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India puts maps under microscope

The real issue with the India Geospatial Information Regulation Bill is not Kashmir or freedom of expression, but that it will stifle the geospatial information users and will effectively sound a death knell for the geospatial industry in the country.


Want to post your geotagged holiday pictures on Facebook? Are you a woman availing a radio cab at night and want to share your location with your family for safety purpose? Are you a Uber driver/customer who uses maps to track the next passenger/cab? Want to simply WhatsApp your location to a friend whom you are meeting up at the mall? Hold on, if you are in India. You may need a license to do all that in near future.

In 2012, UK-based media house The Economist accused the Indian government of censorship over maps when it was forced to stick blank white stickers over a map of Kashmir on nearly 30,000 copies to be distributed in the country.

In 2016, placing stickers is passé. Depiction of India’s map that differ from the government-approved version could land violators in jail with a maximum term of 7 years and a fine of up to INR 100 crore ($15 million) if a new Bill drafted by the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) becomes law.

As the mainstream media and activists go berserk with criticism of the “draconian” Bill, the debate predictably is taking a nationalist/anti-nationalist turn. What many seemed to have missed is how the real issue with the Bill is not Kashmir or freedom of expression, but how it will stifle the geospatial information users in India and will effectively sound a death knell for the Indian geospatial industry.

B.V.R. Mohan Reddy, Founder and Executive Chairman, Cyient, is blunt when he says the Bill, if implemented, “will put India back by about at least 10 to 20 years. It is a very retrograde step and very draconian in its outlook.”

The Geospatial Information Regulation Bill — released on May 4 and hosted on the MHA website inviting public suggestions till June 4 — proposes definitive measures to ensure: (1) Standardized depiction of national boundary of India. (2) Complete removal of depiction of intelligence, military, and other security establishments from publicly available maps

Both of these are important issues, and while there can be no questions over the government’s concerns on national security and defense affairs, the draft defines geospatial information too broadly — “all geo-referenced information” — and calls for prior permission and security vetting for data that is part of everyday communication such as traffic location, use of navigation apps, geo-tagged photos, geo-tagged social media posts, etc. A move totally at variance with the government’s vision of Digital India and smart cities.

“The press has highlighted the sections of the draft Bill applying to the international boundary, and diverted attention of the public from the remaining parts,” says Dr Manosi Lahiri, Founder, ML Infomap.

An example of how Indian media typically lost the plot while covering this issue. Lahiri further points out that the tone of the Bill is contrary to the National Geospatial Policy (NGP) 2016. The clauses relating to the control of geospatial data in the draft Bill will have far and wide implications — it will affect businesses that are dependent on the supply of it; discourage people considering careers in this discipline in India; and impact the many development initiatives of the government.

Additionally, the Bill gives powers to a regulatory authority to severely punish those who may break the law. One might submit that if you are a law-abiding company or citizen, there is no reason for concern. There still is, explains Lahiri. “It will increase a great deal of documentation and administrative workload required for vetting geospatial data. Worse, there will be delays in completing projects on time, since the geospatial component would require to be vetted and this often forms part of the initial investigations in infrastructure, roadways and telecom projects. Citizen service providers, especially those that provide real-time services, will be hampered by not being able to avail timely vetted data.”

However, Maj Gen Dr R Siva Kumar (Retd), Chairman of the Department Science and Technology’s (DST) Expert Committee on National Geospatial Policy, thinks this Bill should be seen as a bouquet of geospatial initiatives by government along with the Draft National Geospatial Policy (NGP) and National GIS. “This draft Bill and draft NGP could be harmonized in such a way that concerns of government, industry and citizens are adequately addressed,” says the former CEO of NSDI who also headed the DST’s Natural Resources Data Management System (NRDMS).

What is geospatial information?

The draft defines geospatial information as “geospatial imagery or data acquired through space or aerial platforms such as satellite, aircrafts, airships, balloons, unmanned aerial vehicles including value addition; or graphical or digital data depicting natural or man-made physical features, phenomenon or boundaries of the earth or any information related thereto including surveys, charts, maps, terrestrial photos referenced to a co-ordinate system and having attributes.”

