How can India's Space Economy be Transformed?

India could easily be ranked in the top five or six space faring nations in the world, both in terms of technological capabilities and in terms of budget. But despite all of this, India is barely a player in the Global space marketplace.

India could easily be ranked in the top five or six space faring nations in the world, both in terms of technological capabilities and in terms of budget. But despite all of this, India is barely a player in the Global space marketplace, which is around $450 billion annually. The recent announcements on space reforms by the government of India are a welcome change, through the largely government run and government controlled space program that are there for several decades. Even the proposed IN-SPACe Directorates are yet to be established, as is the policy framework and accompanying legislation.

A webinar hosted by Bangalore International Centre gathered industry leaders like Sanjay Kumar, Founder & CEO, Geospatial World; Ranjana Kaul, Secretary General, Spaceport SARABHAI & Board Member, International Institute of Space Laws, Paris; K. Krishna, VP & CTO, Hughes India; Laxmesh Hasanabadi, VP & Head-Missiles & Aerospace, Larsen & Toubro at one session and the session was moderated by Susmita Mohanty, Director General, Spaceport SARABHAI & Member, World Economic Forum Global Future Council for Space Technologies. The speakers had discussions on how the policy framework should be structured, what are their expectations from the government and how the government as well as the private players collectively work towards the right direction to make India climb to the list of top five or six Space faring nations in the world.

Laxmesh Hasanabadi said, “In a strategic sector like space, it certainly gives enormous amount of engagement, right from government levels, agencies, policymakers, operators, actors. So therefore I think this is a process which we call a ‘work in progress’, and I think with every day passing it’s taking good, great shape and I’m quite confident that pretty shortly we would be seeing a very well documented policy for the country.”

Geospatial business landscape in India

Sanjay Kumar highlighted that even though the global space economy is about $450 billion, almost 60% of it is powered by the space, especially from the GNSS and Earth Observation capabilities. GNSS capabilities is picking up as a big market and the Earth Observation has become very commercial. The geospatial industry, on one side is heavily dependent on the space capabilities, and on the other side it is an instrument of realizing the actual impact and benefits of those space capabilities to the people. This is the kind of interface between space and the people which has to go through geospatial industry.

He explained that there are four technologies that are considered as part of geospatial technology, one is acquisition, where Earth observation is a form of acquisition of data, such as UAVs and aerial platforms or the ground sensors. Then comes the whole range of positioning infrastructure where GNSS is a part of positioning infrastructure, but then there are terrestrial positioning, infrastructure technologies which are very much being used everywhere and that’s where the industry started from. And the third is the Lidar and remote sensing technologies. And fourth comes the GIS Analytics technology. They have been very much integrated primarily with all the IT like cloud, AI, ML. All these technologies have actually powered geospatial integration in the workforce primarily into 4-5 sectors, like Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) which is a very hyper size precision industry. Almost all the business intelligence platform use location based analytics, similarly defense and intelligence use high-precision and autonomy. That’s how the applications are categorized. “The geospatial industry is the interface between space and the people,” he added.

The global space economy stands as a $450 billion market, whereas India is about $1.5 billion or $2 billion market only. Coming to the geospatial economy of India, which is about $6 billion right now, out of which $1.7-1.9 billion of geospatial services is being exported annually. In addition to this, the government of India has spent extensively on the geospatial mapping, which is also part of the same economy. 90% of the government spending goes to various institution, including National Register of Citizens (NRC), Survey of India, Forest Survey of India, Archaeological Survey of India and Land Use Survey. In all these institutions almost $13,000 crores is being spent for their salaries and establishments, and about $3000-4000 crores out of space budget is being spent on geospatial industry. The geospatial industry is growing very fast, almost at 18-19% rate. Sanjay Kumar said, “We need to make it clear where the geospatial industry fits in the market as well as in the economy.”

He further added, “Coming to the policy impact, by 2025 it is going to be about $65,000 crores economy. And that’s the kind of geospatial economy growth in India, we are foreseeing, which is based on very rigorous mapping, understanding, interactions and projections of the companies and their investments in this direction. Going further we also need a substantial industrial strategy, because this industry has been under shackles and has not being given enough attention for a very long time and suddenly the policy reforms, leaving us with very little time to leverage this. We have done a study which implies that an industrial strategy should come in place which will take the industry’s economy to almost $82,000 crores by 2025.”

