India’s Space Policy – Sowing Now to Reap Later

Note from the Author: I wrote this piece in March 2022. I did not get around to publishing it anywhere. Hence, posting it here. Some of the information mentioned here is outdated.


India has pursued a space program since the 1960s with the intention of benefitting its people for the past sixty years. For this period, the program was dominated by a single government player with an innovative production capability nurtured through these years. But, the Indian government now wants private players to play a bigger role – to design products, develop them, and market them to the world. Against this backdrop, the Indian Government opened up the space sector in 2020. This led to the need to make policies and institutions that would help India tap into this hidden potential.

Opening up India’s Space Sector

The Union Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman announced the opening of eight sectors in May 2020 as part of the INR 20 lakh crore (USD 300 billion) Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan (Self-reliant India Campaign). Space was one of the sectors that opened up as part of these reforms.

The Government said that it wanted the private sector to be a player in the space sector. She said that the Government would provide a level playing field for the non-governmental private entities to build satellites, launch vehicles, and provide space-based services. She promised that future planetary exploration and human outer space travel opportunities would be open to non-governmental private entities. Towards this, she promised access to facilities of India’s space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and a liberal geospatial policy.

India identified that space held a huge commercial potential for growth. It wanted non-governmental private entities (NGPEs) to be part of this growth. When the Government says NGPEs it is referring to academic institutions, start-ups, and industry. 

As a part of opening up the space sector, NewSpace India Ltd (NSIL), which was set up in the previous year, was repurposed to drive a move from a supply-driven to a demand-driven model. NSIL would act as an aggregator of demands from the market. It would then supply the services provided earlier by ISRO. For this, it would take over ownership of ISRO’s operational launch vehicle and satellite fleet. It would commercialize the production of the launch vehicle fleet by handing it over to a private consortium. 

The opening up also involved setting up a regulator, Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe). IN-SPACe would provide a one-stop shop for all space-related activities in India. ISRO would then concern itself with the research and development of various space technologies and applications.

IN-SPACe would “promote, hand hold, permit, monitor and supervise space activities by NGPEs and accord necessary permissions as per the regulatory provisions, exemptions and statutory guidelines”.

Developments since the Announcement

A draft Space Activities Bill, 2017 had been floated for comments from stakeholders and the public. This bill was to provide an overall legal framework for the space sector. As of February 2022, the bill has completed public and legal consultations and has been sent to the various Ministries for their approval.

IN-SPACe was established. Pawan Goenka, a former Managing Director of the Indian automobile major, Mahindra & Mahindra, was made Chairman of IN-SPACe. It was reported in February 2022 that ISRO facilities and expertise were extended to the NGPEs. ISRO facilities are being shared with these private entities at no or reasonable cost basis.

NSIL undertook its first fully commercial launch for Brazil’s Amazonia 1 and fourteen ride-share satellites in February 2021, on the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle’s (PSLV) PSLV-C51 mission. It is also undertaking the first demand-driven communication satellite [PDF] launch. It will launch the GSAT-24 communications satellite to fulfill the demand of Direct-to-Home company, Tata Sky (now Tata Play). The launch is expected to take place on board the European Ariane V in the first half of this year.

The Department of Space had provided various draft policies on its website for comments. These include draft policies on Space Communications, Remote Sensing, Technology Transfer, Navigation, Space Transportation, Space exploration and Space Situational Awareness, and Human Spaceflight through 2020 and 2021. India, at present, has, only Space Communications and Remote Sensing policies. 

Although space startups have been present in India since 2011, there was a real acceleration in the number of startups that started following the opening up of the space sector. As per statistics shared by the Indian Government in February 2022, there are more than 50 space startups presently in India. These work in areas such as building satellites, launch vehicles, satellite subsystems like electric propulsion systems, as well as various space-based applications in remote sensing, agriculture, fisheries, economic growth forecasting, etc. The Indian Government hopes to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) in the space sector.

Obstacles in the Way

As with any reform, there is a feeling that the reforms are not being implemented fast enough. It is not known when the draft Space Activities bill would be cleared by the Union Government and tabled in Parliament. The Space Communications policy is expected to be finalized by April 2022. The status of the other policy drafts is currently not known.