The definition of geospatial information is so wide that it includes everything from satellite imagery, to books, magazines, newspapers, township plans, surveying, navigation systems, to even every smartphone with a GPS chip. Is the government suggesting that simple navigation maps used by regular users or cab drivers will need to be regulated and need licenses?

The Act says “every person who has already acquired any geospatial imagery or data of any part of India either through space or aerial platforms…” needs to apply for a license.

Every smartphone user is a collector/acquirer of geospatial information today. Does the government propose to make roughly 220 million Indian smartphone users apply for licences? Does it plan to ask each of these 220 million people to apply for new licenses each time they acquire new information?

Geospatial Information Regulation BillLocation-based services are becoming an important component of services extended to citizens by business organizations; for instance, ATM locator, routing and navigation, location of service centers, among others. These services will be impacted if there are restrictions on geospatial data dissemination, emphasizes Rajesh Mathur, Advisor, Esri India. The requirement of license prior to data acquisition and distribution would lead to time delays and escalation in project costs since organizations may not share data created by them if they are required to obtain license prior to that.

“At a time, when other countries are using modern geospatial technologies and their innovative use in all walks of life to increase the level of information and accuracy of data to improve the standard of living, we are bringing a Bill which restricts the free flow of information,” rues Rajesh Solomon Paul, Director and co-owner of Excel Geomatics.

Abhay Kimmatkar, Joint Managing Director, ADCC Infocad, hits the nail on its head: “If the Bill is not modified/diluted, it will create fear amongst the map users and eventually discourage new data creation activity, and thus the business to geospatial industry”.

What happens if the data needs an update?  

The Bill says “every person who has already acquired any geospatial imagery or data of any part of India either through space or aerial platforms such as satellite, aircrafts, airships, balloons, unmanned aerial vehicles or terrestrial vehicles or any other manner including value addition prior to coming of this Act into effect, shall within one year from the commencement of this Act, make an application along-with requisite fees to the Security Vetting Authority for retaining such geospatial information and grant of licence thereof” and “the Security Vetting Authority shall, within three months from the date of receipt of an application made under sub-section (2), either grant a licence …

The Bill thus covers information that we think of as relatively stable but also talks about “graphical or digital data depicting… man-made physical features”.

In cities, we see roads being modified, flyovers being constructed, temporary and permanent road diversions being created almost on a daily basis. And most of this is collected by crowdsourced information. So, do all such maps/apps need to apply for license from the vetting authority every time a new flyover is constructed or a new diversion comes up on a road or a new restaurant is opened? And then wait for three months to get a nod?

“Let’s say information about restaurants is a point of interest to all of us. Now, if a new restaurant opens or folds up, is it a necessity at this point of time to go back to the government and ask them for their permission?” asks Reddy, who recently stepped down as the chairman of NASSCOM.

“Mobile is becoming an important device to access information as well consumption of services. It can also be used as a communication platform in the event of a disaster, weather alerts, traffic data etc,” says Mathur, who is also currently the Chair of FICCI Committee on Geospatial Technologies Location information.

Further, geospatial information is crucial for women’s safety, transportation, e-commerce and health, etc. The suggestion that a user needs to apply for license for performing these basic tasks with a waiting time of up to three months sounds not only impractical but downright ridiculous.

Who owns the geospatial data?

As the draft spells it out, it doesn’t matter how you acquire this data — even if you legally bought it after paying due fees — it is illegal to do so without permission from the proposed to be established Security Vetting Authority. Further, while the Bill doesn’t give details about the licensing process or the applicable fees, the fact that you need a license if you wish to disseminate or distribute any spatial information of India means Google or HERE or OpenStreetMap need licenses for their own maps. Even Wikipedia will need a license since it uses the UN geo-scheme for its maps. In effect, the Government of India (GoI) is making a claim that it owns all geospatial data related to India no matter who has created it.

Another more puzzling feature of the Bill is that not only does it seek to restrict the use of India’s geospatial data within India, it also pertains to any entity that uses this data outside India: “Any person, who commits an offence beyond India, which is punishable under this Act, shall be dealt with according to the provisions of this Act in the same manner as if such act had been committed in India” and “no person shall in any manner make use of, disseminate, publish or distribute any geospatial information of India, outside India, without prior permission from the Security Vetting Authority.”

