From allowing private players, to regulating satellite use, why India needs a space law

Union Minister Jitendra Singh during the Monsoon Session this year said the Space Activities Bill is under active consideration of the government

The Indian Space Programme is almost six decades old but India is yet to have a space law that governs its outer space activities.

Till now, there exists a monopoly of the government in India’s space sector, which is primarily spearheaded by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). For a long time, the private sector has requested several times to open up the Indian Space Programme so that even businesses can invest in the building of India’s space capabilities. But no major changes could be perpetuated so far, and the space program continues to be under the government’s monopoly.

The Space Activities Bill 2017 was an attempt by the Indian government to make a big shift in terms of India’s space policies.

BACKGROUND

The genesis of the Indian Space Programme started in 1962 when Dr Vikram Sarabhai, regarded as the Father of the Indian Space Programme, set up the Indian National Committee on Space Research (INCOSPAR).

India’s then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru knew about the potential of rocket science and therefore understood the need for a sound policy on outer space affairs. Under his leadership, INCOSPAR paved the way for the birth of the Indian Space Programme on 21 November 1963, when the first sounding rocket was fired from the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launch Station in Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) in Kerala.

India had only started taking baby steps to build its space programme in a world where the then superpowers like the United States and the Soviet Union were engulfed in Space Race. The Soviets had started the race with the launch of Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957 while the US responded by building a robust institution like NASA in 1958 dedicated to establishing American supremacy in outer space. Indian leadership knew that for a newly independent, third-world nation like India, building up a space programme would ensure that India finds a rightful place for itself in the comity of nations.

HISTORY OF OUTER SPACE LAWS

In the 1960’s, when outer space truly garnered global attention due to the heightened space activities as a result of Cold War space rivalry between the US and the Soviets, the lawmakers started to feel a need to come up with an international law, which would govern the outer space activities of every member nation of the United Nations.

The need for such an international law was felt due to the fear of ‘space weaponisation’ by the superpowers. The world hadn’t forgotten the severe impact of the Atom Bomb, dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States during the Second World War. It was the lack of international law on nuclear disarmament that had given way to the incidents of nuclear weapons usage in 1945 by the United States on Japan. Hence, the world couldn’t have afforded a nuclear weapon attack from outer space or the moon by either of the superpowers who were engaged in a bitter space rivalry by the mid-1960s.

As a result, in January 1967, the Outer Space Treaty was first opened for signatures by the three depository governments which included the USSR, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Later that year, the treaty came into force providing a basic framework for international space law. India was a signatory to this treaty and ratified this treaty along with signing the Moon Treaty in 1982 (also known as Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies). Other than this, India has acceded to the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects in 1979 and the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space in 1982.

INDIAN SPACE LAWS

The space activities in India have been completely governed by the department of space since its inception in 1972 and before that department of atomic energy was taking care of all the administrative activities of India’s space programme. There was never a need felt for having a domestic space law or a policy in India until recently as outer space was seen more as an international issue area rather than a domestic issue area.

The utility of having a space law was never realised due to many reasons. First, India didn’t have a private sector with any intent or willingness to invest in India’s outer space ambitions. It’s only after the private sector saw the potential of the Indian space programme, which was built completely on the taxpayers’ money, that it today has come forward and shown its willingness to invest in the programme.

Second, for a long time, the Indian Space programme was not looking to explore space or sending unmanned or even manned missions to outer space. This has changed now with India sending missions to Mars successfully and to the moon with some success. Adding to that, the Mission Gaganyaan of ISRO which is about sending India’s first manned mission to Outer Space has been a paradigm shift in terms of attracting new players like small-time entrepreneurs wanting to be a part of such missions. This didn’t exist prior to the last couple of years. Indian policymakers were of the opinion that India being a party to almost all international space laws is good enough and domestic space law is not a necessity.

Today, things have changed drastically. Last year in May 2020, the government of India proposed radical changes with respect to the Indian Space Programme. Critics argued that amid a global pandemic, the government is looking to privatise the Indian Space Programme. This claim was thwarted by the chairman of Indian Space Program, Dr K Sivan on multiple occasions.

On 24 June 2020, the Government of India created a new organisation known as IN-SPACe (Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre). IN-SPACe is a “single window nodal agency” established to boost the commercialisation of Indian space activities.” It was due to the creation of this body that the debate around the privatisation of the Indian space programme had started.

This government of India had also come up with a draft of the Space-based Communication Policy of India-2020 (Spacecom Policy- 2020) and draft norms, guidelines and procedures for implementation of Spacecom Policy-2020 (Spacecom NGP-2020).

The SpaceCom Policy 2020 aims to do two things. First, the policy will regulate the commercial use of satellites, orbital slots, and ground stations for communication needs. This policy also talks about how private players can get authorisation to set up new communication satellites and ground stations.

The private players in the space communication sector will also enable India to keep pace with the growing demand for satellite-based broadcasting, network connectivity, and global mobile personal communication.

Amidst the debates of privatisation of the Indian space programme, the Space Policy 2020 and the Space Activities Bill, 2017 are in the final stages of becoming law. Union Minister Jitendra Singh in the Monsoon Session of the parliament this year said that the Space Activities Bill is under active consideration of the government. As per a report published in the Livemint, In a written reply to a query in Rajya Sabha, “the Minister of State for Atomic Energy and Department of Space said that the government is in the process of creating an ecosystem to encourage private participation in space and in indigenous production of space technology, devices and services”. To conclude, the Indian space laws are about to come and here to stay for a long course.

Martand Jha is a freelance writer and a Senior Research Fellow at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is currently writing his PhD thesis on the topic, “A Historical Study of India’s Space Co-operation with the United States and USSR, 1957-1991.”