India is at the forefront with a vibrant space policy, strong cartographic base, evolving capacity development programmes in education and a private geospatial industry that is raring to go. The new government, with its mantra of ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’, is all set to bring the best of technologies to support development in various spheres. Will all these positives result in big bang opportunities for the geospatial industry? Prof Arup Dasgupta does a reality check on the policy and business environment in the country
Technology causes disruption. Governments hate disruption. Herein lie the seeds of potential conflict. However, such conflicts can be resolved if the government turns to technology, owns it and formulates its policies to harness the disruptive power to further its goals of good governance. Unfortunately, while embracing technology, governments tend to think in extant policy terms and instead of thinking out of the box, they try to tinker with the existing policies to suit the current situation. Another retrograde development is the use of policy for gate-keeping under the guise of security, rather than for enablement. Gatekeeping comes at a cost which is paid for by the government itself in terms of lost opportunities, additional policing and resentment among the stakeholders.
Data: Where it all begins
- The Remote Sensing Data Policy allows unrestricted sale and usage of satellite imagery of up to and including 1m resolution data. Data of resolution better than 1m can be procured only through the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) and is subject to vetting by the High Resolution Data Committee. In practice, such data is only available to government agencies and private organisations who are executing government contracts. The policy is unclear on the procurement of unrestricted data of resolution 1m or more from foreign satellites directly from foreign vendors. Such ‘low’ resolution data over India, from Indian remote sensing satellites has to be procured only through NRSC. The policy for the procurement by Indian entities of IRS data over foreign countries collected by foreign operators under licence from Antrix Corporation, is also not clear.
This government monopoly over the distribution of data poses the challenge of approval timelines. Moreover, if the data is of higher resolution, the challenge increases further, feels B.V.R. Mohan Reddy, Executive Chairman, Cyient (formerly, Infotech Enterprises).
With the implementation of the revised Remote Sensing Data Policy in 2011, there has been a significant change in both the procurement process for imagery as well as the availability of satellite images up to 1 m resolution having become simpler. Today, however, with the announcement of priority areas, it is evident that the impetus of the government will largely impact the infrastructure development. “For this to be realised, geospatial technologies will play a pivotal role right from planning and design stage to building and operationalisation. There may, therefore, be a need for revisiting the existing policy to see how to facilitate and make available higher resolution data wherever required,” says Bharti Sinha, Executive Director, Association of Geospatial Industries (AGI).
This indicates a mistaken idea among the powers that current and high resolution data is not required simultaneously for running a mission critical application. Hence, applications like disaster recovery after an earthquake use low-resolution unrestricted data.
Coordinating demands from all the users is an uphill task for NRSC and there is a need for appointing more distributors who can aggregate the demands to speed up the process, points out Amit Somani, Joint Managing Director, ADCC Infocad.
Reddy would like policies to be more open, flexible and business-oriented through quick and hassle-free approvals under a single window with a fixed timeline. Srinibas Patnaik, Senior Director-Sales, DigitalGlobe, feels that the Remote Sensing Data Policy needs to be liberalised with immediate effect to enable government and defence customers buy high resolution imagery directly from vendors/suppliers. There is a need to encourage private players to use high resolution data.
Main focus areas
- Smart Cities: Building 100 smart cities requiring integrated city management supported by land information systems, automation, intelligent routing and transportation, and big data analytics.
- Transportation: Constructing diamond quadrilateral for high speed trains by infusing FDI. The entire lifecycle of these projects require highly accurate survey and remote sensing data.
- Defence & internal security: The defence sector requires state-of-the-art geospatial data and technologies.
- Power: Improving the T&D and enhancing energy security through renewable sources — all of which need updated geospatial information.
- Aerial imagery data is widely used in western countries due to less sanctions. However, in India to get aerial flying permissions, four federal ministries are involved, and in each ministry it goes to four to five levels, resulting in a requisite permission taking at least two years time. While a single window system, as proposed by Reddy, will be really helpful, Somani is not sure how realistic it could be, given the involvement of different departments. UAV for aerial data acquisition is the way forward but in the absence of a guiding policy, it is not clear how this technology could be introduced.
Aerial technology, especially airborne LiDAR coupled with high resolution aerial imaging can help create accurate base maps for multiple application projects in the AEC segment. However, the cumbersome process of approval delays these projects for years, points out Kaushik Chakraborty, Vice President, Hexagon India. The alternative is to use other methods which create less accurate data impacting the long-term viability and maintenance of the infrastructure.
