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The Indian geospatial scene is in a major transformation. The industry, which used to be just another outsourcing hub providing digitisation services and working on sub-contracted projects from overseas, is today bustling with massive projects in the domestic space. With government initiating reforms in several infrastructure segments while mandating the use of geospatial technologies in these projects, the ecosystem of the geospatial industry is changing dramatically. Let us know more about the promising changes and inevitable challenges the industry faces in the country.
Teeming with activity
For the Indian geospatial companies, digitisation is passé. They are quite engaged in providing a variety of solutions in the country with projects of national significance running into billions. Government is the major user of this technology in the country.
But while talking about the acceptability of these technologies, there seems to be a broad variation among the user agencies. According to BVR Mohan Reddy, CMD, Infotech Enterprises, “Some progressive central organisations like ISRO, DST and State IT&C departments have taken leadership position in advocating this technology, while State departments dealing with land, forestry, mines etc. have not been able to catch up yet due to organisational inertia. While in most cases there is a conscious drive and initiative from the top bureaucracy to usher in new technologies like IT and GIS, the middle level managers and domain experts are not adequately exposed to adopt these technologies into the organisations’ functioning.”
Commenting on the level of projects, Dr Mukund K Rao, President and COO, ESRI India says, “The general trend is that government is looking for solutions to governance issues, many of which are at enterprise level. Private sector is also looking at building their own enterprise solutions while small entrepreneurs are looking for standalone GIS solutions. This is a mixed bag.” Kaushik Chakraborty, Vice-President – Asia Pacific, ERDAS, takes a similar view. He says, “The uptake is definitely improving year on year. But I would still say that we do not see as much happening in the enterprise space as we do in other parts of the world. There is a willingness and lot of talk of moving to enterprise scale.” On the acceptability levels of latest technologies, the industry seems to be divided again. Says K Kalyanaraman, President, Navayuga Spatial Technologies, “The acceptability of latest techniques is quite good at individual and department level. We also see lot of open source and interoperable solutions being used in the market.” But by and large on a national scale, there is a lot of reinventing the wheel. There is still scepticism in picking up latest technologies. Many a time, users prefer to take up a pilot project to understand the effectiveness of the technology. This actually slows down the development process by a year or two. More than technology, industry points out administrative and policy bottlenecks for the penetration of these technologies. “Most of the decisions are happening on the basis of competitive RFP and not on the basis of technology used. They are looking at their minimum requirements to be met irrespective of whether technology is state-of-the-art or not,” opines Rajesh Kalra, Managing Director, RMSI Pvt Ltd.
Having acknowledged the significance of geospatial technology and making huge investments in it, the country is battling with several teething troubles on the threshold of a geospatial boom. One of the popular perceptions among the industry is the unavailability/timely availability of quality data. “It is important to make location based information part of decision making in public and private enterprises. For this, we have to overcome a challenge which is completely administrative and policy driven. Multiple sources, multiple formats, limited or no metadata, access restrictions, security and quality and data updation are other issues,” says Kaushik.
Citing the absence of a proper data sharing mechanism as another bottleneck, BVR Mohan Reddy suggests, “Databases have to be unlocked by means of a liberal and imaginative data policy. Geospatial data created by government and industry becomes accessible to all only in a secure and reliable data sharing regime.” But the community seems to have mastered their way around working with the policies in place. “More often than not, we are not seeing data as a stumbling block as we started going with a mindset that these are the boundary conditions and we need to be prepared for it. We keep alternative plans ready,” says Rajesh.
Another major challenge for this fledgling industry in the country is the availability of qualified and trained manpower. This has partially contributed to the slow adoption of geospatial technologies in the government sector. According to Kaushik, the problem is more about quality rather than quantity. He says, “The problems lies at the base level education, which does not incorporate geospatial as the most fundamental aspect.” The geospatial industry is investing in training its personnel without getting bogged down. “Over the last couple of decades, industry has developed considerable in-house capacity in terms of digitisation and photogrammetry, to serve predominantly overseas customers,” says Mohan Reddy.
However, the existing capacities for field survey and data collection are low compared to the increasing demand for such services. So, the fallout is that “skilled manpower pricing is very competitive and companies are poaching from each other which is again spiralling the manpower cost to an unreasonable level,” adds Rajesh. Another major issue in the industry is the low prices being quoted by some venders to bag projects. “This is leading to the project scope getting diluted in the process of execution or the work not being completed in a quality/professional manner,” Kalyanaraman expresses concern. This is also leading to failed project outcome. Rajesh adds, “This could put the buyers into trouble as it involves lot of time and money and would also scar the reputation of the industry and the efficacy of the technology.”
Opportunity in waiting
Challenges not withstanding, the country is offering such immense scope to the industry that major IT companies and international players too are getting into the fray. “That is the good sign that Indian market has the strength and the grit to generate huge opportunity and sustain companies,” Mukund exudes confidence. The geospatial industry should evolve revenue sharing models of engagement with these investors to create and maintain geospatial databases and applications as part of the overall IT framework implementation.
As the economic growth continues, India is investing in every sector of development. “Geospatial is becoming core in every vertical. Mapping and modernisation needs itself will keep the industry busy for the next 5-10 years. Projects like National Land Records Modernisation Programme (NLRMP) are just tip of the iceberg,” Rajesh quips. “Infrastructure is one vertical that will support economic growth. And infrastructure growth will directly fuel geospatial industry. This is true for both planning of infrastructure and maintaining it. The other potential vertical is homeland security to combat terrorist and Naxalite activities,” opines Kaushik.
The industry is unanimous of the opinion that in the next five years, India would be among one of the largest geospatial market in the world outside of defence and homeland security. “For various reasons, this market is not easily addressable by international players. Their products might be successful, but project implementation and execution is difficult for them because of the very nature of the projects, diverse culture and umpteen languages involved. One can bring project management expertise and technology from outside but bulk of the execution ought to be addressed locally. These are the barriers for international companies,” analyses Rajesh.
“Indian geospatial industry is a large spread of small companies with varied interests, each one cutting each other to win pieces of work and each one struggling to execute their projects, all of them stuck with the same problem. Now that the buyers market is opening up, things are likely to change which will start forcing the industry to find a common ground,” says Rajesh. To overcome the challenges and tap the potential the country has at offer, the industry is putting in concerted efforts to organise itself. The recently formed Association of Geospatial Industries of India (AGI) is a major step in this direction. The aim of AGI is to nurture the industry so that everybody can benefit. It will take lead from vested interests and bring companies to a common platform for everybody to voice their concern. “As an industry, AGI has decided to review all the policies, understand what will unshackle the industry and fuel growth and put our recommendations forward to the government in unison. We propose to take one voice to the government but at the same time not dictate the government policy,” says Kaushik as the founding member of AGI.
India is registering strong growth despite global economic slowdown and it augers good for geospatial industry as well. The industry is unanimously positive about the growth of geospatial in the country as they see the shift from international to domestic projects.