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Data is like oxygen, you don’t pay for it

Kapil Sibal
Minister for Science and Technology and Earth Sciences
Government of India

You have been actively talking about the debureaucratisation of science in the country. Can you give us more insights on this and how this is planned to be achieved under the current framework?

As the Ministry of Science and Technology is governed by the mechanisms and procedures of the Government of India, all the procedures of Finance Ministry apply to us. In many situations, we find that for emergent projects and projects of huge public importance, procedures involved to take the project forward results in enormous delays, many a times up to 2-3 years. We believe these processes should not be applicable to experiments and projects in the area of science and technology. For that reason, we have now passed a legislation and we have in place Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB). This Board will be an autonomous body and the constitution of this Board will be such that it is represented by not just the secretaries of the concerned ministries but also scientists of great eminence in the country. They will decide on the funding mechanisms. The Board will also have a representative from the Ministry of Finance. This Board will act as a single window of clearance. Since people of great eminence and secretaries of departments will be on the Board, informed decision making will be far more expeditious. This is just one small area of de-bureaucratisation. Countries like the USA, UK and Europe have agencies similar to SERB which take decisions. We believe this kind of mechanism helps in taking decisions on significant and publicly relevant scientific projects much faster and science funding far more rational and effective. That apart, there are other areas in which we wish to de-bureaucratise the scientific community. For example, in the appointments procedure, we find that several of these appointments, say of directors, take place through the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). This Commission comprises of eminent people but not necessarily those familiar with science and technology. The procedures involved under the UPSC take a long time and the result is that many of these directors could not be appointed for prolonged periods of time because there were natural procedural delays involved. We have got rid of that within the CSIR system. Now, for every director to be appointed, there will be a search committee and that committee will be appointed by us. That search committee will immediately advertise or do a search, pick up the best man and appoint him immediately. We have also tried to set up a mechanism within the ministry wherein if funding is to be given for particular projects, there are online procedures. People don’t have to go through filling up huge forms and endlessly wait for the movement of files. The approval of the project is also online. This is also de-bureaucratisation, similar to the Demat procedure in stock markets. The procurement processes are also online. Procedures which used to take long periods will now be done in a few months. These are some of the significant steps we have taken in the past five years. This will make the system far more efficient and effective and will get it away from the clutches of bureaucracy.

While most of the advanced countries spend about 2% of GDP on research and development activities, India spends only 0.88%. Also, research in pure sciences has taken a severe beating with demand for industry-specific technology. It is refreshing to listen to the PM at the recent Science Congress that the government intends to give priority to research in basic sciences. What activities are being planed in this direction?

First of all, one should take the numbers with a little care. At the moment, our R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP is 0.88%. When we came into the government, the total budget was about Rs 4 lakh crore and R&D spending was 0.88% of Rs 4 lakh crore. At the time of presentation of last budget, our budget was Rs 7.5 lakh crore. So, R&D spending was 0.88% of Rs 7.5 lakh crore. So, if you talk in terms of percentages, it is static at 0.88 % but if you talk in terms of actual numbers, it is much larger. The share of R&D was much larger than it was when we came into power.

That doesn’t mean we are happy. In countries like China, R&D spending is almost 1.3% of GDP and they want to make it 3% by 2018. Most countries are aspiring to invest up to 3% of GDP into R&D but many countries have not achieved that. Yes, there are a few countries that achieved 2-2.5%, which is enormous.

Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has made a statement in the National Science Congress recently that he will keep his promise made earlier that by the end of 11th Five Year Plan, R&D spending will go up to 2% of GDP. In India, if you look at R&D spent as a percentage of GDP, you will find that the contribution of public sector (government) is greater than that of the entire private sector put together. Our contribution is almost 70% while it is the other way round in the rest of the world. We hope that such a change will come from the expansion of the economy. Our liberalisation process started in the early 90s and you cannot expect the turn around of the economy in a short period of 17 years. As the economy expands, as the private sector’s role becomes more significant, you will find R&D in the private sector increasing and hopefully we would reach 2% of GDP. Remember, 2% of GDP is not public sector spending in the rest of the world. It is public-private sector spending. While the public sector has been able to meet with its tryst with destiny in India, the private sector is yet to do that.

In the aftermath of Mumbai attacks, there has been a debate (and even a PIL was filed) over the free availability of satellite imagery on the Web. What is your take on this? How to take on this technology misuse without compromising the security and sovereignty of the country?

This is the first attack of its kind. If you look at all terrorist attacks throughout the world, whether it is the 9/11 attack on Twin Towers in the US, blasts in UK or in Spain, you will notice that this is unique. Even in the 9/11 attack, the terrorist’s face was not seen. They were not ready to be confronted. They have always been clandestine and used weapons or instruments for destruction. But for the first time, we have seen a terrorist willing to be confronted. He has walked openly at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), killing people. The media did not know how to react. The government did not put in place any regulation because it did not expect such a thing to happen. When you are confronted with such situations, there needs to be introspection whether what is being shown on national television is something that can harm the interests of the State.

Talking about technology misuse, measures are being taken to effectively utilise the technology for security related issues. Technology can only be beaten by technology with emphasis on research and development of applications and geo-exploration tools to ensure that security is not compromised.

An independent regulatory authority has been mooted to streamline the use of geospatial technology. What is the status of the legislation and what is its mandate?