Chakraborty spells out a possible policy intervention which would enable industry to have a long term partnership with government, preferably with a long-term ‘fly as and when required’ contract, under which there is a continuous supply of cost-effective geospatial information from aerial sensors for mission mode projects of the government.
- Topographic maps are produced by the Survey of India. After a series of stopgap arrangements, Survey of India (SoI) decided to split the topographic maps into two series, Open Series Maps (OSM) for civilian use based on WGS84 and UTM projection while the existing Everest series continued as military maps. SoI also launched a massive effort to digitise the OSM. It also came out with a map policy.
As per the Map Policy 2005, civilian users can access the OSM. Conditions are that the coastline and international border maps are classified as ‘secret’ and the rest are ‘restricted’, thereby negating the very act of ‘opening’ out these maps. These maps omit all sensitive information and also do not show any height information, thus making them useless for natural resources projects.
BVR Mohan Reddy
Executive Chairman, Cyient Ltd
While we are not advocating that we should compromise with national security, the system could be made more streamlined and responsive enough to encourage mapping activities at a faster pace.
OSM digital maps are the copyright of SoI and their use and reuse is regulated through several licences. Users of the SoI digital OSM also question the quality of the digitisation. Many organisations buy the maps but quietly digitise the paper OSM maps on their own to meet their quality standards. It may be noted that the entire Indian topographic map series is available for over-the-counter purchase in the UK. These are based on the old British one-inch-to-the-mile series suitably updated using Landsat data.
However, the adoption of geospatial technology in infrastructure projects will require higher scale maps, typically 1:2000 or better, for which high resolution imagery is a necessity, says Rajesh Mathur, Vice Chairman, Esri India.
- GNSS a grey area: DGPS data is being freely collected for government projects like National Land Records Modernisation Programme (NLRMP) and the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) by the industry.
Meanwhile, the industry, which maintains that a number of applications especially in the transport and navigation sectors need GNSS data, looks forward to see clear policy initiatives for capture and dissemination of data through UAVs, crowdsourcing, and other contemporary techniques. Reddy feels it would be ideal to have an integrated policy incorporating all these technologies and methodologies, which clearly defines identification of sensitive data and the procedures to deal with it. An encouraging news is the steady progress on the IRNSS. It is expected to provide Indian users with accurate positional data, for which they are now dependent on American, Russian or European data.
Chakraborty avers that the GNSS industry would like to see the import restrictions on survey grade GPS devices made less cumbersome, besides a reduction in the import duties on GNSS equipment to assist in infrastructure projects.
The existing geospatial policy
In spite of the lacunae pointed out earlier, there are opinions that since we have a policy why not work with it. After all, there are projects which do not need data of resolution higher than 1 metre. That is true but then what about the Map Policy which transfers its restrictions on the OSM digital maps to any map prepared with the OSM as its base? Thus, the Coastal Erosion Maps prepared by the Department of Environment are now secret and therefore not available for open dissemination.
Patnaik outrightly disagrees that there are conducive policies for geospatial data in India. Unless there is an open licensing policy, the industry cannot be predicted to grow significantly. Somani is ambivalent: “In the new data policy, quite a bit of conducive guidelines are framed but at implementation level there is hardly any change.”
The industry looks forward to faster clearances from defence and other agencies for aerial mapping, use of UAVs, terrestrial LiDARs and cameras. Similarly, for high-resolution imagery, the government should allow multiple imagery providers to provision it directly under an appropriate legal framework.
“This entire exercise also needs getting rid of the data paranoia affecting many government agencies,” says Reddy, giving the example of projects for mapping of coastal areas or cadastral parcels where there is an insistence to execute the projects within the premises of the contractee agencies to preserve the ‘secrecy’ of the data! Such secretive and over-cautious attitude leads to inefficiencies and higher costs due to lack of economies of scale, proper facilities, shared expertise and skills, which could be handled differently if the data was allowed to be taken to industry facilities within an appropriate legal framework. Interestingly, while developed nations like the United States or Europe do not see a problem sending its high-resolution data to India for outsourced work, in India the domestic industry is not allowed to take Indian data to their facilities in India!
Chakraborty agrees that at a national level, projects used for macro level planning of the nation result in large data creation. But is this information accurate and up-to-date and is it being shared with all the agencies for better governance? “Accurate engineering grade geospatial information required for these projects is not easily available today as it is cumbersome for industry to create this in a timely and cost-effective manner in the restrictive environment,” he says. Since there is no insistence on the use of best data for the job, the industry often has to compromise with whatever data and information is available.
