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26 October 2020, Gateway House

India must back Developing World in Space20

The Space20 is the newest sub-forum of the G20 initiated by Saudi Arabia, with the support of the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs. India, on its way to the G20 presidency in 2022, should set a comprehensive Space20 agenda for the democratization of outer space, whereby it can share its space growth story with the developing world and achieve its goal to become a global knowledge epicenter.

Former Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme

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The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) had early on identified space co-operation as one of the key agendas of its presidency of the Group of 20 (G20) multilateral in 2020. The KSA acknowledges space technology as important for common global goods like climate and oceans, as well as an enabler of food security, global health and sustainable development. To that end, the Saudi Space Commission, KSA’s leading space policy-making body, organized the Space Economy Leaders Meeting (Space20) on October 7, with the participation of the 19 other national space agencies of the G20 member states as well as the European Space Agency and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). The Saudi presidency has asked the UNOOSA to oversee the Space20 Working Group for future presidencies.

Space20 is certainly not the first forum where space agencies of G20 nations have gathered. The UNOOSA, United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS), Space Frequency Coordination Group (SFCG), Inter-Agency Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), Coordination Group on Meteorological Satellites (CGMS) International Astronautical Federation (IAF), Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), International Space Exploration Co-operation Group (ISECG), International Astronomical Union (IAU), brings them together to co-operate on various domains annually or more frequently.

Within this busy multitude of fora, the Space20 can carve a niche for itself if it focuses on the wider aspects of ‘space economy’ as it will be a natural extension of the G20’s original global finance-economics purview. There is a lack of global understanding and consensus on the space economy, and UNOOSA, which has begun a capacity-building initiative around this domain, needs support from a strong multilateral body. Space20 can acquire this forte.

The G20 nations occupy the top echelons of global space activity. Very few nations outside this grouping are yet to develop comparable space competence. This capability gap can be filled if new economic mechanisms are promoted so that developing countries, from South America, Eastern Europe, Africa, to Asia and Oceania, become part of technology supply chains, become recipients of cost-effective space services, and be able to upgrade their environmental and socio-economic indicators by piggy-backing on the space-capable G20 nations.

India’s growth story is exemplary among all the G20 countries. Our country’s space programme has grown from the time India was considered a third-world economy to now being the third largest economy in the world. India has yet to grow on numerous socio-economic and environmental indices, but the path to future growth can happen if India can share its experiences and mentor countries from the developing world. With such antecedents, India will be an important player in the new Space20 group, and during its G20 presidency in 2022, we should push a Space20 agenda championing the democratization of outer space.

The largest democracy on the planet should promote democratization of outer space by a) lowering the barriers to enter the space industry by providing them access to cheap space-launch services, b) offering superior space-based services – such as imaging and communications – cost-effectively, and c) enabling rule-abiding and responsible developing countries greater participation in the space economy. India has done all of this for several developing countries already. The South Asia Satellite, being a prime technology example and the Dehradun-based UN Centre for Space Science and Technology Education in Asia and the Pacific being an institutional paragon.

The global space economy is poised to grow from the current $420 billion to $3.3 trillion by 2040. Much of this growth will come from the commercialization of space activities. India’s recent privatization of its national space sector is a step in this direction. Like India, many developing countries today have abundant natural and human resources that are necessary for manufacturing of space and allied technologies. These resources need to be engaged sustainably so that there is a tangible and quantifiable reduction in these nation’s ‘distance to frontier’ – a scoring mechanism that quantifies the gap between each economy’s performance and the best practice and performance achieved by another economy across several economic and regulatory indicators. The higher the distance to frontier score, the higher the rankings on the ease of doing business. The Indian economy must aspire for the space economic frontier, by sharing its knowledge and best-practices. The greater the shared knowledge, the more robust the practice, the shorter the distance to the frontier for the developing world. India is to only gain by sharing its knowledge.

To set a Space20 agenda on these lines, India must swiftly constitute an inter-ministerial Space20 working group that not only includes the space agency, ISRO, but personnel from the new Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre (IN-SPACe), as well as experienced professionals involved in space policy, science, technology, economics, and diplomacy.

The year 2022 is also the momentous diamond jubilee of modern Indian state. It is the year when India looks back at its triumphs and failures with nostalgia and learning as well as views its future with high aspiration, confidence and intent to share knowledge. If India is to set an agenda of democratizing outer space at the Space20 forum, it will not only be a big diplomatic endeavor but a step towards making our country a global knowledge epicenter.

Chaitanya Giri is Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme, Gateway House.

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