The next new IT revolution will not just be an IT revolution but will be an IT-GIS revolution. Because IT is very much at the heart of geospatial technology. Geospatial technology presents us with an entirely new and far more attractive medium of data or information sharing. It can be in 3D form, and the kind of use that it has is mind boggling. Because each consumer of information or user of that information can himself add value to that geospatial information not just for himself, for neighbours, for society or for the rest of the world. The expansion of geospatial technologies is unlimited subject of course to only security concerns. To that extent, a limited quantity has to be regulated far more strictly and effectively than data which is unlimited. Now, basic data ultimately has to be provided by the government.

But the government does not have the wherewithal and the finances to provide all kinds of data and put it in the public domain because that requires collection of data in geospatial form, in 3D form, which cannot be done by the government alone.

I think the first thing to do is, through public-private partnership, collect geospatial data with the help of satellites, aerial photography and whatever else is required. Having collected the data, it should then be allowed to be used by the public at large. Now, how that is to be used, to what extent it can be used, in what areas it can be used, in what form it can be used/licensed, is something that needs to be regulated. So, we need a regulatory mechanism and so we proposed a geospatial regulatory authority. The form of the authority and the conditions under which it will allow licenses to be given for the use of data in private sector is something that will be formulated by the authority itself. I think different data will be put under different regulatory mechanisms. I would not like to comment upon the role of the regulatory authority at this point. We need not even call it a regulatory authority. It might be a facilitating procedure. Regulation implies some kind of control. But this is not an area where we are really looking for controls. It will be a facilitator of geospatial data. The issue now is with the committee of secretaries which will opine what should be the form and structure of the authority. The matter will then go to the Cabinet. We hope to get it done before the next general elections this year.

It is felt in some quarters that an apex regulatory/ enabling authority at the national level may not be able to serve the needs of the local community. Is the proposed legislation planning to have a nodal/enabling agency at least at the state level, if not at the local level, so that access to and use of geospatial information gets accentuated.

Geospatial data will be made available through this facilitating agency at the local level. We need to have a mechanism to ensure seamless flow of data right through district authorities. There should actually be two mechanisms. One mechanism should ensure the flow of data within the governments. We don’t have a data sharing policy within government at this point of time. So, the first crease we need to iron out is to allow the departments of Government of India to share each other’s data. This is one aspect. The other is that data in public domain should also be made available seamless. The regulator will decide on the data in the public domain to make it freely accessible at any point of time anywhere in the country by any individual/consumer sitting in his house. If I want to purchase land in some district in Bihar sitting in New Delhi to set up an animal facility, I should be able to get accesses to the geospatial data of that district and get all the data sitting at home so that I can do my business plan. There is no question of the regulator coming into the picture.

The regulator only allows agencies to provide data and for that purpose issues licenses. Regulator is not the right word. A facilitator is more appropriate word.

GIS is an effective tool for planning and informed decision making. DST has acknowledged this fact and trying to bring in awareness for the same in several ways. But we do not see GIS/geospatial technologies actually getting into the governance of the country. What is your perception of the same and what can be done to give ‘spatial thinking’ its right place.

For the last 60 years, we could not put digital maps in the public domain. There were enormous restrictions from the Ministry of Defence. We have got a breakthrough during this government, that’s an achievement in itself. The beginning of opening up of the whole sector happened in this government. I am thankful to the then defence minister Pranab Mukherjee with whom I worked. Both of us have come to a conclusion that this is absolutely necessary and he kindly agreed despite some resistance. That’s how we have been able to set up NSDI. That’s how we have a map policy today. This is the first stage. The next stage is to be able to collect data. Data has to be collected in an appropriate form so that it can be used by the ultimate consumer and user. We have data in the scale of 1:25K but that doesn’t cover whole of India. We have only 1:50K covering the entire country. But now from 1:25K, we need to come down to 1:10K and then to 1:1K scale in urban areas. That requires mapping. That requires the SOI along with other agencies with cadastral maps, giving accurate data and putting it in public domain. This requires public-private partnership. This will take, if we have to cover the entire country, 5-7 years if not 10.

Once this is done, the real seamless flow of data will happen without any problem. If you expect all this to be done overnight, it is not possible as we are yet to collect the data.

Another idea that is talked about is the availability of data free of charge. Is it feasible in the Indian context?

Personally, I think data should be made available free of charge. Data is like oxygen. You don’t pay for oxygen. Now, if you want to know what the wind speed is, that is something to do with air currents. When we do not pay for oxygen, why should we pay for the air currents? That is also data. We are collecting data and it is a public good activity.

Government is obligated to carry out activities for public good. Collecting data with tax payers’ money and then asking them to pay for it is not justified. This will create lot of intellectual property. Because you can have data with you, but you put it in a particular form which is saleable as a commodity, this is the creation of wealth from data. That creation of wealth should be paid for. Government gives data in raw form which is converted into wealth by the private enterprise. That wealth is sold for a profit. That’s how I view this particular industry moving forward.

You have advocated the use of superior technology rather than compromising with indigenous technology.

Ultimately, we must move from the ordinary to become extraordinary. That is human endeavour. That’s how parents look to their children and say that their kids should become better than themselves. That is every parent’s dream. And if a nation is moving from being ordinary to extraordinary, and the greater the movement forward, the more the nation will prosper. The more extraordinary achievements we are able to accomplish, the more the public is able to reach higher levels of excellence and that will enable the country to become stronger. That is normal human endeavour – to move from where we are to where we should be. And where we should be is always higher than where we are. And if that is the normal movement of nature and human endeavour, why shouldn’t it happen in the area of science and technology?