Mathur indicates a major lacuna in sharing of GIS assets available with different agencies. A lot of time is consumed in building base maps and other datasets while implementing GIS projects which leads to increased project costs and delays. The government needs to mandate all agencies to disclose the datasets available with them and share them with others.
Open data and open governance
The critique of the existing geospatial data policy also provides pointers to the way forward. Apart from the changes needed in the policy, Mathur and Chakraborty have indicated the need for a greater data sharing not just by the major data generators but by all the geospatial stakeholders. In effect, the call is for open data and open governance.
Somani indicates that the industry has worked and created geospatial data for quite a few departments in the government, but it is doubtful whether even a quarter of the functionaries ever use them. “Sharing of relevant data and information is the key and can facilitate and maximise productivity, governance and transparency. To enable this, a common data model, platform for delivery of the services and adoption of standards will be the key,” says Sinha.
Both governance and accountability serve a great purpose in planning, building and maintaining the geospatial infrastructure in the country. Planning includes implementation of policies on data and other associated issues in right earnest that will facilitate usage and growth of the geospatial technologies including opening up of the data creation and dissemination activities. Creating an open environment will instill confidence among providers and users of geospatial data and technology to make investments and reap the benefits. Capacity planning and skill development in a more holistic manner, provisioning usage of geospatial technologies in the long-term planning process and allocation of the necessary funds also play an important part.
Building refers to the basic infrastructure for high resolution imageries, positioning data, spatial data infrastructure, and other associated products and equipment necessary for the growing demands for geospatial technologies through investments and initiatives taken by the government directly or by facilitating the industry to invest and create. There are a number of such laudable government initiatives like the IRS Satellite systems, Bhuvan, National GIS initiative, NSDI etc.
Geospatial data is dynamic as there are continuous changes in the real world but without regular maintenance, the whole exercise becomes futile after a period. The industry feels that an open, transparent and accountable approach with good governance will certainly take geospatial to new heights. There already is an open data initiative by NIC, and DST is also an active part of this, points out Chakraborty. These open data repositories need to be populated to make this project a success. The NSDI initiative will provide support to governance if there is a policy mandate that all government agencies creating civilian data and information with public funds should share this data openly with other government agencies. The INSPIRE project in the European Union is a great example of how this can work and benefit the country and its citizens.
Patnaik holds that first, governance and transparency has to be achieved and maintained followed by open licensing and open data for the industry to grow. Adoption of geospatial technology will no doubt lead to increased transparency, enhanced operational efficiencies and strengthened citizen interface, thereby facilitating improved governance, says Mathur. There is also a need to invest in building service delivery platforms to host data and various business processes of the government.
Role of the private sector
Public Private Partnership (PPP) has been a catch-all phrase mouthed by the government and the private sector but its meaning has been as different as chalk and cheese. Till now the government looked at it as a glorified contractor-contractee relationship. Will the new government have a different view? Partners should equally share both success and failures, profits and losses. Is the industry ready for this?
Somani feels that the private industry will play a vital role as the Indian geospatial industry is moving away from being service-oriented and becoming more solution-centric.
The geospatial industry is already contributing to some government programmes like smart cities, rail asset mapping, bullet trains, providing 24 hours electricity, health and sanitation for all, creation of national highways and initiatives like NLRMP, R-APDRP, JNNURM, NGIS, NSDI etc. These programmes and initiatives could be better served by industry with improvements in the policies. There could be various policy models — starting from simple outsourcing contracts, PPP models to other hybrid models. In the current Budget, the government seems to be quite optimistic about PPP models where the industry can participate with a right business model.
Patnaik sounds pessimistic as he says that the power of geospatial technology is not felt vis-à-vis IT as there is very limited or no knowledge among bureaucrats and decision makers regarding geospatial technology and applications. However, the Indian geospatial industry’s global experience and exposure will enable the industry to support the government in the adoption of geospatial technology in mission critical projects, hopes Mathur.
The industry can participate in building data assets, build systems and applications leading to creation of location-based platform. In fact, industry should be involved at the project conceptualisation stage itself. Services of professional bodies like AGI and FICCI can be utilised for this purpose. Private sector can also facilitate human resource capacity and capability building.
The new government has come to power on the slogan, ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’. Will this slogan result in the rationalisation of the geospatial policy environment and the removal of those antiquated laws and regulations, which are the detritus of our enslaved past or the result of the bugbears of the overcautious bureaucrats and brass-hats? Will we see a new approach? Will we see thinking out of the box? Industry seems poised to take up the challenges if there is a conducive and enabling environment.