India Needs to See Space Is Not Just About Engineering and Strategy

Space is not only for engineers and scientists. The conversation needs to include researchers in the social and political sciences as well for India’s space economy to mature.

India flies some of the cheapest satellites in the world but pays the highest price for bandwidth to provide services. This was the claim of an official of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT). This person blamed turf wars between the DoT and the Department of Space (DoS), both government bodies.

The bulk of space-based services in India is consumed by the government itself. If such barriers to deliver space services exist between government players, then imagine the plight of folks from the industry looking to venture into the space services arena.

Today, India’s share of the global $400 billion space market may be less than 0.01%. The country has been acknowledged to have the potential to create a $10-billion space-based economy and employ over 100,000 highly skilled engineers and scientists by 2025. For this to happen, India needs to have a strategy that accounts for the building blocks of a strong, local space commerce base as well as be proactive in international rule-making that allows India to use its soft power.

Academic voices in national discourse

We find ourselves in the midst of an extremely limited national discourse on space activities in India. One of the reasons for this may well be not having a critical mass of people experienced in the technologies, policies and business of space. We also have an academic realm of universities and think tanks that have not participated in a holistic economic analysis towards encouraging space commerce.

For example, the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) is one of the leading voices in analysing space activities in the country. However, their studies primarily focused chiefly on aspects of space security. The NIAS benefits from the presence of former ISRO experts, all of whom have a background in technology as well as policymaking. But the lack of in-house expertise on entrepreneurial activities handicaps studies published by NIAS, limiting it from advising the powers that be about matters such as ease of doing business, techno-policy perspectives, administrative suggestions, etc.

In the same vein, other think tanks in the country that publish space-related analyses are restricted to strategic and security studies. This group includes the Observer Research Foundation, the Centre for Air Power Studies and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, among others.

Our academic understanding of investment in space activities remains rooted in how much we spend on space but not how much we gain as returns. Even the IIMs have not published a single study analysing the economic and entrepreneurial efforts of space activities in the country. There is not a single economist in the country who has managed to perform an economic analysis of even, say, the size of the country’s local production and consumption of space-based services and their contributions to the GDP.

Industry voices in space commerce

Premier industry associations, such as the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) and the Society of Indian Aerospace Technologies and Industries (SIATI), have been the voices of entrepreneurs, playing a critical role in promoting the space industry in the country. For example, CII has partnered with Antrix Corporation to host the biannual Bangalore Space Expo. FICCI recently hosted an international seminar on the space industry with ISRO. SIATI also hosts such events.

However, none of these bodies have produced a single white paper that makes recommendations to the Government of India about unlock the potential for space commerce. This directly reflects in the results of their efforts. For example, no deal has been signed at any of the events hosted by these bodies with any industry players. And while there are sectoral industry associations for parts of the value chain – such as geospatial, broadcasting, broadband, etc. – their recommendations are barely considered and/or implemented.

The clear solution here is to build up credible working groups under CII, FICCI, SIATI, etc. to provide clear recommendations to the government – with a view to creating sustainable and scalable solutions for social good via competitive entrepreneurial activities.

It is important to acknowledge that space is not only for engineers and scientists. It needs to include researchers in the social and political sciences as well for India’s space economy to mature. Sans such an integrated approach, opportunities for cross-coordination between stakeholders within the government will be lost.

Narayan Prasad is a NewSpace enthusiast.