In the interim, ISRO is tasked with clearing the backlog of remote sensing, communication, navigation, scientific, and interplanetary missions of national importance which have been delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. India has only had 5 launches from India since 2020. One of them was a failure. There are limits on the number of launches ISRO is able to do in a financial year (March to April). This period of transition would be a difficult one to manage at ISRO, as it would have to fulfill launches for NSIL as well. 

NSIL floated tenders for the commercialization of the PSLV in 2019. It has still not been announced as to who the tender is awarded to. There are two other operational launch vehicles, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III (GSLV Mk-III) that also need to be similarly commercialized. 

All these delays then make the regulator, In-SPACe ineffective to do much other than provide access to DoS facilities until there is regulatory clarity with the publication of draft policies and the passage of the draft Space Activities Bill in Parliament.

Hopeful Future?

While it is expected that the infrastructure put in place after the announcement of the space reforms, would take anywhere from half a decade to a decade, the future remains hopeful. 

In the decade, India expects to launch interplanetary missions to the Moon, Mars, and Venus. It also expects to operationalize its human spaceflight program in the first half of this decade. In addition, it expects to launch missions for communications, remote sensing, navigation, and scientific applications.

It is expected that these reforms would bear fruit in the future decades. India hopes to participate and play a bigger role in the global space economy. It hopes that its start-ups today will provide goods and services not only for India but also for the world. 

Links to my recent Writing

On the cusp of November, I began writing again. The last time I wrote before this was for the SSLV launch in August. I did not write on the Bullet Journal instance either.

This blog post is to link to the various pieces of writing I have done at the cusp of November:

The Wire Science – When an LVM3 flies, what does it mean for India?

I wrote this piece for The Wire Science. It was published on October 30, 2022. In the article, I argue that while the LVM3 has proven reliability, it needs to sort out production issues and needs more support from the government.

Short Story – Return to Earth

I started writing this story in 2018 for National Novel Writing Month. It started as a pentalogy. I hoped to publish one novel as a part of each NaNoWriMo in the future. I then decided to cut it down to a trilogy. In 2021, I decided to cut it down further to a single novel. This story has haunted me and the only way I could think of something else for NaNoWriMo 2022 was to limit it to a short story.

Short Story – My Life is a Diwali Gift

I wrote this story in response to a prompt. I wrote a follow-up to this story that I will publish on November 10.

Newsletter #42

I sent out the 42nd edition of the newsletter on November 3.

Feedback on ThePrint opinion by Carnegie fellows

ThePrint published an opinion piece by Carnegie India’s Konark Bhandari and Tejas Bharadwaj on 7 November 2022. I am writing this piece to point out certain mistakes in the arguments that they make.

The Indian Space Research Organisation, or ISRO, launched 36 satellites of OneWeb last week. OneWeb, a joint venture between the UK government and India’s Bharti Enterprises, had been scampering to secure a launch of its satellites after its original partner, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, backed out following the war in Ukraine. There seemed to be no backup available for OneWeb, with analysts citing SpaceX as the only possible option.

Roscosmos was the launch provider. Arianespace was the launch partner. OneWeb backed out on the back of unreasonable demands from Roscosmos. The link they provided in “backed out” in the link clarifies this.

This launch by ISRO, therefore, is seminal. It has defied market expectations. It has done the launch in record time.

The record-time launch defying market expectations was done by postponing the Chandrayaan 3 mission for which the launch vehicle was slated to be used. When SpaceX is able to do a launch a week, making such a claim makes no sense. SpaceX did not launch as fast as India did because it simply prioritized its missions better than India did.

It was also the first mission that did not use India’s traditional workhorse vehicle, the PSLV, but instead opted for the more sophisticated GSLV-Mk III. And it has further catapulted ISRO, and by extension India, as a promising and emerging player in the commercial launch market. To be sure, India did undertake commercial launches for other customers earlier as well, but the speed with which ISRO launched OneWeb’s satellites, and their overall significance, was truly a noteworthy milestone.

