For all these decades, sitting neatly within the Prime Minister’s Office, the Indian Space Program was the government’s strategic undertaking. Directions from the top, funding from the top, participation of a few from the governmental agencies and institutions, and execution to suit the nation’s priorities. However, the process happened in hush-hush, within gated and guarded properties.
Indeed, ISRO was pursuing a socio-economic space program, which it always clearly stated. But deep within was the fact that space technologies are inherently dual-use in nature, not just in India but the world over. The gated and guarded properties were not solitary operators. Strategic agencies, be it the DRDO, Department of Atomic Energy, or Department of Electronics (now MEITY), supported each other, as did the public sector enterprises. Even then, it was not enough. India’s private sector companies began very early supplying the then high-end material needs of the Indian space program. They created space and aerospace divisions for their companies and conglomerates. Being a small and tight-knit ecosystem, contracts were infrequent but assured for most of them. But then revenues and profits were miles away. The revenue came in when the Polar Synchronous Launch Vehicle (PSLV) became commercially proven. The piggybacking satellites, coming from overseas, did not always belong to a contemporaneous space agency. They often came as properties of the overseas private sector. Some of the ISRO laboratories began spinning-off technologies for the outer market. But then, the pink elephant in the room was, “Why are we not opening up the space sector?” Well, that decision could not have come from Bengaluru, but New Delhi.
Now, nearly three years after the Indian government opened the space sector for private entities, rearing promising startups and MSMEs, having that n-number of discussions through industry bodies – ISpA, SIA-India, CII, FICCI, in those startup conclaves, the Bengaluru Space Expo, the DefExpo, at Aero India, the Indian Space Policy, finally fell in place at last.
Of course, no policy document is a magic wand. But having a precise regimen, rules, procedures, and code of conduct matters a lot for Indian entities on multiple levels. Let’s be very clear: if Indian space sector players have to make their mark globally, they would need conducive environments created by the government to demonstrate their technologies, commercialise them, and stake a higher claim in the market segment they operate. This would also include the government making a conducive environment for them to develop avant-garde technologies.
The Indian Space Policy 2023 is meant to provide that conducive environment. And when we say conducive environment – it also means setting up a clear national vision; clear rules; doing away with knotty regulations, doing away with the rolls and rolls of red tape; offering quick single-window clearances; incentivising the private sector fiscal and non-fiscal premium to enter into globally lucrative business areas and those businesses that are in the national interest; set a clear 10-year roadmap for public-private participation; a judicious legality; encouragement for space and allied domain academia and national laboratories to earn revenue through the intellectual property by partnering with startups, MSMEs and industries; enable private space industry to undertake R&D to build a newer product line or innovate and make superior iterations of their existing technologies; make Indian entities go global and encourage joint-IP with foreign entities; enable Indian entities to Make in India, but Make for the World; and overall claim a more significant stake in the global space economy – not the low 2% of the global space economy as it is estimated now – and maintain the nation’s geopolitical and geoeconomics autonomy.
The Indian Space Policy 2023 is not a document for the civilian space program. India is doing away with the unnecessary segregation between civilian, military and commercial end-users. New Delhi has acted upon the evident blurring of the lines between the three, as seen worldwide. The Indian Space Policy 2023 is an all-encompassing document catering to our nation’s comprehensive scientific, security, economic, environmental, and cultural needs. It may not be the last document of its sort. Expect versions of the Indian Space Policy to evolve as the nation progresses. However, what is more important is that the first document took 76 years after Independence.
The Indian space program is recognised for its prowess and unique abilities. The respected standing on the global pedestal has happened regardless of the glaring absence of national space policy. Given the strong geopolitical and geoeconomic turbulence that will last a few more years, and considering India’s economic and political standing in the world now and a few years from now, the coming of a cohesive and comprehensive national space policy was highly crucial. India cannot storm into the top-3 economies of the world, become a country high in GNI and GDP charts, rank high on the happiness index and sustainability charts, fulfilling its 2070 net-zero emissions target well ahead of time, and fulfilling the cultural aspirations of its people, all at once without straightforward elucidation of what it intends to do in outer space. The Indian Space Policy 2023 is when India begins to envisage its future in outer space without any ambiguity. Let’s hope that the Space Activities Bill, amenable to the stakeholders, becomes an Act from the new and glorious Indian Parliament premises. That will fittingly be Space 2.0 for India 2.0.