmatched success story. Simple missions for atmospheric studies to most complex missions to the Moon and Mars are proof of the success of the existing system. In short, India’s space programme is running like a well-oiled machine.

Right from the beginning, ISRO has taken the lead in ensuring use of industrial capability and academic talents in implementing its missions. The net result: ISRO’s manpower has remained stable despite a nearly 10-fold increase in the number of missions in the last 10 years. In fact, the portion of ISRO’s budget expenditure through industry has increased several-fold and is about 60% of its budget today. This in turn has provided more than 20,000 job opportunities outside ISRO. 

The commercial activities of ISRO are managed through Antrix corporation as well as the newly formed NewSpace India Limited. The NSIL is mandated to expand and expedite technology transfer and total system realisation by private players. It also earns nearly `2,000 crore by selling space-based services in India and abroad, and has scope to double within the next five years. These independent corporations are doing nothing but space promotion.

The main reason private players are not getting into the arena is due to the heavy investment required, long gestation period, high risks and paltry return on investment, not exceeding single digits at the end of the day. The industrialisation is moving forward only due to the GOCO (government owned contractor operated) model adopted by ISRO. All large-capital investments are made by the government; companies carry out production activities based on ISRO designs. If total privatisation has to materialise, the industries will have to invest heavily on facilities and in human resources. Retaining trained manpower for long periods is going to be a challenge for the industry. 

Nobody has reported any problems so far and no control or restriction is placed on private participation in space. Then why is there a hue and cry for privatisation? In that context, IN-SPACe is like treating a healthy person for a non-existing ailment. While the name IN-SPACe sounds good, it stands for Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre and is meant to promote private industry participation; the moment authorisation is added, it amounts to control or licensing. How can conflicting functions such as promotion and authorisation be combined into one entity?

Now, can the new entity function effectively? The Department of Space can at best transfer satellite or launcher manufacture to industry. But the revenue out of this is small, less than 10%. The remaining is through services like satellite communication or earth observation data utilisation. For satellite communications, ISRO’s role is limited only to leasing out transponders in its satellites. The necessary operating license and monitoring is done by the Department of Telecom and the I&B Ministry. Without participation of these departments in IN-SPACe, how can it take up promotion activities effectively? Similar is the situation in earth observation. It has considerable impact on national security. Mapping is controlled by the Survey of India. Without active involvement of these agencies, IN-SPACe can only be a coordinating agency.

Look at a satellite launch vehicle like PSLV. Its delivery capability is more than that of an IRBM (intermediate-range ballistic missile). Technology associated with launch vehicles and missiles is a guarded secret. In the name of industrialisation, can this be handed over to a private player without adequate safeguards? Today in India, there are only policy guidelines for satellite communication and remote sensing applications, which are nearly 20 years old and outdated. Hence, a prerequisite for the new initiative to succeed is a comprehensive space law that will ensure security for the sensitive technologies as well as compliance with international space treaties and MTCR. 

To be effective, IN-SPACe has to be constituted with the full participation of DoT, Ministry of Defence and Survey of India as well as use community and private players. The scope and modus operandi have to be carefully chalked out. There are serious doubts on the economic gains out of privatisation. The assessment of a $300 billion international space business is correct. But most of these are contained and guarded in developed countries. Once they have the capability, they will not even consider farming out to agencies outside their countries. India’s share in this is less than fraction of a percent. Even if this increases tenfold, the size of the market will be less than $3 billion.

A major part of space application in India is for societal benefit and security purposes. They are not charged at market rates. Once we embark on privatisation, huge funding will have to be found by user agencies. Additional job creation is questionable and attracting foreign investment in areas of low returns is a mirage. The government has taken a decision to implement IN-SPACe. ISRO is a well-disciplined organisation. It will have to take up the challenge of implementing an unproven novel concept. It will have to spend a lot of its time and resources first to get out of the flutter created by this small step and evolve a new managerial mechanism to make the next step. This is going to be more challenging than Chandrayaan-2.