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Is India’s Space Activities Bill as good as it is made out to be?

gps equipped smartphones
The new 2017 Space Activities Bill is aimed to increase private sector participation in the space program.

For a country which has gradually mainstreamed space technology in the last half a century, the lack of a Space Act was a glaring omission. No longer. The draft Space Act of 2017 is up for discussion. It is a very good effort – to start with. However, it could be improved and made more modern keeping in mind that this is 2017 and not pre 1947.

No one denies that there is a need for regulation of space-related activities particularly as it is no longer the preserve of the government alone. A large part of space-related manufacturing is already in the private sector and the move is now to transfer the total manufacturing to private industry. Further, many entrepreneurs are now moving into the field as independent designers, developers, and operators. Where the Bill goes wrong is to treat industry as suspect till proven otherwise. A common failing. Recall the infamous GIRB 2016. In 2017 we need a Bill that enables and encourages while regulating activities and not one that interprets regulation as solely control.

The devil lies in the detail

Specifically, let us examine the Bill clause by clause.

Section 1(4) since Space is a Central subject it is not clear why the Act will be enforced on different dates for different states.

Section 2(a) “commercial space activity” means a space activity which generates or is capable of generating revenue or profit; This can be construed to include activities like DTH broadcasting and LBS using GPS equipped smartphones. Do we expect to see a return of licensing of DTH receivers and GPS equipped smartphones like licensing of radio receivers decades ago? What about the use of remote sensing imagery? Will license be required to use satellites imagery and other non-imaging data?

Section 2(f) will make importers and manufacturers also liable for licensing. Are we going back to the license-permit raj?

Section 2(g)(ii) will include static and mobile launch pads?

Section 3(b) is a policy statement and should be in the preamble. It is one statement that hints at empowerment. It should be included but not under Regulatory Mechanism.

Section 4 talks about the duties of the licensees. What about the duties of the Regulatory Authority? Where is the promise of transparency?

Sections 6(2) and 10(1)(b) mentions public order, decency, and morality. What has decency and morality got to do with Space Activities? Could be a reference to DTH and the programs carried thereon. More of Big Brother watching?

Section 6(3) mentions penalties for not submitting information on time. What about delays in licensing?

Void in the draft Bill

The entire Section 8 provides excellent opportunities for rent seeking. The wording could be changed. After an initial inspection, there should be no need for other inspection unless there are significant changes for which any way license has to be obtained.

Section 17 is draconian. What is the intention? Is it aimed at subcontractors to the government? Any private entrepreneur would protect his IP anyway.

Section 19 How will legal issues between two private parties or between government and contractor be settled if only govern has the power to institute legal proceedings?

Section 21 is again presuming a situation of a government-sponsored activity. What about private agencies?

Section 25(2) and 26 are just unacceptable.

What could be done?

I think the above gives an idea of the problems with the draft Act. There are ambiguities which must be made clear. The Act must treat industry as collaborators and word the clauses accordingly. Above all the license-permit-Inspector raj must be avoided at all costs. I am particularly concerned with section 8, 17 and 19. Why not insist ISO9000 certification instead. ISO14000 will take care of environmental issues. ISO/IEC 27001 will take care of data security. This way you can have an independent audit and avoid inspector raj and concomitant rent-seeking.

In conclusion, the effort is commendable but need lots of work. Particularly, there is a need to separate out government contractor relationship and independent entrepreneurial activities.