Does it mean the government will regulate how non-Indian entities portray Indian maps outside India? Does it mean even if Google Maps exited India, it would still require a license to show India in its international version? Is the Indian government planning to issue red corner notices for everyone who shows “distorted” Indian boundaries even outside India?

National security and international boundary

While there should be no compromise on national security, the draft seeks to regulate much more than just this. It does not mention defense installations at all and instead clamps down on all kinds of maps — from street maps to weather maps to crowdsourced maps made at the time of disasters, explains Save the Map, an online campaign aimed at raising awareness about the Bill.

Mathur agrees masking of internal layout of vital installations is a must. India’s grievance against entities like Google and Microsoft is genuine. If White House and Camp David can be blurred why does India have to beg for masking its sensitive areas?

According to Rajan Aiyar, Managing Director, Trimble – SAARC Region, “The Bill sounds restrictive, but I am sure the GoI has very good reasons in terms of national security keeping in view our long international boundary panning across many countries.” At the same time, Aiyar also feels that more detailed thought has to be given on how the government should achieve this security while at the same time not restricting the data for private entrepreneurship.

However, in the name of security, the government shouldn’t try to regulate what is freely and easily available in the global market. Also there is no sense in licensing value addition as this is clear infringement of Intellectual property rights (IPR).

“To check the misuse, the authorities should cooperate and learn from other nations to understand how they overcome the threat perception, while allowing the companies and citizens to use high-resolution images, aerial data, LiDAR, drones and even much detailed geospatial information in form of Google Earth or OpenStreetMap,” feels Paul.

The onus lies on whom?

Lahiri thinks the onus of depicting the correct international boundary is on the map publisher. “A government organization should be responsible for providing the correct acceptable paper and digital version in several map scales (from the smallest to the largest scale possible), for all users to access.” This will reduce the workload on the Security Vetting Authority and also allow compliance to the correct international boundary by publishers, many of whom are not even aware of what constitutes the correct international boundary.

In fact, she feels that the government would do well to consider a much pruned down and separate Bill for ensuring the integrity of the international boundary only. “Within the country, this section of the Bill is not perceived as continuous.”

Then there are voices which point out that high-resolution imagery which Google and Microsoft use are supplied by DigitalGlobe, Spot Image, Blackbridge and other companies and they will continue to be easily accessible to extremist elements located outside India. If this is about national security, how does the government propose to control sale of spatial data outside India? Does GoI think terrorists use Google Maps only and not other sources including on-site recce like David Headley had done?

“Is blanking out sensitive areas in maps not going to draw attention precisely to these areas,” asks a senior industry professional on the condition of anonymity.

Advent of license raj

The single biggest reason that is being touted against this Bill is the government endeavor to control data and in effect create a license raj regime. Once this Bill is passed, the industry’s focus will be how to get geospatial data passed from the Security Vetting Authority rather than how to use the technology to improve the lives of the citizens.

“The Bill is a picture of worst manifestations of the license raj and it is obvious that those involved in drafting it had no idea about how geospatial data is created and used,” says the same industry professional. Creating an overarching licensing authority for every little geospatial data would open the door to widespread abuse, delays and corruption. Questioned about the proposed restrictive licensing regime, the government response was typical: “Why should law-abiding citizens be scared of anything if they want to obtain a permit?”

This was exactly the Indian government attitude before the economy was opened up in 1991!

“In a single word this is just a retroactive Bill and is going to bring more bureaucratic red-tapism into the system,” agrees Paul. This Bill will not only slow down the geospatial industry, but will also slow the fast growth of our country, which needs the support of geospatial industry to expedite planning processes and bring transparency, he adds.

Even now, the whole cycle of procuring sub-meter resolution archive image takes four to six months due to permissions, endorsement, clearance etc., while the similar data for areas outside our country’s territory can be procured in four to six working days.

“For every new update [in location data], there is a necessity [as per this Bill] to go back to the government and ask for permission. So, by the given time number of permissions could come by, we would have arrived at a situation where our business needs may have already changed. There is no necessity in terms of doing things like,” explains Reddy.

