In retrospect and prospect: The Indian Geospatial Trajectory

In retrospect and prospect: The Indian Geospatial Trajectory


Prof. Arup Dasgupta
Managing Editor
[email protected]

India’s trajectory in geospatial space has been and continues to offer huge opportunity. However, considerable efforts are needed to realise the promise. prof arup dasgupta, managing editor, gives a lowdown

On January 19 this year, I was at the annual NSDI meet held in Bangalore. The last NSDI meeting I had attended was the second one in the picturesque hill station of Ooty in 2002. The ten year gap gave me an opportunity to assess how far India has moved on the path of geospatial enablement. Perhaps it was good that I missed the intervening meetings because the contrast between then and now was all the more evident and gave me a good benchmark to measure the progress and try to predict the future trajectory. In 2002 the main players were the big departments like Space, Science and Technology and Forestry, with the Defence Ministry providing an ominous backdrop. A plan to release a trial NSDI portal for metadata was stalled in the last moment due to security concerns. Cut to 2012 and the contrast could not have been more dramatic. State after state spoke of their geospatial prowess. Some had rolled out their own portals. Significantly the theme of the meeting was State SDIs. Department of Space showcased Bhuvan and invited scientists to access the data. A very liberal remote sensing data policy and a burgeoning can-do attitude contributed to downplaying the security concerns. So is India on the verge of a geospatial renaissance?

The Indian tryst with geospatial technology is not new. India boasts of institutions like the Survey of India, the Geological Survey of India, the Forest Survey of India and the Departments of Land Records which have been around for a century and more. These organisations have been updating their systems with new technologies, perhaps not as fast as one would have liked it because legacy does tend to lock up processes and people. One can trace some of the points of inflection which mark the induction of new and disruptive geospatial technologies. The Pre-investment Survey of Forest Resources conducted with ITC brought in remote sensing from aircraft and resulted in the establishment in 1966 of the Indian Photo-interpretation Institute, IPI, now known as the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing (IIRS). The next inflection point came in 1969 when the first UNISPACE conference was held in Vienna. Dr Vikram Sarabhai noted in his report to the conference the importance of remote sensing for developing countries like India (see box 1).

The Indian foray into remote sensing began with participation in the analysis of Landsat data in 1975, the setting up of the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) and its Landsat Data Reception Station in 1975 at the launch of INSAT 1A and 1B in 1982-83 with a very high resolution radiometer onboard for meteorological applications and in 1988 India entered the age of operational land remote sensing from space with the launch of IRS- 1A carrying 70m and 35m resolution CCD cameras.

The two departments which have played key roles in the evolution of geospatial technology in India are the Departments of Space and Science and Technology. The two have always worked in sync to introduce and promote new technologies. The IRS programme was conceptualised and launched in 1981. Simultaneously the then Chairman of ISRO, Prof Satish Dhawan coordinated with the then Secretary of Science and Technology, Prof MGK Menon to launch a programme called the National Natural Resources Management System (NNRMS) that would prepare the Indian scientific departments to use the data from IRS. NNRMS was established in 1983 by the Planning Commission and had participation from all the government departments and ministries. One of the activities was the assessment of the forest cover of India in 1984. Using Landsat data, the Department of Space released a figure of 17 percent, a far cry from the 33 percent claimed by the Forest Survey of India (FSI). There was a hue and cry and the number was ultimately revised upward after much discussion but the 33 percent claim was put to rest. The outcome was that FSI began to use remote sensing for periodically assessing the forest cover of India. The NNRMS programme resulted in many new initiatives, mapping of potential groundwater zones, wastelands, grasslands, water bodies and coastal zones to name a few.

“When we came to Vienna, we thought that the areas of most immediate practical applications would be communications, meteorology and navigation, in that order. But one of the most striking things to emerge has been appreciation of the great potentiality of remote sensing devices, capable of providing large-scale practical benefits. One of the group discussions considered the cost effectiveness of these techniques, and it was pointed out that there is a high cost-benefit ratio, which, for example, in cartography, can be as much as 1:18. The time has come to interest meteorologists, hydrologists, surveyors, agricultural specialists and other groups in such programmes. The Chairman of the thematic session summarised the consensus that aircraft could initially be used because of their comparatively low cost. There is need, to begin with, to understand problems of interpretation. Remote sensing cannot replace man on ground, but can direct man’s efforts on ground to be more efficient.”

