No Room for Smug Space Complacency
Our own GPS is welcome but challenges remain
India’s space scientists have delivered yet again. With the successful launch of the seventh and final of the satellites that form the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System, the country has a global positioning system of its own over India and its neighbourhood. The obvious advantage is strategic. Over this region, India does not have to depend on the satellite services of any other power to track or guide the movement of things on the ground, in the water or in the air. But this is not enough. If India wants to have a blue-water navy, its navigation capability will have to be global, not regional. Further, it is far from clear that such satellites or, at the least, communication with such satellites is impervious to disruption by hostile elements.
Having to run faster to stay in the same place is something that companies operating in a competitive market are familiar with. India’s space programme has to get used to the idea. With Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rockets proving viable, India faces fresh competition in the low-cost space launch market. Not only that, India’s navigational edge can be matched by a regional rival by making use of burgeoning, cheap commercial launch services to put in place the appropriate satellites. India has to throw open its satellite market, unbundling the government’s policymaking, regulating and operational responsibilities and allowing the private sector room to operate. Satellites have to play a bigger role to enable cheap spread of broadband to rural areas in the BharatNet framework. This does not mean that the national space agency should take it easy. Given its track record, it should receive stepped-up funding and an expanded mandate to think bolder and bigger.
Since the Clinton administration threw open the US satellite positioning system to civilian use, a whole new range of services using GPS came into being, never imagined by the military planners who created the GPS. Freeing up satellite capabilities can yield similar riches in India, too. The point is to not rest on the country’s space laurels, commendable as they are.