Mapping India

The decision to liberalise the Indian geospatial information sector, enabling accurate digital mapping, is an important reform measure. The government has removed restrictions dating back to the British Raj, enabling many businesses to work more efficiently and opening up new opportunities. An earlier attempt to update geospatial policies in 2016 failed because the draft Bill was well behind the technological curve and restrictive in nature. However, the new policy should ideally be backed up by legislation that protects private personal data, and by a less restrictive drone policy. Details of the actual policy are also required, rather than just the guidelines.

The guidelines state data from private services must be made available free to the government, and on payment to other private entities. It also says government will freely and publicly release geospatial data that it owns, or will acquire. This is a big step, though it is yet unclear whether it will spur growth through data-sharing, or impede growth due to issues with intellectual property. Accurate location information is integral to the modern digital ecosystem. It is mission-critical for any industry offering services like e-commerce, logistics, and transportation. It is also essential for urban planning, construction and real estate development, road and canal alignment, power grid development, mining and is very useful for agriculture. This is therefore a huge boost to the 150 or so Indian start-ups operating in this domain. It may have been prompted by the policy of encouraging more road-building, and the planned induction of private capital into mining and exploration for minerals.

Certain restrictions remain, and these are designed to favour local service providers. Data must be stored and processed in India, and mapping to accuracy of less than 1 metre can only be done by an Indian entity. “Ground-truthing”—verifying satellite data by surveys on the ground — too can only be done by Indian companies. Also, certain areas may be marked on the negative list, and there may be “prohibited attributes” for security reasons, which means that something placed on the prohibited list, such as an Air Force base, may not be marked on a digital map. Foreign entities such as Google Maps and Apple, which dominate the global geospatial market, will have to work through local partners and they cannot take the data abroad.

The advantages of geospatial mapping are multifold. It can enable enormous cost and time savings. Street-view helps in efficient municipal tax-collection, as well as enabling services like Zomato and Uber. It will also be possible to track the spread of epidemic diseases, monitor environmental indicators such as deforestation or afforestation, design better sewage disposal networks, power cabling networks and irrigation systems. To take full advantage of the new policy, however, locals may have to depend on technology transfers from global mapping entities, or else find ways to rapidly build capacity. Much of the work may involve the use of drones which is why a less restrictive drone usage policy is necessary. Mapping at such accurate levels can also result in massive privacy violations because the location of individuals is pinpointed. This is yet another reason why legislation protecting private data is urgent priority.


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