Sanjay Kumar pointed out that the Government of India is investing almost $100-200 billion across infrastructure, water, health, sanitation, housing, agriculture all this.  These billion dollar projects need information, which can make these projects more productive, more efficient, more transparent and more effective in implementation. The impact of industrial strategy and policy reforms will actually empower these sectors. Citing an example he explained that instead of completing a highway in three years, it will be completed in 2 years because that one year time will be saved which would have been wasted in surveying that highway. That is the kind of benefit GNSS capabilities or terrestrial infrastructure capabilities or the power of AI and machine learning will be augmented by using that knowledge and the government should look at that kind of proposition and clear policies that can be converted into laws. He added, “We would need Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), responsibilities and liabilities because we are making decisions based on information, and the authenticity of the decision and the whole process of the value chain in terms of law is going to be very, very important if we are looking at creating an economy of lakhs and crores.”

Private players’ participation and Space environment

Ranjana Kaul raised concerns over the growing space debris problem and said, “Everything that is man-made, is an assault on space environment.” She added, “Space is about geopolitics, that’s how agreements are made. So therefore, when you have a draft activities bill which says an environment, I have to ask myself, why, if we actually mean to have private sector? There is a lot of money that is invested on the basis of policy and law, if you do not have clarity or are not devoted to drafting meticulously and with clarity then you are doing yourself and the Indian industry a disservice.”

“The recent Indian space policy is a vast improvement in India’s space sector without any doubt, but again, it needs meticulous care. When you say that IN-SPACe will be responsible for authorization, the authorization of what? Now IN-SPACe is under the administrative control of Department of Space (DoS), headed by Dr. Goenka, are you saying, that he will be the licensure? Maybe this kind of miscommunication that is the problem for me,” she added. Ranjana Kaul explained how the first draft bill of 2017 was articulated, which was not in favour of private participation, and we’ve come a long way since then. The latest space policy has definitely made a leap from looking at the private industry as a competitor to someone, that needs to be wary of what it’s doing to a co-developer or a partner in the future of space economy.

Steps to transform India’s Space economy by 2030

The session ended with an important question, “What is the most important thing the government and the DoS need to do if India has to be transformed into a developed space economy by 2030?”

To which, Sanjay Kumar answered, “Three things:

  1. The Government should actually implement the principles of the policy to the core, and spirits.
  2. The Government should look at creating open data strategy. It is there, but just not in practice. We should actually create open data strategy and all the past constellation, all the information of the past 30 years should be made public, which can be used for sustainable development.
  3. The Government should look at providing level playing field to the private sector and that level playing field would only come if there’s an industrial strategy behind it. Yes, we all need to be self-reliant and that’s not going to happen overnight. It needs handholding, nurturing and trust on the government with the kind of geospace fund.”

Ranjana Kaul replied, “I think what the government needs to do is to have absolute clarity that it wants to do this. And then put out documents mentioning what it wants to do and not because there’s a demand from some constituency. And there must be clarity and precision in whatever they decide.”

Krishna added, “Three things:

  1. Speed, the policy is being delayed and it needs to come out soon, which will set the pitch.
  2. We need more frequent revisions. Since 2000 this is the second time we are going through a revision.
  3. Protection of IPR. Today a lot of foreign companies develop certain parts of equipment in India. The space industry are very keen on seeing very clear IPR regimes, where the private industry gets to benefit, not just contributes to space, the Indian space program. We are we really need to accelerate things on the Homefront.”

Laxmesh Hasanabadi concluded the session saying, “The government needs to pay attention to IPR intellectual property and find ways to have private industry co-develop or create and own IP, not just contribute to the program. The transition management is extremely important so that we hold on to the strengths we already have as a nation, as a space faring nation while transitioning to new economies around space where we leverage space assets. Of clarity and position, I think that’s very important as well, because if you look at the earlier drafts of our space policy, most of them were eminently rewritable.”

The whole idea of open data policy is something India should embrace, because they often come up against speed breakers, like the word security, protocol with the economics around open data.