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Why India needs a space law

India as a space superpower stands mightier than ever, but a law that protects the country’s sovereign, public and commercial interests is needed

05/06/2017, 17:28 IST: ISRO launches most powerful home-made rocket …

20/05/2017, 10:11 IST: NASA, ISRO to build Earth-imaging satellite…

05/05/2017, 16:59 IST: India’s satellite gift to South Asia…

02/04/2017, 13:29 IST: ISRO embraces private sector for satellite manufacture…

15/02/2017, 9:22 IST: ISRO launches 104 satellites in a single mission…

Five months, five historic moments and redefining of the phrase to ‘"space" is the limit’… India has made us proud. As the country applauds and the subcontinent rejoices, the world’s spotlight turns on India once again. With these colossal advancements, not only has India’s space research and technology crossed new thresholds but has also aided it in strengthening its geopolitical interests. However, this is not the first.

India’s relationship with space dates back to its first rocket launch in 1963 under the guidance of the visionary, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai. Subsequently, it was the launch of Aryabhatta, the first Indian scientific satellite. Since then India’s efforts have been crystallised into several missions with applications in the areas of communication, broadcasting, meteorology and oceanography, survey of natural resources, monitoring environment, and predicting disasters, kudos to the Indian Remote Sensing Satellite (IRS) and Geosynchronous Satellite (GSAT). Subsequently, with the introduction of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), India empowered itself to become only the seventh nation in the world with indigenous satellite launch capabilities, thereby shedding its dependence on others. Then came the monumental launch of Chandrayaan (the moon mission) and Mangalyaan (Mars Obiter Mission) in 2008 and 2014 respectively, which epitomised the country’s technological proficiency. And today, India, as a space superpower stands mightier than ever.  

India is today at par with giants such as the United States and Russia. This fact raises only a natural presumption that India must be equalising with these nations at providing sufficient state laws to regulate this field. Besides, the rate at which India continues to etch its name in the frontiers of space innovations and technological know-how only heightens such a presupposition. Unfortunately, this natural corollary does not hold true. While many nations, such as Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa and Ukraine, though not established space technology tycoons, have carefully cemented their legal framework, India is devoid of national space laws.

Out of the five United Nations treaties relating to activities in outer space, India has ratified four and signed one. Legally, ‘ratification’ means a country must enact the necessary legislation to give domestic effect to the treaties within a given time-frame. Despite the passage of over four decades since India ventured into space, such an enactment is still awaited. The only legal regime governing the space industry in India is determined by the Constitution of India, 1950, the Satellite Communications Policy, 2000 and the revised Remote Sensing Data Policy, 2011. While Article 51 and Article 73 of the Constitution foster respect for international law and treaty obligations (in consonance with the Vienna Convention of the Law of Treaties, 1968), and strives for the promotion of international peace and security, the policies merely sketch-out what the government wishes to do, with no legal obligation attached to them. This won’t do.

Why India needs a robust space law

In India, only government entities have a hold over the space sector, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Outsourcing only involves a certain degree of supply and manufacture of components by some commercial industries. Recently, a pleasant surprise poured in when ISRO, in promoting the ‘Make in India’ campaign, outsourced satellite manufacturing to a private sector enterprise for the first time. Last year, ISRO signed a contract with an Indian start-up to launch a spacecraft, which will attempt to land on the Moon. These are indicative steps towards the creation of a private space industry ecosystem that will lead to greater transitional, bilateral and multilateral activity. Outsourcing would ultimately help reduce ISRO’s time spent on satellite and launch vehicle building and let it focus on avant-garde research to enhance India’s sorties in outer space. A cogent and user-friendly framework would ensure smooth functioning of these interfaces, avoid conflict amongst them and protect the operator and the government when any liability arises in the case of damage.  

India’s move from dependency to self-sufficiency in terms of its launching adeptness could make it the world’s launch pad. The cost-effective space programmes have attracted other nations and multinational units to enter into formal agreements with India to support them in their respective space projects and carry out satellite launches for them. The advent of commercialisation, thus, calls for revising of domestic laws, such as, the laws of contract, transfer of property, stamp duty, registration, insurance and most importantly, intellectual property rights, to contemplate space related issues. 

The growing worldwide concern over space debris has reached the home turf too. India finds itself at the centre of an international dispute over the fall of debris from an Indian satellite on a Japanese village, which was retracing back to Earth. As signatory to the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, 1972, India has an absolute liability to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight. However, with no national space law and policy, it is tough for India to determine the quantum of damages owed. Additionally, legislation would also help to assess and decide responsibility in the event of space debris collision with objects suspended in outer space, damage being unavoidable.

Space debris leads to ‘space junk’. Whether ‘polluter pays’ principle applies or not, warrants consideration. Also, there is wastage of the launch systems that fall back to Earth after propelling the payload into orbit, adding to ecological perils. It’s about time domestic laws are geared towards regulating the reuse of launch systems and that of ‘space junk’. 

For better or for worse, ‘space’ has become integral to 21st century warfare. An Indian space law would go a long way towards serving the military craft a solid space-war strategy and security plan. Further, China’s highly charged-up showcase of military prowess in space, for example, the anti-satellite tests, makes the need for a domestic law and a military stratagem all the more essential.

Finally, for India to be at the vanguard of an innovation and technology-driven new international order, apart from leading the way on space research and development programmes, there is an urgent need to create accurate laws encompassing the ‘space dimension’, as extensively as we have covered the land, air and water dimensions.

It is true that India has taken baby steps towards formulating an Indian Space Act, namely, the draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016, which is pending consideration. However, this Bill has a limited scope – to police acquisition, publication and distribution of geospatial information of India – whereas, the need of the hour is to formulate a space law that protects sovereign, public and commercial interests on all fronts. As voiced by the ISRO Chairman, "A Space Act would help the government deal with legal issues arising from objects put up in space and for what happens to them in orbit, or because of them".

‘Space’ should not remain restricted to the concerns and expertise of science, technology, defence and security of the nation. It must be interpreted as important for the ordinary citizen whose life will be augmented by its enormous positive potential. In pursuance of this objective, a national space policy and a legal regime is a necessity. President John F. Kennedy once said, "We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology has no conscience of its own… I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours."

India’s progress merits hurrahs, yet a holistic Space Act is vital nevertheless. Today, there are 22 nations that have domestic space laws, of which Australia, Japan and South Korea are the only Asia-Pacific regions that have implemented international conventions through national laws. India must also strive for it. This will be a catalyst to further boost India’s space activities and regulate them to be in sync with dynamics of global space activities. Therefore, a robust space regime is absolutely crucial. Its absence can hinder India’s growth in future. We must take proactive measures to ensure its formulation and implementation.

With a stellar run rate in this arena, why should we lag behind in the legal sphere? 

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Printable version | Oct 14, 2021 10:42:19 PM |

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