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Even as India and its space agency show themselves to increasingly be a major player in the worldwide aerospace market, it appears that India’s governmental policy on private satellite communications is acting as a barrier that blocks the growth of a commercial space industry.
India’s current satcom policy, first rolled out in 1997 and then updated in 2000, is clearly outdated. A senior ISRO official who attended the ORF event (but declined to be identified) pointed out that all the existing satcom policy says is Indian satellite companies will be given preference over foreign multinational companies. “How does this preference play out? If the department of space is worried about national security concerns, they should lay down clear guidelines for security compliance by foreign satellites. The existing policy doesn’t talk about this, which inevitably leaves it to ISRO, DoS and Antrix’s discretion,” the official told The Wire.
And this discretion has held up multiple applications for satellite manufacturing and foreign direct investment over the last decade. Hughes’ Krishna is particularly frustrated over this. “If a company submits an application for satellite broadband services in India, irrespective of where the satellites will be made, it needs a specific timeline on when it will hear back from ISRO or the DoS. Will it be two years, three years or five years? It is difficult to line up future investments if speedy clearance is not given,” Krishna said.
Essentially, India’s Department of Space (DoS) and its space agency ISRO control all licensing, and have been using that power to delay or deny the issuing of any private satellite licenses, since such efforts are in competition with these government agencies.
The situation here is very similar to what existed in the U.S. with NASA for most of the last half of the 20th century. The agency did not want private launch companies competing with its own manned programs, and diligently worked to block their efforts. If you wanted to be part of manned space, you did what NASA told you to do and you built what they told you to build. It wasn’t until the rise of the commercial space programs to launch cargo to ISS that NASA’s grip on manned space was finally broken.
India now faces the same problem. ISRO has done an excellent job, as NASA did in its early years, in getting India’s space industry started. It now needs to back off, stop running things and simply be a customer of these competing private companies, letting freedom do the job instead of government dictate. The question now is whether the Indian government will allow this to happen. There are many vested interests there that will resist.