ISRO has traditionally flown commercial missions on the workhorse PSLV mission. This is the first time ISRO flew a commercial mission on the GSLV Mk-III. OneWeb’s 36 satellites weighed more than 5,000 kg. PSLV could not deliver that payload to the intended orbit. GSLVMk-III was the only Indian launch vehicle capable of doing the job.

ISRO was able to deliver the launch at this speed because it postponed the launch of Chandrayaan. This would have been “a noteworthy milestone” if ISRO had built a new GSLV Mk-III at this time and fulfilled the demand.

Given India’s increased capability and an enhanced appetite to undertake launches for overseas customers, is it possible to expand the scope of these activities? Could India not just launch small satellite constellations but also build them? Could it do this not just for private enterprises but also countries as well? India should use its capabilities in space infrastructure to undertake deft space diplomacy, with a focus on small satellites. This may fulfil a variety of objectives.

Because of the point above, there has been no increased capability. They are working on increasing the capacity.

Therefore, India can and should think about entering this domain that enables smaller and less “space-capable” states to build their defensive capabilities for peaceful purposes. While SpaceX currently provides access to its Starlink terminals only to its customers, and has cited “cost” as a factor in possibly pulling such access from Ukraine, India should consider providing an entire vertical stack to other countries, including capacity building related to imparting technical “know-how”. This could be done by building, launching and providing access to small satellites to nations that wish to utilise the benefits arising from such services. Besides using them for defence purposes, these benefits accrue in the domains of precision farming, disaster management, and climate change impact measurement.

There are significant obstacles that stop India from providing countries entire spacecraft stacks or even launch services. Many originate from US’s ITAR norms.

Logistically speaking, even for countries that may possess such satellite building capability, launching them in a timely and cost-effective manner is often a challenge. Many small satellites have to often operate as secondary payload on most rocket launches. The more thrust a rocket has, the more payload it can carry. Accordingly, since there are various payloads on a rocket, small satellites usually have to take a back seat and essentially “rideshare” with other payloads whose readiness determines the overall launch schedule. India, with its newly built SSLV, has demonstrated that it can address this logjam too. In fact, ISRO had developed the SSLV keeping in mind lighter payloads weighing less than 500 kg, which are usually used to provide Internet access in remote areas.

Small satellites fly as rideshare when launch vehicles have additional payload-carrying capacity after carrying a primary satellite. This is one of the ways that smaller satellites can launch faster rather than wait for a dedicated launch vehicle to launch them. Rideshare is one of the solutions to the problem that is described above.

Each satellite in a constellation of satellites that provide internet access in remote areas may weigh less than 500 kg. But, to provide continuous internet access, more than one of these sub-500 kg satellites is needed. SSLV would take a long time to launch satellite constellations. GSLV Mk-III is better suited for this role.

We are also waiting for the first successful flight of the SSLV. So, we are awaiting the demonstration of the launch vehicle that can address the logjam.

As luck would have it, India’s domestic policy matrix as well as the international regulatory scenario are currently aligned with these geopolitical aims. India’s freshly proposed telecommunication bill might just make it easier for satellite spectrum to be cheaper – which could help with the adoption of satellite terminals and then help drive use of satellite broadband. A larger satellite broadband user base may effectively drive down the cost per terminal and help ISRO, which itself entered the market for providing satellite broadband last month, to cross-subsidise other countries’ adoption of such satellites.

ISRO has not entered the market for providing satellite broadband. Two of ISRO satellites – the GSAT-11 and GSAT-29 – will be used by a consortium of Hughes Telecommunications India and Bharti Airtel to provide satellite internet services to enterprises (like Jio and SBI) in India and hopefully, also to remote parts of India like Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, and Himachal Pradesh.

In addition to this, with the new US FCC rules mandating deorbiting going into effect (and with FCC being the de-facto global space regulator), de-orbiting may become a more common phenomenon, thereby providing opportunities for Indian companies that specialise in deorbiting satellites which have completed their missions. Given the increasing frequency of small satellite launches and the need for their replacement/deorbiting every now and then, this is eminently feasible. At the same time, there is a valid fear that this may lead to congestion in outer space over time, but India is currently chairing the Working Group on UNCOPUOS LTS Guidelines that is promoting the implementation of existing guidelines as well as discussing the possibilities of developing new guidelines to address the sustainability issues of small satellites, including satellite constellations.

