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Space sector reforms: Govt's other successful surgical strike

Published 28-05-2023, 05:45 pm
Space sector reforms: Govt's other successful surgical strike

According to them, the government had largely kept the Department of Space officials out of the reform drawing board owing to conflict of interest and inherent opposition to change.

"It was a surgical strike," Dr Tapan Misra, retired senior official of ISRO and Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Sisir Radar Private Ltd, told IANS.

It is learnt that a committee of top level officials from various Indian ministries were formed to get their views on the measures needed to boost the Indian space sector.

"Even though it was a much needed reform, no other Indian government had the guts to do it. This reform needed careful consideration and consultation with experts," Rakesh Sashibhushan, former Chairman and Managing Director, Antrix Corporation, earlier the commercial arm of Department of Space, told IANS.

According to Misra, the Indian government realised that space technology can be utilised for boosting business and economy by monetisation of space knowledge and for employment generation, arresting brain drain.

The government also realised that ISRO has reached a performance saturation stage and infusing funds and personnel may not bring out a significant outcome.

Further, the defence sector too needed space technology to a large extent.

The Modi government was particular that there should be more private sector participation and appropriate signals should go to the industry.

Towards that, a decision was taken to draw a professional outside of ISRO and the Department of Space to head the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Center (IN-SPACe)- the regulator for private sector space players.

Accordingly, the government appointed Dr. Pawan Goenka, retired MD and CEO of M&M (NS:MAHM) as IN-SPACe's Chairman.

The Department of Space and ISRO, then headed by K.Sivan began implementing the reform measures.

Misra said the government's aim is to boost private industry with innovation but at the same time bereft of backdoor sabotaging, dumping of old technology and manipulation of nascent space industry by established foreign players.

The big industrial groups may not be able to bring out revolutionary innovations due to their orientation of their expertise for mass production and very large scale service industry.

On the other hand, the micro, medium, small enterprises (MSME) developed due to 40 per cent indigenisation of defence contracts are essentially Indian production hubs foreign biggies for manufacturing built to print low technology components, parts and subsystems. So, they essentially may not be able to stand up for the creation of the innovation environment required for the space industry, Misra said.

The Modi headed Indian government brought out many financial incentives and procedure simplifications as well as formation of In-SPACe for encouraging startups in space technology. It is a unique approach by the Indian government to rely on startups to bring out a significant upscaling of the Indian space economy, Misra remarked.

"It is important to look at the future where the country will boast of having multiple ISRO like industries than a single ISRO. Also, strategically it is not advisable to put all the eggs in one basket," Misra added.

It should also be noted that much earlier to the reform moves, the Modi government had asked all other Ministries to look at the space technology and use ISRO's services.

It was also Modi who had renamed the Indian navigation satellite constellation as NavIC (Navigation with Indian Constellation) from its earlier long winding name Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System - IRNSS.

During his Independence Day speech in 2018, Modi had announced that India would send its son or daughter to space by 2022 or earlier.

And Modi was there at ISRO headquarters and witnessed the crash landing of Indian moon lander - Chandrayaan-2 mission- on the moon soil.

Was the Chandrayaan-2 failure a trigger point for the reform?

Refutes Sashibhushan and Misra. According to them, the reform measures were in the making even before that.

It is natural for the head of the government to be present to witness major scientific feats. And failure is also part of research and development activity, Misra added.

"India's share in the global space commercial activity is only 2 per cent. Space reforms are needed to stimulate the commercial space sector. ISRO launches only about 4/5 satellites a year," Sashibhushan said.

The government also made it clear to ISRO that the fund tap will not be open and the space agency had to show demand for building any commercial satellites.

The year 2020 was the defining year for the Indian commercial space sector.

On May 16, 2020, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that the 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 that a predictable policy and regulatory environment will be provided to private players.

The 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.

On June 24, 2020 the Union Cabinet decided to set up IN-SPACe, making ISRO to focus on research and development (R&D) of new technologies, exploration missions, and human spaceflight programme/Gaganyaan.

The IN-SPACe would provide a level playing field for private companies to use Indian space infrastructure.

The government also made it clear to ISRO that the fund tap will not be open and the space agency had to show demand for building any commercial satellites.

The commercial programmes need commercial funds, the government told ISRO in clear terms.

As a part of the reform and rejig measure, the New Space India Limited (NSIL)-the new commercial arm of Department of Space-was tasked to re-orient space activities from a 'supply driven' model to 'demand driven' model, thereby ensuring optimum utilisation of the country's space assets.

The Indian space agency transferred its operational assets/satellites to NSIL and the latter also selected a consortium to make five PSLV-XL rockets. The private space startups also flew their satellites and rockets in 2022.

"Even globally the space sector business model is undergoing a change with governments moving out and allowing the private sector in as the former model is not sustainable in the long run," S. Somanath, ISRO Chairman and Secretary, Department of Space had told IANS.

With the Indian space agency's focus shifting to research and development (R&D), a committee has been set up to recommend the methodology for rightsizing and optimal utilisation of the existing science and technology (S&T) manpower, Union Minister Dr. Jitendra Singh said.

Answering a question raised in the Lok Sabha Singh refuted any ban on recruitment of scientific talent in ISRO and said a departmental committee has been constituted to recommend methodology for rightsizing and optimal utilisation of the current S&T talent pool.

The Indian space agency has a headcount of about 17,300.

The NSIL has been tasked with the marketing of India's space sector services, including the rocket launch services for satellite players.

"The NSIL has to come out of the public sector style of functioning. It should have a vibrant marketing set up," an industry official told IANS.

Be that as it may, as part of the space sector rejig, the Indian government recently announced the Indian Space Policy-2023 and the revised foreign direct investment (FDI) policy is expected to be announced.

"With a forward looking FDI Policy also in the offing, Space is poised to become a significant sector for high-technology products, and provide employment to thousands of aspiring youngsters," Sashibhushan said.

(Venkatachari Jagannathan can be reached at v.jagannathan@ians.in)


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