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‘Soon government will release India’s space policy with focus on private sector participation’


Two-and-a-half years ago, when Lieutenant General (retd) A K Bhatt retired as the Military Secretary in the army, he had made up his mind that his next frontier was space. Just about a year later, he became the first Director General of the new Indian Space Association (ISpA) formed in October 2021. He had previously served a year as the commander of the Srinagar-based XV Corps and was the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) at the time of the India-China Doklam stand-off.

Today, as the head of a fledgling organisation that seeks to bridge the government and its space programme with the private sector, Lt Gen Bhatt is upbeat that the Modi regime will “soon” unveil the space policy.

Speaking to The New Indian Express at his spartan Delhi office, Lt Gen Bhatt spoke on a wide – and interesting – range of subjects that has captured not only his imagination but also that of the government and private players eager to jump into the space bandwagon.

Q: When do you expect the government to go public with its much-awaited space policy and what are its salient features?

A: To begin with, two draft policies, one on space communications and remote sensing, were formulated. Following this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met top officials in the Department of Space in December 2020. This led to the birth of ISpA with the first founding members being Bharti Airtel, Larsen & Toubro, OneWeb, MapmyIndia, Tata Nelco, Walchand Industries and Alpha Design. The prime minister inaugurated ISpA in 2021 and the organisation’s purpose was to be a bridge between industry and government.

This was followed by the formation of the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) aimed at the promotion of space. With former Mahindra & Mahindra Chairman Pawan Kumar Goenka as the first chairman, IN-SPACe was to be a body enjoying sufficient autonomy despite the presence of ISRO. However, ISpA thrust is on policy advocacy which involves ensuring not only the ease of doing business but also international cooperation. Currently, there are 38 private sector entities that are part of ISpA.

After the first draft space policy was discussed in February 2022, the Department of Space worked upon it and has sent it to the Prime Minister’s Office. The policy will likely be released soon. The PMO, in turn, will hold consultations with the departments and ministries concerned before it goes to the Cabinet.

Q: How do you view the failure of the maiden launch of ISRO’s Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV)? Do you think it is a setback?

A: On the contrary, I think it was a success, considering that the rocket itself had no issues and in that it was a success. However, I admit that the issue was with data communication for the two satellites, which is something that ISRO will certainly work on.

Q: Till a few years ago, India was nowhere in space exploration and associated research and development. What are some of the exciting things happening and how are they expected to shape up?

A: India’s private sector has already taken a leap of faith and is poised to take some very concrete steps in space. OneWeb, which is a global commercial satellite operator, has signed an agreement with ISRO’s public sector arm, New Space India Ltd, to launch some 240 spacecraft. This was preceded by the Russian central space agency, Roscosmos’, inability to launch OneWeb’s satellites on its Soyuz rocket because of Russia’s war with Ukraine. OneWeb has previously launched about 400 satellites from Russia.

ISRO has the infrastructure to launch such a large number of satellites which will essentially cater to the communications sector.

Besides, the Indian private sector is growing and has the capacity to launch both domestic and international satellites in the years to come. For instance, two companies, Hyderabad-based Ananth Technologies and Ahmedabad-located Ajista-BST, which is an Indian-German venture, also have the capability to launch satellites. These two companies are ready and, if they receive orders, they can launch 35 satellites by next year. The real question is can our private sector provide us with space solutions?

Q: The government appears to be serious about self-reliance, or atma nirbharata, even in the space sector. What is the start-up scene like and how is it involving in line with this vision?

A: The start-up companies are in a fledgling state but some have certainly begun to show promise. These include a company which launched the Shakuntala test satellite last year and plans to put in orbit 36 other hyper-spectral (gathering and analysing hundreds of images for the same spatial area) spacecraft whose data and information can be have multiple uses, including in disaster management and mining.

Besides, there is an IIT-Chennai incubated company that is developing a 3D rocket for low earth orbiting. A Hyderabad-based based company is preparing to launch space vehicles of different capabilities. Led by three youngsters, a start-up incubated at Bengaluru’s Indian Institute of Science sent up very small spacecraft on June 30 to collect information on space debris.

Q: How do you see the three defence arms taking to space-related programmes?

A: The Defence Space Agency was launched in June 2018. It was previously based out of Bengaluru but recently moved to Delhi. It is working towards integrating the demands of the three services but we need to see what the private sector can offer, especially in surveillance, navigation and communications. Surely, the powers that be will be looking at offensive capabilities.