There may be Indian companies working on deorbiting satellites but there are none with such demonstrated capability. It can increase its order book size but I am not sure how much they can deliver until they demonstrate capability.

It would be interesting to see India’s response in the Working Group as the partly Indian-owned company OneWeb may be one of the affected parties of these rules.

However, challenges remain. India would need to ensure that the benefits provided by its small satellites are unique and not in conflict with any existing space programmes of partner/beneficiary nations. Furthermore, the gap between promise and performance must also be addressed since there is a perception that India’s other bilateral infrastructure projects have been afflicted by delays, whatever the cause may be. In the end, India has an opportunity to share the manifold benefits of its prowess in space with other countries. It must do so actively as a form of space diplomacy. Space has always been characterised as a part of the global commons. India can now validate this axiom to the advantage of the comity of nations. 

Space is presently an opportunity for collaboration and data-sharing. As a part of space diplomacy, it must share data from its small but aging fleet of remote-sensing satellites. It must provide the services it already does for disaster management and search and rescue operations.

ISRO must first work on the gap between promise and performance for its own fleet of satellites (remote-sensing, communications, and navigation) and missions like Chandrayaan 3.

My prescriptions

Space was characterized as a part of the global commons, but it is falling apart today. I think India must try to make sure that outer space becomes part of a global commons, parts of which (like the Moon and Mars) are opened up for competition and commercial exploitation after all countries are consulted through mechanisms like UN-COPUOS.

On the question asked in the sub-heading of the article, on whether India must now build small satellites and forge global partnerships? I do not know.

The Fourth Peshwa (2019)

The Fourth Peshwa (2019) is the English translation of a 1962 Marathi language epic written by Ranjit Desai. The Marathi version of the novel is called Swami. The translation is by Reshma Kulkarni-Pathare.

Cover of the book, The Fourth Peshwa

I got this book from the Apla Granthalay (Your Library) in Pune. The library has books in Hindi and Marathi. They also have some books in English. I saw that the library has a collection of books from Eka, an imprint of Westland. Since I live in Pune, I thought I would pick up a book related to Pune. This one made sense.

While the librarian was checking the book out to me, I asked her for suggestions for books to read in Marathi. She looked at the book I was checking out and said that the book would be a good place to start. She said that Ranjit Desai was a Marathi writer and had written a book called Swami. When I turned the book around, it said that this was the English translation of Swami. I said that reading the Marathi original after reading the English translation would make sense.

The book is based on the life of Madhavrao Bhat. The story is a fictionalized version with elements such as statecraft, court and family politics, romance, and campaigns that the Peshwa undertook in his lifetime and ends with the death of his wife, who committed sati. Madhavrao I died at the young age of 27.

During his reign of about 11 years, Pune became the seat of power of the Maratha Confederacy which stretched from Delhi in the North to Mysore in the South, with the Mughals, Mysore, and Hyderabad being under Maratha suzerainty.

The book begins with the immense loss that the Marathas faced at the Third Battle of Panipat. Madhavrao I grapples with internal and external opponents as he sets about consolidating power of the Maratha Confederacy in Pune with the Peshwas. He is constantly troubled by his uncle. He has enemies at home and beyond the borders. His health suffers immensely as well. In the end, he wins the external battle with the Nizam and Hyder Ali. His generals also free Delhi as he is on his death bed.

His use of both western medicene and Indian medicene to treat his tuberculosis also interested me. I have recently been seeing that people largely use both systems interchangibly to treat themselves and their family members. When to move from the Indian system to the western medicene has been a topic of debate in our home as well.

