Initial decision to open up sector, including FDI of up to 74%, was taken in 2000, but nothing moved after that
Despite the unfortunate accident with the lander on Chandrayaan-II, there can be little doubt Isro has acquitted itself very well; indeed, it was able to put an orbiter on the moon at a tenth of the cost of most international space missions, and it has made a name for itself when it comes to low-cost satellite launches. Yet, as its chief K Sivan said in an interview to The Hindu in 2018, it would take Isro at least four years to make and launch the required number of satellites. Indeed, with better technology, demand is skyrocketing—as an example, standard TV uses 400,000 megapixels per frame but this goes up to 2 million for HDTV and to 8 million for 4K TV; a single transponder could, then, cater to four standard TV channels but just one HD channel. And, to use an example from another sector, technology has changed dramatically—from 2G to 2.5G (EDGE), 3G, 4G and now 5G—in telecom, and this has increased capacity while resulting in costs getting slashed. In the space sector, too, capacities that each satellite can handle are up dramatically—modern satellites have up to 1,000 times the speed of some of Isro’s older satellites—and, as it happens, Isro is so short of capacity, a very large part of the satellite capacity it has is rented from private satellite firms.
It is to be able to keep pace with both demand and technology that, way back in 2000, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government opened up the space sector to private firms including those from overseas who set up shop here; FDI levels of up to 74% were allowed. But such was the power of the establishment that the guidelines for private sector firms were not put out till 2010! When these were notified, US-headquartered firm Hughes Network System put in an application—through an Indian venture where FDI was at the requisite level—to build satellites with data delivery speeds that, at that time, were 100 times what India’s conventional satellites offered. No decision was taken for years and then, on the eve of US president Barack Obama’s visit in 2015, it was supposed to have been fast-tracked. The proposal, though, has still not been cleared; ironically, in 2016, the sector was opened up further to 100% FDI. Indeed, it is because there was no transparency in how operations were to be run that the Antrix-Devas controversy occurred, and the net result of that is the government has to pay large sums of money in damages.
In this context, it is just as well that the government has decided to set up an Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) to act as a bridge for private sector players. While more details are not available as yet, from all indications, IN-SPACe will be like a regulator since, as the minister of space said, it would provide a level-playing field for private sector participants to use Indian space infrastructure; he added that this would allow Isro to focus more on R&D activities. If Isro now focusses on technology transfers and helping build capacity—and on missions of its own, like putting a man on the moon by 2022—India can aim to have a SpaceX or a BlueOrigin and, more important, Indians can get enhanced data capabilities; indeed, in lightly populated, or less affluent, areas, satellite also offers a good alternative to offering high-speed internet. This time around, though, it is critical the sector is genuinely opened up.