PM should be alert to machinations to upset the plan to reform the Space Sector

Lalit Shastri

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had made the announcement on 16 May that the Union Government has decided to go ahead with structural reforms in eight priority sectors, including Space and Atomic Energy, Defence Production, Civil Aviation, and Power Sector.

In the Space Sector, private sector participation will be boosted, the Finance Minister announced while underscoring that level playing field will be provided to private companies in satellites, launches and space-based services and that predictable policy and regulatory environment will be created for the private players. Under the new policy the private sector will be allowed to use ISRO facilities and other relevant assets to improve their capacities. Future projects such as planetary exploration and outer space travel shall also be opened up for private sector. There will be liberal geo-spatial data policy for providing remote-sensing data to tech-entrepreneurs.

Reform of the Space Sector is a move in the right direction but it has to be coupled and integrated with the legal framework. Simultaneously, what cannot be swept under the carpet is the recommendation by a number of Parliamentary committees to separate the two posts – the post of Secretary Department of Space and Chairman ISRO.

In an editorial 3-months ago, it was also pointed out that the chairmanship of the Space Commission under the chairman ISRO has been given absolute freedom to push it’s own agenda. Seldom are the user departments consulted or a comprehensive review done on where is ISRO vis-a-vis other space-faring nations, especially in terms of technologies. The edit also brought in focus the fact that a lot many satellites have been launched with 2 to 5 years lag in setting up of ground segments. The recent aborted GISAT-1 launch was also in the category of disconnect with the user departments. The PM’s attention was also been drawn towards the need to bifurcate the top post in ISRO and to codify it’s selection and promotion policy.

As a first step towards reform of the Space Sector, the Government is on the verge of appointing the first Chairman of the National level Board being set up to handle a range of issues connected with India’s Space Programme, Private sector participation and optimum utilisation of the ISRO facility.

The Government while appointing a Chairman to head the new Board should not repeat the mistake it did when appointing a junior scientist as Space Commission member. The Government will be on the right track by ensuring that the senior-most scientist becomes Chairman ISRO and someone less senior heads the Board – preferably an outsider to bring in fresh ideas and better accountability. Putting an ISRO man in that capacity (Chairman of the new Board) will result in business as usual.

It is also important to note that the newly formed NewSpace India Ltd (NSIL) is not exempt from Department of Public Enterprises guidelines and any Chairman of the company should be selected by an open advertisement by the Public Enterprises Selection Board (PESB) and not by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) on the recommendations of the Chairman ISRO as it is being done.The company which was set up to transfer technology to the Pvt sector has not even been transferred a pin till now.

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