I enjoyed reading some of the romantic flourishes as well. The one I particularly liked was when Madhavrao I tells his wife, Ramabai:

Whenever I see anything beautiful I am reminded of you.

pg 263, The Fourth Peshwa, Ranjit Desai (Tr. Reshma Kulkarni-Pathare)

I finished reading the book in about 4 days. I was reminded of how I read books when I was in school. I used to read the book at all times. I enjoyed following Madhavrao I on Google Maps through the various cities of Karnataka, as he chases Haider Ali for a year. I enjoyed reading the words the translator uses for some of the Indian elements – mujra (for payment of respect and not for the dance), cummerbund, flamebeau, etc. I enjoyed reading Wikipedia entries to understand this part of the history of the city that I now called home. I also realized that a Marathi movie I recently enjoyed watching called Pawankhind (on Amazon Prime) was also written by the same author.

But, above all, I enjoyed holding a library book in my hand. Note the cover over the book, the sticker with the library book number, stamp on the inside of the book with a cover inside to put the book card, with a record of all the souls that read this book before me.

An Introduction to Indian Philosophy (2007)

I began reading about Indian Philosophy in 2020. I was reading through the notes of Nitin Pai, when I got the link to Chatterjee and Datta’s An Introduction to Indian Philosophy in 2022. This is when I decided to purchase the book and listen to it.

Cover of Chatterjee and Dutta’s book, An Introduction to Philosophy. Image: Pradeep Mohandas/

Before I began reading the book, I had approached the Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy in 2020 and 2021. I thought that it would help look at the whole, before looking at the parts.

As I had written here:

In comparison, the various darsanas of Indian Philosophy seem to say that there is only one theme that plays the central role – the reduction of or end of suffering.

After reading the book, I understand better the approaches each school of philosophy took to end suffering. But, I am still puzzled by why the Indian philosophies placed the end of suffering at the center of all it’s philosophical aims. By this, I feel like I have lost an enormous part of the listening of the book.

The book’s tone helped me put my 5-year-old daughter to sleep on two nights. But, after that she developed the same thick skin to the narrator’s tone as I did.

Half-Lion: How Narasimha Rao transformed India (2016)

I am trying to understand the present situation better for a selfish reason. I am trying to decide what direction my career should take in the next few decades up to retirement. For this selfish reason, I am trying to understand the direction India will likely take in the next few decades.

The present moment has its roots in the liberalization of 1991. Books by Gurcharan Das spoke of India’s growth despite the state. The dismantling of the License Permit Raj was the state moving out of the people’s way. Das’ book spoke about what happened as a result of the dismantling process. One of the first books I read about liberalization itself was Jairam Ramesh’s book, To the Brink and Back.

Cover of the book

I heard the podcast episode with Vinay Sitapati on The Seen and the Unseen in June 2022 and later that month decided to pick up the book on Audible.

My reading had slowed down considerably since February 2022 and listening to this book was another effort to break the readlock.

In writing this book, Sitapati was given access to Prime Minister Rao’s private archives. He makes deductions based on his notes and balances them with accounts of people who were with Rao in those crucial years. These give an insight indirectly into Rao’s actions and his thinking. The title of the book is a direct translation of NarasimhaHalf Lion.

On the subject of economic reforms, there was a charge that Rao undertook liberalization as a result of pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Sitapati argues convincingly to state that Rao used the IMF and Nehru-Gandhi’s legacy to push reforms. Rao makes these arguments at the Congress session held in Tirupati in 1992. Sitapati argues that Rao learns from Deng Xiaoping to reform while seeming to maintain historical continuity.

On the subject of Rao’s inaction during the Delhi Riots of 1984 and the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, Sitapati argues that 1984 is Rao’s vilest hour while he is more innocent than guilty for his inaction in 1992. He asks why Kalyan Singh, then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh is not vilified for 1992 as Chief Minister Modi is vilified for 2002 and not Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

There are two parts of the book that were of interest to me. One, was his contributions to Indian foreign policy. Second, was his contribution to the Indian nuclear programme.

He is known for his Look East policy looking at South-East Asia. He is also known for opening channels of communication with the USA and Israel. In the background of the fall of the Soviet Union, he is credited with making sure that Indian defense products got continued maintenance support from Russia and the newly created Eastern European countries.

Rao is also known for laying the foundation for the nuclear tests India conducted in 1998.

