Updated: October 4, 2021 9:45:31 am
Although India started early in launching a space programme and built impressive capabilities against great odds over the decades, it remains a laggard in realising its full potential. At the heart of the problem is the fact that the programme remains a governmental enterprise. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has moved on letting the private sector run ever larger parts of the space programme. India was not an exception to state monopolies in the space sector in the 20th century. The sophisticated nature of technologies involved, the military implications, and the international prestige associated with them meant that the state led the space sector around the world. In India, the developmental imperative added another justification for state control. But continuing with that framework in the 21st century is a losing proposition.
As space technologies find a growing number of commercial uses, the size of the global space economy has grown rapidly. It is estimated to be around $450 billion and is expected to grow to $1.4 trillion by the end of this decade. India has barely 2 per cent share of the global space commerce today. The only way Delhi can boost India’s weight in the global economy is by ending the monopoly of the Department of Space. Although the NDA government did announce some reforms in encouraging private sector activity in 2020, the Department of Space and its agencies continue to exercise paternalistic control. India needs space legislation that will provide a sustainable framework for space commerce, even though critics say a space bill under consideration by the government does not go far enough.
The longer Delhi takes to come up with a sensible regulatory framework, the harder it will be for India to catch up with the rapidly changing commercial dynamic in outer space. Consider, for example, telecommunication, an area that saw the early deployment of space technologies for commercial purposes. A number of western companies are planning to launch hundreds of low-earth satellites to provide broadband internet around the world. Beijing has plans for a Space Silk Road. New economic activities are emerging — from innovative uses of space-based earth observation to manufacturing specialised products in gravity-free environments, space tourism, and possible mining of Moon and other celestial bodies. The expanding commercial use of outer space has been marked by deeper involvement of private actors. The long-standing state monopoly on rocket launches has finally been broken by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company. The time is now apt for Delhi to mandate government space agencies to focus on basic research, while allowing the private sector to take the lead in the full range of activities relating to the space business.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on October 4, 2021 under the title ‘A leg-up for space’.
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