Debris from an Indian satellite falling back to earth from orbit lands on a Japanese fishing village, triggering an international dispute. An Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) launch goes wrong and the rocket blows up on the launch pad, destroying satellites of a dozen countries that were to ride it into orbit.
Clear and present dangers like these underline the Achilles’ heel of India’s space effort: The absence of a robust national space law. In the first example, Indian liability for damages would be determined by the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects.
Signatories to this treaty are “absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight.” But, without its own national space law, India would be hard put to determine the quantum of damages. In the second illustration, India would find it even more difficult to settle its multinational contract obligations sans a definitive domestic space law.
Leading space powers like the US, Russia and Japan have domestic space laws based broadly on the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, while China has announced that its space policy will be ready soon. India, though, has the dubious distinction of being the only country with indigenous launch capability, yet without a national space law. India’s space activities are currently guided by a few international treaties, along with some provisions of the Indian Constitution, the Satellite Communications Policy of 2000 and the revised Remote Sensing Data Policy of 2011. Realising that the lack of an overarching national space policy will seriously handicap Isro’s future programmes, New Delhi has now finally decided to craft a Space Act.
“A Space Act would help the government deal with legal issues arising from objects put up in space and for what happens to them in orbit, or because of them,” says Isro chairman, Kiran Kumar. Isro has reportedly circulated a draft of the proposed policy among key stakeholders such as the ministry of external affairs and ministry of home affairs and it is now being studied by the military, whose inputs are crucial for getting Parliament’s nod for the law. “With such a law, all activities will be done under the space Act,” Kumar says. “As we enable more and more industries in space activities, we also want clarity on what they can do and what the limitations are.” A primary space law should be able to oversee satellite building activities and launch services in the country, ensuring the requisite competence for India to discharge liability as a launching state. This is all the more important as Antrix Corporation — Isro’s commercial arm—plans to become a leading launch services provider.
Some 56 years after India launched its first rocket, the country’s space effort remains an enterprise of the government, which is solely responsible, and liable, for all space activities. The Indian government, for instance, is both operator and regulator of all remote sensing data, and enjoys a virtual monopoly in the space-enabled service sector. This could create a conflict of interest as New Delhi opens up the space sector to private players. Private companies that now manufacture satellite systems do not have any comprehensive licensing protocol to follow.
Policymakers must ensure the proposed law administers a range of emerging commercial space businesses — from space tourism to harvesting resources (like platinum, gold, palladium and titanium) from asteroids — which will also require legal services. As the low earth orbit and the geostationary orbit get crowded, it raises collision risks. This has prompted international regulatory bodies like the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and Office for Outer Space Affairs to call on member states to adopt robust national space legislation. So it is just as well that India has put up its hand.
(Prakash Chandra is a senior science writer . The views expressed are personal)