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Indian space sector reforms: Will it be a big-bang approach?

Indian space sector reforms: Will it be a big-bang approach?

Space industry experts are divided over whether big-bang changes/reforms proposed in the Indian space sector are going to be incremental.

"This time, the approach is expected to be big-bang, involving restructuring of the Indian Space Research Organization (Isro)," an industry expert told IANS preferring anonymity.

The restructuring he speaks about is corporatization of ISRO's production/operational units so that the private sector can be a co-traveller in Isro's space missions and there is a level playing field for them.

The production units of Isro—rockets and satellites and the rocket launch centre at Sriharikota and the upcoming one in Tamil Nadu—should be corporatized so that there is no conflict of interest, the expert said.

Similarly, the satellite payload and data product services too can be hived off into a company. The development of payloads can be done by technology labs, universities and the private sector, the expert added.

According to him, with the strategic space activities with Defence Research Development Organization (DRDO), Indian space sector can fully focus on commercial aspects with a sectoral regulator.

On May 16, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that Indian private sector will be a co-traveller in India's space sector journey and a level-playing field will be provided for them in satellites, launches, and space-based services.

She also said a predictable policy and regulatory environment will be provided to private players.

According to her, the private sector will be allowed to use the facilities of Isro and other relevant assets to improve their capacities.

Sitharaman said future projects for planetary exploration, outer space travel and others are to be opened up for the private sector, adding there will be a liberal geo-spatial data policy for providing remote-sensing data to tech-entrepreneurs subject to various checks.

"The reform announced is a big bang reform. Already Isro follows a Government-Owned-Company-Operated (GOCO) model. Many private entities are using Isro's facilities in SHAR in Sriharikota such as the solid propellant casting plant. These facilities can be corporatised and put under one public sector unit, New Space India Limited," Vijay Anand, former financial advisor, Department of Space, and former advisor to Isro chairman, told IANS.

Pointing out that nearly 90 per cent of the rockets and satellites are fabricated in the private sector and given the complexity of the systems, the design authority, quality assurance, integration and mission planning are with Isro.

"Barring quality assurance and design authority, in due course industry can form a consortium and take it over. There is such a proposal on which action has been initiated," Anand, who is currently an independent external monitor at Indian Institute of Science and Indian Rare Earth Ltd, said.

According to him, certain facilities and labs can be earmarked for testing by the private sector at a cost. Further Isro can hand hold, review, transfer technology and others at a price.

"Products from the Indian space industry should be rated to international standards, built to specification rather than built to print and capable of capturing a part of the global market," Anand added.

On the research side, instead of Isro sponsoring it, it is the industry that should be doing that.

According to Anand, the larger issue is creating a level playing field in the industry.

On the other hand, Isro will be required because there are sovereign liabilities when it comes to launches, space debris and others.

"This requires a Space Act with rules there under which will prescribe the liabilities, penalties, insurance and safety standards for such activities. In order to avoid a conflict of interest, a space regulatory authority has to be created," Anand added.

India is a signatory to various outer space treaties and the sovereign liability devolves on the Government of India represented by the Department of Space.

He agreed that the strategic aspects of the space are with DRDO and occasionally they do take a launcher or get a satellite contract manufactured.

Dismissing any big-bang approach of corporatization of Isro's production and other units, a senior space sector official on the condition of anonymity told IANS: "Already ISRO's facilities are being used by the private sector."

According to him, the reforms/changes that would be brought in will bring in more clarity and give comfort factors for the private sector.

While welcoming the private participation in the Indian space research activities former chairman of Isro Madhavan Nair had told IANS: "However, we have to carefully consider some of the policy matters. First of all, there has to be our national space law which will define responsibilities and liabilities."

Nair said there has to be a proper control mechanism to ensure that the sensitive and critical technologies do not fall into the wrong hands.

"In spite of not having a viable aerospace industry in the country, ISRO has taken up initiative to ensure industrial participation in its programmes," Nair said.

According to him, space doesn't bring large revenues or profits and that how many would take up this challenge is a question.

"Space exploration is still more complex because returns are negative and it is only a long-term investment. The implementation has to be done taking into account sensitivity to international regulations like MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) and international space laws," Nair said..