– Dr. Vikram Sarabhai
“Summary of the conference and recommendation for initiatives”, the First UN Conference on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space at Vienna in 1969

All these efforts were in the nature of inventories and soon the question began to be asked – what next? The question was sought to be answered with a programme called the Integrated Mission for Sustainable Development which sought to use remote sensing to plan for better management of land and water was started in 1986. This programme and another one on Scientific Source Finding for the Drinking Water Mission in 1985 brought out an important fact that remote sensing by itself was not enough. It needed information from many other sources and the planning activity had to take into account the aspirations and expectations of the people who were the ultimate beneficiaries of the programmes. There was, at this juncture, a standoff between the remote sensing purists who refused to countenance any other data source and data management system and the planners who needed tools for evolving decision support alternatives. This laid the ground for the entry of Geographical Information Systems (GIS).

Experimentation with GIS began almost in conjunction with IRS and by 1989 GIS had found its way into DOS, DST, Survey of India, FSI and other major departments. Two major projects under the NNRMS, the Natural Resources Data Management System (NRDMS) of DST and National Resources Information System (NRIS) of DOS spearheaded these efforts. Survey of India set up its Digital Mapping Centre and Modern Mapping Centre to cater to the upcoming requirement of digital base maps for GIS. A major exercise to define a digital vector data standard was undertaken as well as a national spatial data exchange standard for vector and raster data. Meanwhile Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) began to revolutionise position location and the use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) for precise location, survey and mapping became common. The removal of selective availability gave a great fillip to these activities.

The growth of these activities also saw a parallel growth in Indian industry. Many MNCs began to tie up with Indian firms to market their geospatial products in India. The IT industry which expanded in the 1990s also began to address the geospatial market. DOS actively promoted the growth of geospatial entrepreneurs and many professionals took voluntary retirement to open geospatial service companies and even manufacturing units for image analysis systems. Large mapping projects were outsourced by the government which encouraged the growth of the service sector. A large part of this growth was also the result of the defence requirements and many companies had special units which catered exclusively to the needs of the Army, Navy and Air Force. The IRS programme went international in 1994 with the signing of an agreement with EOSAT to market IRS data globally. In turn Indian users also got access, albeit limited, to the metre and sub-metre resolution data from private satellite operators.

As can be seen from this rather concise history, the geospatial activities in India are almost wholly government driven. Private sector has a role to play in supporting these activities. However, the use of geospatial technology by and for industry is rather limited. There are a few examples like Hindustan Lever who use geospatial technology for supply chain management, Hindustan Construction Company who used GIS for managing their mega urban project Lavasa and the use of GIS by Reliance Power and Reliance Communications. What are the deterring factors?

The key feature of geospatial data is geo-referencing and thus it encompasses maps, imagery and point information generated by GPS as well as other means of data acquisition. The right to generate data is wholly with the government. Space data is generated and distributed by DOS alone and topographic data is the responsibility of Survey of India. Aerial surveys are also regulated by the government and subject to stringent controls. Because of the spatially referenced context, such data is also considered to be strategic and therefore its generation and access is controlled by the State. This control is by way of established policies. The Map Policy regulates access to maps created by Survey of India. The Open Series of maps, OSM, available to general users is subject to several licences. Maps of coastal and international boundaries are secret in the OSM series. No height data is included in the OSM series. Third party value addition to OSM maps becomes the intellectual property of SoI. A new map policy is in the process of being released which will reduce but not remove these restrictions.

Remote sensing is controlled by two policies. Aerial surveys are controlled by various laws and require clearance by the Home and Defence ministries. Department of Space operates a Space Remote Sensing Policy that regulates access to data having resolution better than 1 metre. Data better than 1 metre (Cartosat 2A and 2B and foreign panchromatic data) is subject to screening. The group of government users who are eligible to use such data without further clearance are spelt out in detail. This was an area of ambiguity in the earlier policy and created problems for many projects like R-APDRP which were being executed by public sector units.

Antrix, which handles access of foreign entities to IRS data, can also enter into agreement with foreign data suppliers for marketing their data in India, in addition to NRSC which continues to be the sole data distributor and as such a single point of choking of data supply. Private users will need a government certificate stating that the data is for development purposes in India before getting access to sub-metre data from all satellites. Otherwise the request will be referred to the High Resolution Data Committee for approval.

These policies effectively control and regulate the use of Indian data by Indian users but are ineffective in controlling the legal or illegal use by foreign entities. Indian map data is available off the shelf and on the Internet. High resolution data over India from foreign remote sensing satellites is also available over the Internet on payment and freely on applications like Google Maps. Stereo imaging data from foreign satellites can be used in a standard digital photogrammetry workstation to obtain accurate height information. GPS is now available commercially on mobile phones and car navigation systems.

