Thursday, November 30, 2023

Exploring The Future of Space Autonomy: A Deep Dive Into IN-SPACe’s Nuances

By Staff Correspondent

The recent release of the National Space Policy 2023 has created a buzz in the commercial space industry and demonstrated the Indian government’s commitment to the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative. The policy outlines the vision for the private sector and traditional government bodies like ISRO in India’s journey as a space power, but it raises concerns about the autonomy of the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe).

Although the policy suggests an “autonomous” function for IN-SPACe, it requires further examination to determine whether IN-SPACe is genuinely independent. The policy’s standing as a source of law for the space sector is also questionable as it needs to stipulate the means of enforcement or the consequences of its violation. While the policy reflects the attitude, approach, culture, ethos, and contours of the laws that will govern space activities, it is unlikely to qualify as law since the government continues to work on the draft bills that will govern space activities and modernise telecom regulations and laws.

The “autonomous” function of IN-SPACe under Section 5 of the policy raises the question of whether IN-SPACe has the ability to make informed decisions without external influences or coercion. However, no governmental agency can have absolute autonomy as it is required to follow the law and is answerable to a host of institutions within and outside the government. The term “autonomous” implies that IN-SPACe is free of the influence of ISRO and DoS, addressing industry concerns about the conflict of interest that arises when ISRO/DoS, running their commercial operations, regulate and authorises the activities of their competitors.

Section 4 of the policy permits New Generation Entrepreneurs (NGEs) to establish commercial space activities per the guidelines/regulations prescribed by IN-SPACe. However, while IN-SPACe has the power to authorise space activities, it has no power to formulate guidelines or conditions for the grant of authorisations. IN-SPACe is autonomous in granting authorisations, but it cannot formulate conditions based on which it can accord or refuse authorisations. IN-SPACe has the power to prescribe conditions under which any authorisation already provided may be reviewed, revoked, or modified and to set out the list of space activities needing authorisation.

While the space policy’s ambiguities around the “autonomous” functions of IN-SPACe need resolution for the benefit of all stakeholders, regulators, and entrepreneurs, the policy sets out a clear direction for the future of the Indian space industry. The Indian government’s commitment to the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative and the commercial space industry demonstrates its willingness to embrace the future and create new opportunities.

In a comprehensive analysis of India’s new space policy, it appears that the much-touted “autonomy” granted to the IN-SPACe is somewhat of a misnomer.

Upon examination of Section 8 of the policy, which deals with the powers of the Department of Space (DoS), and Section 5, which outlines the roles and responsibilities of IN-SPACe, it becomes clear that while IN-SPACe can “authorise” space activities, the actual conditions for granting such authorisation will still have to come from the DoS.

Moreover, the allocation of frequency/spectrum, the allotment of orbital slots, and the grant of operation licenses for broadcasting and telecommunication activities continue to remain with the respective agencies such as the wireless planning and coordination wing of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and the DoT. Thus, while the new policy seemingly grants IN-SPACe a level of autonomy, the traditional roles of various ministries, including information and broadcasting, telecommunications, home affairs, and defence, remain largely unchanged.

The regulatory concept of the inter-ministerial “Committee for Authorising the Establishment and Operation of Indian Satellite System” (CAISS) under the erstwhile SATCOM Policy of 2000 appears to have been re-iterated in the new policy, with the only difference being that such an Inter-ministerial committee’s decision must now translate to an additional authorisation from IN-SPACe, which is largely a formality.

Therefore, the use of the term “autonomous” to describe the roles and responsibilities of IN-SPACe is somewhat misleading, as it does not have the power to authorise or refuse authorisation for space activity without the concurrence of the DoS, the DoT, and other involved ministries. Such inherent contradictions within the policy raise concerns not just for investors, but also for the multitude of ministries, agencies, and departments regarding the precise parameters of their jurisdiction, powers, and responsibilities.

Ensuring a clear and predictable regulatory regime is crucial to attract investment into the space sector and facilitating robust trade in it. The use of terms like “autonomous” to describe IN-SPACe’s functions, without providing for autonomy in the real sense by suitably aligning the functions of traditional bodies like the DoS and the DoT, continues to fall short of providing a clear and predictable policy framework.

The new policy must speak with a single voice to prospective applicants, and the regulatory landscape must be aligned to ensure a smooth growth trajectory for the Indian space sector. While the chances of seeing amendments to the policy to address these concerns may be slim, it is up to the stakeholders within the IN-SPACe, ISRO, DoS, and other government entities to take note of these concerns.

Either IN-SPACe is truly autonomous and not bound by the DoS, or it is not autonomous and bound by the directives of the DoS. India must take a stand when forming laws governing space activities to avoid any legal consequences or anxiety for private sector companies looking to do business in space. Until this is achieved, several of the regulatory factors that slowed growth in the space sector in India will continue to haunt the industry in the next phase of India’s journey as a space power.

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