Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement on Saturday the government’s intention to encourage greater participation of the private sector in a host of space activities already finds mention in a draft Bill by the Department of Space in 2017 . This however hasn’t yet made it to Parliament for discussion.
“...There is a need for national space legislation for supporting the overall growth of the space activities in India. This would encourage enhanced participation of non-governmental/private sector agencies in space activities in India, in compliance with international treaty obligations, which is becoming very relevant today,” says the Draft “Space Activities Bill 2017.”
On Saturday, Ms. Sitharaman said: “Govt. will provide predictable policy and regulatory environment and allow private sector to use ISRO facilities. Future projects for travel in outer space or exploration of new planets will be open to the private sector. Govt. will ease geo-spatial data policy to make such remote-sensing data more widely available to tech entrepreneurs, with safeguards put in place.”
The thrust of the 2017 Bill was to evolve a mechanism by which companies or individuals who wanted to be involved in a wide-range of space development activities — satellite development, GIS, telemetry — could approach the government for a licence.
Legislation apart, Ms. Sitharaman in her July 2019 Budget speech had mentioned the creation of a new public sector company by ISRO called New Space India Limited. This was similar to its existing company Antrix and allows small satellite technology to be transferred to private industry and outsource the development of ISRO’s workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) to the private sector. For decades, ISRO has had collaborations with over 400 companies to build space-vehicle components and associated products.
Critics of the Bill have pointed out that it doesn’t have provisions for the creation of an independent space regulator and doesn’t differentiate between various kinds of space activities. For instance, different types of commercial space activity — whether remote sensing or deep-space exploration — need specific regulatory clarity. The Bill also posits ISRO as the key licensing authority when it itself has monopoly power over space-technology and development.