However policy restrictions have not slowed down the geospatial activities of the government. According to a market research by Geospatial World in September 2010, the budgetary allocation in the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-12) for major geospatial national development projects like the Restructured Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Programme (RAPDRP), the National Land Records Modernisation Programme (NLRMP), Forest Information Management and Resource Assessment, and others, together is nearly INR 65624.7 million. These numbers do require a leap of faith because work has been slow but is picking up at a steady pace. The interesting fact about these programmes is the way geospatial technology is being ingested into the systems.

If the initial phase consisted of managing geospatial data by way of mapping and inventorying, the current phase is one of managing data geospatially by making geospatial systems an integral part of the IT infrastructure of the programme. Thus the GIS component of RAPDRP is a part of the overall IT strategy for making power distribution efficient and reducing losses. Similarly the geospatial component of the NLRMP seeks ways to use the technology to rapidly map the land holdings and update all the record of rights and make these available through an IT infrastructure. The process of updating land records is well established and the geospatial and IT components have been woven into this process. The JNNURM is however a different story. While it does recognise the importance of geospatial technology for mapping and updating maps at regular intervals, it seems to restrict the usage to taxes and building permissions alone. Little wonder then that of the 63 cities initially picked up for the mission not one has effectively integrated geospatial systems into the IT infrastructure. However, this too will change as geospatial activities are picking up slowly.

Other major sectors of significant activity are defence and homeland security. The Directorate General of Information Systems of the Ministry of Defence has a major programme for induction of geospatial systems into C4ISR activities. The National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) is similarly inducting latest technologies into its activities for homeland security. Both these sectors provide huge opportunities for the Indian geospatial industry. Like everything else in India, geospatial systems and applications is a huge market, a huge promise of business and employment, but there are equally huge issues and hurdles. The biggest hurdle is that of data sharing followed by data policies and lack of trained human resources.


“Geographic Information Science (GI Science) is the basic research field that seeks to redefine geographic concepts and their use in the context of geographic information systems. GI Science also examines the impacts of GIS on individuals and society and the influences of society on GIS. GI Science re-examines some of the most fundamental themes in traditional spatially oriented fields such as geography, cartography and geodesy, while incorporating more recent developments in cognitive and information science. It also overlaps with and draws from more specialised research fields such as computer science, statistics, mathematics and psychology, and contributes to progress in those fields. It supports research in political science and anthropology and draws on those fields in studies of geographic information and society.”

– University Consortium of GIS, 1999

Indians tend to be very data secretive. As a result, same data is collected over and over again by different departments and often by different teams from the same department.

Spatial data infrastructure
Two major projects, NRDMS and NRIS attempted to create structured geodatabases on the basis of the Indian administrative structure. From this it was a short step to creating a spatial data infrastructure which could be shared by different departments and provide data for academia and industry. This effort, originally christened as National Geospatial Data Infrastructure (NGDI) and later renamed as National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), was launched in 2001 by DOS and DST. After several meetings, the Task Group on NSDI submitted its report in May 2006 and on 02 June 2006, the Cabinet approved creation of NSDI and constituted a National Spatial Data Committee and an Executive Committee with a secretariat to assist the two committees. An NSDI Geoportal was established on 22 December 2008. However, the populating of this geoportal with metadata of the data holdings of different departments is still ongoing. Meanwhile, there are individual portals set up by different departments and States. NSDI is now promoting state portals and linking to central government portals. Other useful efforts of the NSDI are the establishment of the core metadata standards and GML schemas. Thematic standards are also under preparation.

Meanwhile, the Planning Commission is proposing to establish a National GIS which will do all that NSDI was supposed to do and in addition provide DSS for all the departments. Something similar was attempted in the 1970s by the National Informatics Centre (NIC) with rather patchy results. Apparently the lessons of this exercise and of the NSDI are not fully comprehended. Instead of rediscovering the wheel, the Planning Commission could accelerate the establishment of the NSDI by removing the obstructions that are hampering the NSDI. The main drawback as has been pointed out is the unwillingness to share data. By making data sharing mandatory, this could be achieved. For example the RAPDRP and JNNURM will require base data which could be supplied by the NSDI through the state portals. This would require standardisation of data at the structural level as well as at the thematic level. NSDI has standardised on GML for the structure and this schema could be adopted. Thematic standards have been prepared from time to time by different projects. These need to be vetted and adopted as national standards to ensure semantic interoperability.

