ISRO Satellite Leasing Deal Draws Government Scrutiny

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The Indian government on Feb. 10 ordered an investigation into a deal in which the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) allegedly leased capacity on a pair of planned S-band satellites without competition and for a pittance to a company run by former ISRO officials.

According to India’s comptroller and auditor general, the agreement has cost the country huge sums in lost income given the potential value of the spectrum. The satellites have not yet been launched.

ISRO acknowledged in a Feb. 9 statement that the deal with Devas Multimedia, signed in January 2005 by Antrix Corp. — ISRO’s commercial arm — “provides for leasing of 90% of the transponder capacity” on two satellites for 12 years for a total fee of $300 million.

The government announcement said the two-person probe committee will “review the technical, commercial, procedural and financial aspects of the Devas-Antrix agreement to fix responsibility for lapses, if any.” The committee has been directed to submit its report to the prime minister within one month.

ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan acknowledged that ISRO received funds sanctioned by the Cabinet to build and launch the two satellites without revealing they were meant for Devas. “Ideally we should have informed the government about it,” Radhakrishnan, who took over at ISRO in October 2009 and was not a party to the deal, said Feb. 10 during a televised press conference in New Delhi.

He said ISRO already had moved to terminate the contract after an internal review in July 2010 concluded that S-band is needed for larger “national and strategic” purposes. 

ISRO spokesman S. Satish told Space News that Antrix has the right to annul the pact by returning to Devas the payments it has received to date — about $13 million.

In a televised interview Feb. 11, Devas President and Chief Executive R. Viswanathan said he was “shocked and surprised” at ISRO’s about-face. “Devas had fulfilled all of its obligations in respect of the agreement and now awaits the delivery of the contracted space segment capacity, which is more than two years delayed,” he said in a statement. He said the agreement was “legally binding” but declined to say what Devas — whose investors include Deutsche Telekom, Columbia Capital and Telcom Ventures — intended to do in the event of the contract being scrapped.