I was disappointed to see only one chapter dedicated to Rao’s foreign policy and the nuclear programme but hope this is the first in a series of new well-researched political biographies. Sitapati has written another book about the BJP before Modi. I would probably listen to Sitapati’s podcast episode on The Seen and the Unseen before deciding if I might buy the book.

Skein – Media consumption

After a long time, I found myself browsing Binny VA’s website. After that, I went to his Twitter handle.

Rabit holes follow:

Binny VA’s tweet appreciates a shout-out!
Binny VA’s shoutout led me to a lovely Zettelkasten twitter-thread.
MostlyNotWorkin’s Twitter thread led me to another Twitter thread by Roam’s Connor White-Sullivan.
CSW’s tweet thread led me to this Twitter thread by Priya on how social media consumption is linear.

Priya references a blog post by Aaron Z Lewis article on how the way we consume media is changing. I was following Visakan on Twitter. Aaron’s article clarified what Visakan was actually doing. The other examples that Aaron provides in the blog post need more digging from my side. But, it shows new ways in which the impact of Twitter threads was going beyond Twitter.

  1. Venkatesh Rao – Ribbonfarm – blogchain
  2. Ben Hunt – Epsilon Theory – Discovery Map
  3. – non-linear threading product.

Grokking my world – Services and Networks

Raghuram Rajan, India’s former central bank governor, wrote a piece in February 2022 that said India would do economically better to follow a services-led path than a manufacturing-led one. He argues in the second of a two-part essay that India being a democracy will have a more challenging task of improving infrastructure and providing cheap labor. (my notes)

Saurabh Mukherjea, Chief Investment Officer at Marcellus Investments, wrote and spoke in a Marcellus Webinar that India was undergoing a period of rapid networking in transportation and telecommunications. He argued that this would particularly help in the growth of the services sector which contributes about 50% to the Indian GDP against manufacturing which contributes 25%. (Working Column)

Noah Smith, a former opinion writer at Bloomberg writes in his newsletter, Noahopinion, that new manufacturing jobs would also be increasingly automated. This means that manufacturing jobs would also increasingly be like the tech sector jobs of today. He felt that growth in the services sector needs more development of local services jobs. This needs to be further improved by new labour movements to improve pay and working conditions in the same way that it did so in manufacturing. (Working Column)

Balaji S, in a recent podcast episode with Tim Ferriss, says that the next century would be between the global Indian network and centralized China towards the very end of the episode. So, Network:Services :: Centralized:Manufacturing?

Notes: Raghuram Rajan’s essays

Raghuram Rajan and Rohit Lamba wrote a couple of pieces for the Times of India. He shared these pieces on LinkedIn.

  1. The End of Free Lunch Economics
  2. An Alternate Vision for India’s Growth

He also spoke about the idea behind these articles with Karan Thapar for The Wire.

Video Interview embed

The following are my notes from the second essay:

  • It provides an alternative path to India’s Growth Path than following the Manufacturing and Infrastructure development path we have chosen now.
  • What has worked for India?
    • Clear Economic Vision
    • Roll-out of well-thought-through frameworks that harness the energy of our people.
  • The vision in the 1990s was to separate the government from the economy.
    • Allow more private entry
    • Competition
    • Innovation
    • Opening up to the world through trade and investment.
  • Government would
    • Provide regulatory frameworks
    • Infrastructure
    • Safety Nets
  • Civil Society’s role in governance was enhanced through RTI.
  • India seeks to copy China’s plan to become a manufacturing export powerhouse.
  • India is a democracy, unlike China. We will not be able to do the things China did like suppress worker wages.
  • Alternative Vision
    • Draws on India’s people, their minds, and their creativity.
    • We should continue to build out infrastructure and encourage our manufacturers to seek out new global markets.
    • We should particularly increase our presence in global services by strengthening our human capital.
  • To pursue services-led growth:
    • Recognize and remedy the damage done to children’s schooling by the pandemic.
    • Build on India’s democracy:
      • Protect data privacy
      • Limit the government’s ability to intrude on privacy.
      • Be respectful towards its minorities.
    • This makes the world want to trade with and invest in us without hesitation.
    • People everywhere will want to visit, study or work in India.