Data policy
The second problem is that of data policy. There is a need to see that the proposed geospatial data policy is realistic and addresses the needs of bonafide Indian users in the government, industry, education and NGO sectors. It is necessary to revisit the several separate policies and evolve a unified geodata policy which will satisfy development and civilian applications while at the same time address the national security concerns. The following recommendations are made with this in mind:

  • Make the Open Series Maps completely unrestricted. They do not have heights or any vital areas and vital bases. Continue to register the map users as is being done now under the Map Policy. OSM maps should not be used for legal purposes like boundary delineation. For this the restricted Survey of India maps are to be used. Make available products like slope maps which are derived from height information but cannot be used to recalculate the height contours. Charge royalty on map reuse through value addition but do not demand IP rights. Create a new series derived from the OSM but which have positional accuracies matched to satellite remotely sensed data. These will be useful for thematic mapping and can be made public and available freely or at nominal cost. All digital data must be supplied in GML 3.0 or higher.
  • Deregulate all high resolution satellite imagery older than two years and aerial photographs more than five years old. Such data has no mission critical value. Data from non-photographic imaging sensors like synthetic aperture radar and LiDAR should be completely deregulated for Indian users. Foreign satellite data up to one metre resolution should be directly available from suppliers. For data better than one metre, the requirement of a government certificate should be removed. Instead, such data should be made available through Antrix Corporation who will maintain a database of the supplies and the intended usage.
  • All digital data must conform to international standards as specified by ISO or OGC or by independent standards developed in India. Data ordering should be automated and include online browsing, order placement, payment and delivery to reduce turnaround time. All transactions should be recorded and archived. This should include the IP address trace back. The security approach should consider calibrated access. Large volume users should be handled differently from low volume occasional users. Large volume users should only use digital signatures. Users should need to register only once and not for each transaction.
  • All data should be unobtrusively watermarked using advanced steganographic techniques to be approved by a government security agency. Legal liabilities associated with each data must be listed out including disclaimers for improper use and penalties for misuse and illegal distribution. The policy should be reviewed every six months by an empowered committee consisting of representatives from all sectors.

Trained human resources If and when all these steps are completed, the biggest hurdle remaining will be that of trained human resources. Geospatial data acquisition, processing, management and application require a mix of skills not available from any single stream. There are a number of institutions in the public and private domains which confer degrees and diplomas in geomatics, geoinformatics, remote sensing and GIS. Most of the students passing out with these qualifications do not find suitable employment. One possible reason is that they learn a little bit about everything and become Jacks of all trades but Masters of none. While geospatial systems are computer based, the general idea that a degree in Computer Science or Information Technology is sufficient is fallacious. A strong background in physical geography, engineering or science domain knowledge, mathematical and management skills are equally important.

What is needed therefore are not separate courses but electives in existing courses in computer science, statistics, mathematics, geography, physics, life sciences, engineering and management. Administrators in the government and industry need to go through such courses as well during their induction training. State academies for administrative training need to hold refresher courses from time to time to update their staff capacities. A beginning has been made to introduce geospatial subjects in school curricula by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). This needs to be spread to all other Boards so that the importance of geospatial applications and technology is understood and becomes a career path and option for the students entering college.

Cost effective solutions
The relaxation of restrictions and the creation of geospatially enabled population will also help to promote volunteered geographic information (VGI). For a country of India’s size and diversity, the acquisition of data is a major task. VGI can provide a cost-effective solution. The operationalisation of NSDI should include processes to enable VGI and its vetting and ingest into the relevant databases. The government lays stress on governmentto- citizen interface through IT enabled services. This should include geospatial information to enable citizens to understand and perhaps even participate in the decisions that impact their lives and living spaces.


Public private partnerships
The government is also keen on public private partnership. However, the scope is rarely defined in concrete terms and usually is reduced to contract services. If geospatial enablement is to take off then the industry involvement has to move beyond supply of hardware and software. For example, in JNNURM the problem is that of an urban planning mindset which is tied to ‘building permissions’ and ‘tax collection’. Very few metropolitan cities have planning departments and those that have are staffed at best by eight to ten planners under an engineer who are busy with building permissions rather than planning because they are understaffed, under-budgeted and lack modern geospatial tools like GIS. The need is for 80 to 100 planners for a large city and their domains of expertise should cover the various sectors of planning as well as economics and architecture. Needless to say they also need to be able to handle modern geospatial technology in their planning process. This technology goes much beyond a simple GIS and encompasses new data acquisition systems, ERP and modelling.

Overall, the trajectory of India in geospatial space has been and continues to be very promising. However, considerable efforts are needed to realise these promises. So far India has been very enterprising and has worked around obstacles because the Indian ethos is one of compromise and improvisation. With new projects on the horizon, development of geospatial systems has become an urgent necessity. The government, industry and academia need to pull together to make the next five years exciting.