Image Credits: The Financial Express
The Ministry of Science and Technology in a press release put forward ‘India Maps the 21st Century’ which offers guidelines for acquiring and producing geospatial data and services including maps. The policy aims to deregulate the geographic data sector, so the data can be easily used for economic and social development of the country. The policy was highly welcomed by the geography-data based sectors.
Government of India has been consistent in its permission-seeking approach for data-based policies. In 2016, the Government had tried to pass the Geospatial Information Regulation Bill to regulate and control the flow of geographic data. But it had to be withdrawn as people openly criticized the draconian, narrow and restrictive approach of the government. It is important to understand the compelling reasons for government to opt for taking an opposite stance in just four years.
WHAT IS GEOSPATIAL DATA?
Geospatial data is digital-information about objects, phenomena, or events that have a location on the earth. Excavating location based day may vary from a few seconds to hours. This data is a combination of the location, characteristics of the object concerned and time information. It is usually used for construction, public amenities, and transportation purposes. The use of Geospatial data in daily life is through Google Maps/Earth, food and logistics delivery apps like Swiggy and Amazon and weather forecasting apps.
WHY IS GEOSPATIAL DATA SO IMPORTANT?
Geospatial data is one of the three most emerging fields, in the era of information and technology, with other two being nanotechnology and bio-technology. These technologies provide reliable data with tools for interpretation which are essential for the management of scarce natural resources. Increased use of technology has led to a shift in the pattern of working from numerical data to geographical data. From agriculture, economics, health, resource assessment, business and air quality to biodiversity monitoring, it has the potential to increase the work efficiency of resources manifold.
Database is one of the basic requirements to manage and plan infrastructural projects. The lack of an all-inclusive database acted as a barrier in public and private sector projects in India, especially those which have targets affixed with them. Union Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan informed that the acquired and used value of geospatial data by 2030 would be Rs. 1 lakh crore. Adding on to this, he informed that World GIS data, Open Street Map and Global Elevation Map in collaboration with USA have been providing the geographic data freely, which makes it redundant for India to restrict the data-access.
THE STATUS QUO
Changes in the geospatial policy have been overdue. Before these rules, India had National Map Policy of 2005 and the Remote-Sensing Data Policy of 2001/2011 to regulate the geographic data. Strict restrictions were placed on individuals and companies to get information due to national security reasons. To get data, entities had to take permission from Union Home, Defense, and the concerned ministry for the project undertaken by Ministry of Road and Transportation and Ministry of Shipping etc. There was an absence of a single-window to get clearance from authorities. It led to increased red-tapism in the system. To get permission, infrastructural companies had to waste a minimum of two-three months.
This was hampering the social development and economic growth of the country. As a result, India has secured a lower rank in geospatial readiness index (refer to the image). Due to non-performance by the geospatial sector, the government had to withdraw Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016 as it was carrying the burden of the nineteenth-century which is out of context in the contemporary world.
NEW PROVISIONS AND BENEFITS
Geospatial policy 2021 has been a major shift from the orthodox approach of the government. This policy change will open innumerous windows of opportunities for the nation. Major policy changes can be classified into liberalization, democratization, and localization for better understanding of provisions.
Liberalization means the reduction of restriction in the form of easing rules and regulations and allowing more people to participate in a certain activity. “What is readily available globally does not need to be restricted in India” was the idea behind the government to provide free access to individuals, public and private entities in the sector.
Huge relief has been provided by the government to the general public of India by providing open access. Otherwise, companies had to wait for months to seek permission from the concerned authorities. The easy entrance of individuals and entities will increase the number of start-ups and businesses, and allow them to easily use the data available in the domain for e-commerce services.
This policy change has the potential to derive benefits from the investment India had done in space technology years back. Indian Space and Research Organisation (ISRO), the national space agency of India, has set up two organizations NSIL and IN-SPACe acting as a link between the private sector and ISRO to boost commercial activities. Liberalizing data will incentivize new entrants to collaborate with ISRO and invest, which will help in employment generation by allied services and increase the global competitiveness of India.
It means that data can be accessed by everyone and there is no interference from authorities to use it. Data is to be provided in an easy-to-read and understandable format. It ensures quick decision-making to grab the opportunities for an organization.
It will provide momentum for new technologies, start-ups and help in increasing the efficiency of the Indian agriculture, manufacturing, and service sector. It will open floodgates for the development of tools such as drones, cameras, and apps for mapping. Which, further can help to check the moisture content of soil, crop-condition, and assist experts for further actions to boost the yield.
Food Security is one of the major problems to be faced by the world. In such conditions, geospatial technology and data-driven through it can act as an eye for the policymakers. Data from the sowing of seeds, weather condition, crop variety, elevation to nutritional values will ensure efficient cost determination for farmers, distribution for consumers, and management of resources for policymakers.
Till now, India has been relying on foreign companies such as Google to use maps and satellite images. With the new policy, the government has provided a boost to Indian entities and restricted foreign companies.
For the terrestrial and street view mapping, ground situation images are now specifically available to Indian entities only. This will keep a check on the monopoly created by Google Maps, boost private investment, and increase competition with better services to end-users. Recently, ISRO has announced a collaboration with MapmyIndia to provide indigenous mapping services. It is in line with the Atmanirbhar Abhiyan launched by the central government. As more data would be allowed to be stored, processed by Indian entities, it will increase data-based knowledge and services which will help them to compete globally.
The benefit of such ground images will help in faster clearance of heavy infrastructural projects of the national highway, bridges ensuring a better understanding of the ground situation and providing maps at near to zero cost. Over time, this technology can be extended to our blue assets i.e., oceans. Resource extraction, animal warning, and weather forecasting can be more accurate, which will have the potential to boost the economy and tourism of coastal areas.
To sustain the fourth industrial revolution, there is a need to create an environment of data-based knowledge. This sector requires huge budgetary support from the government. The burden can be lessened by establishing a long-term public-private partnership for imaging satellites. Massive investment in human resources is essentially required. Establishing schools, universities, training, and research centers will ensure that high-end professionals, large in number, are available in the market to match the demand of the sector.
The liberalization of the sector will bring fresh copyrights, licensing, data security, privacy issues before the court, so there is a need to either amend existing laws or pass a new statute. In the absence of laws, data freely available in the public domain can be misused by people.
The government has opened geospatial data for the public as well as the private sector. Now, it is the responsibility of the private sector to maintain the confidence shown by the government. It is the complete discretion of the private sector to ensure it by way of self-regulation, ethical code of conduct, or severe punishments.
When the policies are out of context for the contemporary era, it is better to replace them with the need of the present day. The government of India must have realized the potential of geography-based data and its related benefits for the development of the country. It would not be wrong to say that the government has taken the right step by limiting regulations to just the security and sovereignty of the country. The policy released must be updated according to changing circumstances. With this, there should be real-time changes in the legal and educational sector of the country to ensure the proper execution of policy.
1. Guidelines for acquiring and producing Geospatial Data and Geo-spatial Data services including Maps, 15th February 2021
2. Mukund Rao and S. R. Sridhara Murthi, Perspectives for a National GI Policy, National Institute of Advance Studies, Bengaluru, India
ARTICLE BY: SHREYA MALOO, BALLB, BATCH OF 2025, THE RAJIV GANDHI NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF LAW, PATIALA, PUNJAB