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Space Activities Bill, meant to boost private role, will create confusion instead

The draft Space Activities Bill, which might be presented in the winter session of Parliament, leaves crucial newspace facets unconsidered.

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Berlin: When India’s Department Of Space (DoS), overseen by PM Modi himself, put forth a draft space legislation in 2017, one of its main aims was to create a legal framework to encourage the participation of Indian industry, including start-ups, oversee their performance, and facilitate growth. 

The bill might soon be tabled in Parliament, but it has, in its current form, glaring lacunae that are likelier to breed chaos than put Indian space activities on solid footing.

For one, the draft focuses heavily on the need to have a licensing regime to govern the activities of emerging Indian companies that deal with newspace — as growing private participation in space has come to be known — but does not really go down to the actual regulatory needs of the companies, which will need operational clarity for business. 

For example, a company planning to build, launch, and operate its own spacecraft to provide services over India will need access to space frequencies for telemetry, telecommand and payload operations. Similarly, a company looking to establish its own private launch vehicle will need necessary clearances to conduct tests through authorised access to potential launch ranges.

Also Read: Want to be a space entrepreneur in India? This is how ISRO is helping you be one

Industry requirements not prioritised

The regulatory framework needed for different types of space activities is fundamentally different too.

For instance, the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act — the American equivalent of the proposed Indian law — comprises individual sections for remote sensing, launch vehicles, spacecraft and operations, space resource utilisation, etc with separate regulations for each type of activity. 

Therefore, a national space legislation with blanket regulations to cover all companies, which could be pursuing activities as different as remote sensing and deep-space exploration, may not provide the regulatory clarity required.

The US also has agencies, designated as such by the government, for the industry to interface with, in order to ensure compliance with regulations. To avoid conflict of interest, NASA, the civil space agency, is not one of the designated bodies for regulatory compliance.

As far as India’s draft space legislation is concerned, the fundamental question to be answered is whether the DoS in India is prioritising a top-down or a bottom-up approach of regulating the industry: Whether it is mainly addressing international obligations through the formulation of national space legislation, or looking at the requirements of each type of commercial space activity and providing the necessary regulatory clarity. 

This is important as more and more space companies are cropping up in India, a trend expected to continue.

For all intents and purposes, it appears that the draft bill follows the former path.

The major aspects covered in the draft space bill in ‘Chapter III, Authorisation and Licence for Commercial Space Activity’ and ‘Chapter IV, Registration of Space Objects and Liability’ are mainly in alignment with United Nations space treaties, such as the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, and the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space.

Had the DoS taken a bottom-up perspective, the national space bill would have had different sections covering different types of commercial space activities, and taken a concrete look at their individual requirements. 

Instead, the draft space bill, as of now, only makes a passing mention of the industry’s actual requirements. Sample this: According to the draft, “The Central Government may, by notification, make rules for carrying out the purposes of this Act”, including “the manner of providing authorisation to launch or operate commercial space activities”. 

It appears that the consultation process needed to engage with the space industry, including emerging start-ups, has either not been done rigorously or completely disregarded.

Passing the space legislation as is, without including actual mechanics for each of the different types of space activities, will not provide the regulatory clarity needed for conducting space activities by emerging companies. It will perhaps create more confusion for investors, besides the newspace firms themselves.

Also Read: Chandrayaan-2 ‘cheaper than Interstellar’, but India’s space ambition can’t be about cost

Need for an industry association 

One of the main drawbacks of the draft bill is that it fails to identify or even create an independent authority that can, with no conflict of interest, work with the industry to govern its activities. 

The ISRO chairman being the secretary, Department of Space, and chairman of the Space Commission adds to the confusion, raising questions about how an independent regulator can be evolved in the space sector.

Given the wide range of activities within the space value chain, it may take several iterations to come up with regulatory aspects tailored to each of them. 

One of the simple ways to allow this would be by just establishing an independent body through the space bill, which can then, in consultation with stakeholders, formulate specific rules and regulations.

Taking inspiration from successes such as the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM, the trade association for the information technology industry), the space industry in India needs to create an independent voice through a dedicated association that can specifically create a platform for opinions and also interface with the government to establish a sustainable regulatory landscape for commercial space activities in India.

Replying to a question in the Lok Sabha in December 2018, the government said it had invited suggestions on the draft bill and received 52 responses that “fall broadly under the category of seeking clarifications and suggestions on certain provisions, such as scope of space activities, regulatory mechanism, licencing and authorisation procedures, sharing of liability burden with a limit on damage costs, penal provisions, powers of Central Government, etc”.

Whether concerns on its content have been addressed will only be known once the bill is presented in Parliament, which is likely in the upcoming winter session.  

Also Read: India is a maturing space power, but can rival the US with an independent regulator

Narayan Prasad is the host of the NewSpace India podcast, a bi-weekly talk show that exclusively discusses space activities in India.


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