Catalytic Space Reforms in India must be based on Sound Geospatial Boost
Catalytic Space Reforms in India must be based on Sound Geospatial Boost
In line with its objective of making India self-reliant in all major economic, technological and development sectors, the Government of India (GoI) has announced major policy reforms to boost the country’s space sector. In June 2020, the GoI approved the formation of the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre (IN-SPACe) to act as a bridge between government efforts and private sector expertise. The public sector company New Space India Limited (NSIL) was already established by the GoI in 2019 to act as a huge repository of ISRO-built technologies for commercial applications.
While already self-sufficient in space technologies, India is now looking to unlock new and unexplored possibilities, a benefit that responsible commercialization of the sector can provide, and hence the reforms. In this light, the government’s recent announcement of liberalized guidelines and policy for Geospatial data seems all set to enhance participation from various fronts, besides augmenting ease of data access.
New Space Reforms set to enable Innovation Ecosystems in the Country
The establishment of IN-SPACe as an autonomous single-window nodal agency for facilitating and regulating non-governmental private entities (NGPEs) is a much-awaited step, that will bring to the table ISRO’s expertise and space infrastructure for the commercial sector to benefit from. Its direct benefit to corporates and startups would be in the form of removing entry barriers and reducing the time taken for licensing procedures. In its press release, however, the Government emphasized that the private sector would have to handle techno-economic studies, funding bases, seed investments and insurances on their own.
NSIL, on the other hand, has been incorporated as a commercial wing of the Department of Space, Government of India. Mandated with owning and operating satellites, development of launch vehicles and services, as well as technology transfer, NSIL is poised to play a decisive role when it comes to international collaborations, with the potential of becoming a key member of industry consortiums worldwide.
These steps do not mean that the private sector has remained aloof from the space economy in India until now. In fact, the last four decades have seen more than 500 Indian companies venture into the sector, working heavily in collaboration with ISRO over the development of launch and ground-infrastructure facilities. Despite such a notable participation, the space commerce continued to be in shackles due to the lack of well-defined and conducive legal, regulatory and administrative directions – a pain point that is being resolved now.
Where Geospatial Solutions Fit In
Apart from the various salient features of the Space reforms – fulfilling international obligations related to launching and operation of space objects, risk and liability allocation to licensees, clarity on intellectual property rights, considerations for FDI in downstream and upstream activities, and international cooperation – ISRO’s announcement during its webinar ‘Unlocking India’s Potential in Space Sector’ about the revamping of archaic policies in remote sensing and satellite communications stresses on the importance of geospatial technologies for the Indian space sector.
Advancements such as miniaturization of drones and other data-capturing devices have helped make the design, launch and operation of satellites, and thus space missions, more economical. The integration of such advanced geospatial technologies with space missions has facilitated planning and monitoring, provides real-time insights for field operations, and helps curate invaluable earth data to support extensive research, geospatial technologies are quickly advancing to a critical position.
Sanjay Kumar, Former President, Association of Geospatial Industries and Founder & CEO, Geospatial World, shared his views on the same in a recent televised discussion on Space Sector Reforms. “All the information that we get from every GPS network and Earth Observation satellites are ultimately converted into maps. Those maps are used in navigation, agriculture, infrastructure, and land. On Independence Day, the Prime Minister of India in his addressing speech mentioned that the previous (geospatial) policy was 200 years old, which is why it was important to restore that policy, and they have done it. Had it not been, there was no point in making the new Space policy.”
Leveraging Space and Geospatial Technologies for a New Information Age
The requirement for data-based knowledge and services is growing exponentially in the country, with the proliferation of the digital economy in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. With key sectors such as education, healthcare, communications, retail, logistics, finance, governance and now space exploration welcoming digital and technological innovation from the private sector, the convergence of spatial data with the broader Information and Communications Technology (ICT) landscape has emerged as a key pillar of the much-needed information base in India.
Promoting this interoperability and mainstream adoption is the opening up of the allied sectors of Geospatial and Space “through encouraging policies and a friendly regulatory environment”. Industries now have improved avenues for driving the Indian economy as well as ushering the ‘Information Age’ in the country. Space tech, as is evident from international use cases, can have far-reaching applications in the Indian context, including “aviation, maritime and land transportation, urbanization, mapping and surveying, human health, disaster management, food security and sustainable agriculture, environmental monitoring and natural resources management”, to name a few.
The Way Ahead
Kumar, who is also Chair of UN-GGIM Network, further talked about the relevance of potential of these reforms for the Indian economy. He said, “Those who are progressing in space technology are also ahead in economic development… And as its participation in various sections of the society increases, its social and economic impact will start to reflect. We need to think about how we can roll out this policy into reality. If you want to promote the commercial sector in space industry, which until now was under a restricted zone and has now been freed, it will take some time to set up.”
K V Prasad, reputed journalist, shared, “Those who are somehow related to the Space sector, be it from the private sector or those working abroad and want to contribute in this space, if they decide to work collectively and institutionally, then it will help the government to figure out a roadmap and to identify the problem areas, as well as make some tough decisions, if needed.”
The idea now is to move ahead from ideation and advance towards an industrial strategy to breathe life into these reforms and policy changes. Such a development, in collaboration with the government, will help encourage Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs), Ease of Doing Business, and incentivize the Space and Geospatial industries. Ratan Shrivastav, Independent Consultant on Aerospace, Defence & Space, and Honorary Advisory to FICCI – Space Division, commented on this aspect in the same televised discussion, “It is a capital-intensive industry. We need an independent regulatory authority if we are aiming to progress in terms of getting the private industry involved. Startups need institutional support and government policies to help them gain some funding.”
Nicknaming Geospatial technologies the “low-hanging fruits” that can be leveraged for massive technological and economic disruption, the discussion called for a new ecosystem within which industries, academia, policy advocacy, think tanks, and research groups can work together on publicly available datasets for unprecedented space innovations and all-round commercial, industrial and societal success.