How it will affect industry & growth

Geospatial Information today is not limited to Survey of India or Google Maps. Modern innovative technologies like Building information Modelling, Internet of Things, Cloud computing, Big Data analytics, mobile commerce, autonomous vehicles, and social media are all location-dependent.

Going by this Bill, use of any of these business processes not only
has to seek clearance for generating geospatial information but also seek licenses for every value addition. And in case a license is rejected, the unique intellectual property of the innovator has to be destroyed.

Mathur points out geospatial technologies would power several mega projects of the government like Smart Cities, Digital India, Clean Ganga Mission, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, roads and highways, among others. Hence, it is imperative that geospatial information products like maps, imageries, aerial photographs, etc. are made available to all those who can benefit from them. Aiyar feels if access to data is compromised, even initiatives like Skill India and Start-Up India will fail. The Bill in its current form is sure to discourage start-ups who would require licence and clearances for each and every update or value addition made, as also investments into location-based services critical for national growth.

The larger losses would be map users in navigation space like in automobiles and services related to them.

Interestingly, ISRO’s successful completion of the IRNSS constellation was being touted as a huge opportunity for India to come up as a low-cost, high-skill manufacturing hub for GNSS sensors and other related hardware and software. The Bill is sure to severely impact any such plans.

How it affects research & innovation

GIRBUnder open data policy, coarse and moderate resolution data is available for carrying out research and societal application. Many datasets like MODIS and NOAA are not even available from ISRO. Since the Bill restricts acquisition of any kind of spatial data by anyone, a researcher cannot download any satellite images of any resolution, thematic maps or other spatial content of India which are available free of cost on the Internet. More than 99% students use open source data — usually with resolution between 20 m to 1 km available globally — for their practical and project works.

Besides, many satellite data provide information like soil moisture, land/sea surface temperature, greenhouse gases, polar ice and many such parameters. Non-availability of these datasets will practically kill any innovation in this space. A researcher in geospatial information, environmental and climate science will now need a license with a requisite fee (not known) for the acquired satellite images and thematic maps for their degrees. Thus, in essence they are being denied the IPR for the value addition that they have done on openly available spatial data. Also, if the license application is rejected, researchers need to destroy that information which is otherwise their IPR.

Researchers in geospatial science cannot publish their papers in any international journal or make presentations at international conferences/seminars/workshops outside India without license and clearance. An individual carrying out innovative research will have to wait for clearance which can take months to years. By that time his research will be irrelevant.

The way forward

Geospatial is a multidisciplinary activity which spills into or borrows from many areas including IT, space technologies, remote sensing, defense, and even aviation if we include drones etc. Therefore, any policy related to geospatial must be framed by an interdisciplinary group which has a clear understanding of what the technology means and entails. In this case, the very wordings of the Bill makes it obvious that MHA committee that drafted it did not have a sufficiently interdisciplinary group with clear understanding about how geospatial data is created and used.

Forget about involving in drafting, the immediate controversy the Bill generated even from within the government departments — though no one will go on record on this — is clear enough to indicate that the draft was not even circulated among the members of the Committee of Secretaries (CoS). The CoS includes the Secretary DST and the reaction from DST was knee-jerk to say the least.

While Dr Swarna Subba Rao, Surveyor General of India, responded by saying his office was currently examining the draft law (thus exposing how collaborative the MHA efforts have in if the Surveyor General of the country has to read a draft law on maps after its release in public domain!) a DST spokesperson had gone on record saying the Bill will be drastically modified, the penalties reduced and mainly target specific companies that “wrongly depict borders.”

There is no doubt that the existing version of the Bill will be “significantly changed” as it “goes against the spirit” of the National Geospatial Policy, 2016, spearheaded by the DST. The official also said that DST forwarded its inputs to MHA who acknowledge the same but are silent about its future actions. It will be at least two years before it could become law, the spokesperson said, thus indicating inter-departmental opposition to this Bill.

A clear cut law on geospatial information and sharing is welcome. India does need a law in this field spelling out clarity. And the numerous policies in this field that the successive governments keep flaunting are not enough. A policy is not mandatory, a law is. But any law must have an understanding of ground realities, must be open and encouraging for industry and users.