How is ISRO helping Indian government projects

How is ISRO helping Indian government projects

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In its 69 years of existence as an independent nation, India has strongly supported investments in science and technology for better use of its resources, better planning and better governance. This includes investments in geospatial technologies on the ground, in the air and in space. The fruits of such support are beginning to show. In a massive effort to harness geospatial technologies amongst others, a major initiative called Digital India has been launched, which seeks to use digital technologies in all walks of life where the government has a role to play. It seeks to empower citizens to become participants in governance. One of the key thrust areas is the use of a geospatial information system (GIS) platform as a service for the benefit of various mission mode projects and other e-governance initiatives, and for monitoring the physical progress of projects, disaster management and specialized needs of public safety agencies.

How is ISRO helping Indian government projectsWith this in view, the Department of Space (DoS) was tasked by the government to come up with a plan for extending the applications of its technologies to all ministries and departments of the government. As a promoter of remote sensing and satellite communications, DoS has been in continuous touch with ministries. At a recent interaction, it zeroed in on about 160 projects across 58 ministries and departments in the areas of natural resources management, energy and infrastructure, disaster and early warning, communication and navigation, e-governance and geospatial governance and societal services.

These 160 projects encompass applications across varied domains, such as, earth observation and geospatial (97), communication and navigation (30), technology development (10), meteorology (6), asset mapping and mobile applications (8), and others (9). Some of these projects will also render support to flagship programs of the Government of India (GoI), viz. AMRUT, Smart City, housing for all, Clean Ganga, Prime Minister Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY), Digital India, etc.
Speaking on this effort, A.S. Kiran Kumar, Chairman, Indian Space Research Organization, and Secretary, Department of Space, said, “This is one positive development that has happened. As you know, ISRO has been trying since long to convince various departments about the benefits of space technology. Few departments took it very positively and used it. However, most of the other departments were lukewarm. Based on recent developments and the drive coming from the central government, we had very effective discussion with 60 departments. Now, we have devised programs to meet their demands.”

Dr V.K. Dadhwal, Director, National Remote Sensing Center, envisions to “work with each and every department, building their geospatial assets by providing them natural resource data, doing a real-time application or implementing a decision support system, for say, deciding where to put a structure, or monitoring the progress where structures are being put up.” Most importantly, each department has identified a project and the DoS will ensure that progress is made in each of these projects.

Dr Ajay Kumar, Additional Secretary, Department of Electronics and Information Technology, says geospatial and GIS will act as the software tools that will enable us to see things in a spatial perspective, giving insights which textual data cannot give. “There are certain aspects of information which are very, very amenable to spatial representation. There is a need to represent these on a GIS platform, so that better decisions can be made. Wherever there is a room for GIS-based application, geospatial technologies will add to the whole work cycle. We are making a conscious effort to introduce GIS in our e-governance applications and mission mode projects in a big way”.

The current scenario

It is not as if the use of geospatial is something very new. Many government ministries, as well as private industries, have been using geospatial systems as early as the ’70s. The Ministry of Agriculture has been one of the earliest proponents of the use of remote sensing. Among the initiatives in using space technology for their activities, the latest is the setting up of the Mahalanobis Center for using space imagery for various applications. Dr Shibendu S. Ray, Director of the Mahalanobis National Crop Forecast Center, Ministry of Agriculture, adds that, agriculture has been a driving force for Indian remote sensing program since early ’80s and most of Indian remote sensing satellites cater to agriculture applications.
Pre-investment Survey of Forests was an aerial survey project way back in the ’70s. Forest Survey of India has the distinction of being the first institution to use remote sensing in a big way. Dr Anmol Kumar, Director General, Forest Survey of India (FSI) states that the FSI has been mandated to produce the State of Indian Forests report every two years and they have been doing so using geospatial data for more than 40 years. They have kept pace with technology and currently use IRS LISS 3 and 4 digital data for computer-based analysis.

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) is another long time user of remote sensing using INSAT and other data. Some of the significant contributions of the IMD, according to its Director General, Dr L.S. Rathore, are GIS platform-based RAPID for viewing satellite products and CRIS for giving rainfall information on real-time basis. Recent initiatives have led to the development, in collaboration with Metro France International, of a comprehensive GIS-based ecosystem like ‘Varsmana’, an end-to-end system that puts processed and raw weather data from all national and international observational resources, on near real-time basis, at the forecaster’s desk. The data flow from the field observatory to its digital visualization and analysis has been automated so as to enable issue of timely weather forecast and warnings. The IMD has also developed an app called Indian Weather, which provides current weather and four days forecast for 310 cities.

The industry view

No wonder then that private players too feel that is a paradigm shift on the ground level. NASSCOM Chairman B.V.R. Mohan Reddy expects that there will be a greater interest in the use of geospatial technologies and data for upcoming large scale projects, especially in the identified areas of disaster and early warning, e-governance and geospatial governance.

ISRO is positioning Bhuvan as a major source of satellite imagery, maps and geospatial apps which is already available to users. Most of the 160 projects plan to make the results available on Bhuvan. Supporting the importance of Bhuvan, Reddy, who is also the Founder and MD of Cyient (formerly Infotech Enterprises), mentions, “In the aftermath of Hudhud cyclone, the remote sensed data from ISRO’s Bhuvan provided the platform through which citizens could identify the damaged areas, based on which, the appropriate civil authority team could go directly to the affected place for repair activities. Similar applications can be deployed for any disaster that causes significant wide-scale damage to utilities and civil infrastructure. With the Smart Cities mission entering the next stage, e-governance will be the focus and geospatial technologies will play a key role.”

Tarun Harnathka, Director of Regional Map & Content for India, HERE, endorses the government’s move to harness geospatial systems for development. He avers that there is a strong interest in mapping and GIS to improve service delivery and planning activities. For example, in one of the states, HERE maps are being used to plan the location of new schools, hospital and police stations to ensure accessibility for local residents. “We see governments using our maps to help improve the everyday lives of people and we are very proud to play our part in contributing to their vision.”

Abhay Kimmatkar, Joint Managing Director, ADCC Infocad, says, “The government is coming with some flexible policies in using space technology in governance projects, like smart city initiatives for Tier 1 cities and AMRUT for Tier 2 cities. Geospatial services will act as backbone for these projects.”  The government is now coming up with the projects like SDI, Building Pass Approval System, Road Asset Management System, etc.

Even Atanu Sinha, Director, India and SAARC, Hexagon believes that the GoI is willing and taking decisions in a positive direction to make sure that geospatial technology becomes a part of government programs. “What we are doing today is being supported and backed by the government.”
Anup Jindal, CEO and Joint Managing Director, RMSI, points out that “at the central government level, there is a very clear understanding of what the PM expects”. However, he adds that India is composed of many states and implementation happens at the state level. With a vision clearly outlined and reflected in the GoI’s policies, the understanding will start percolating down to the states’ level and that is where the real implementation can be seen. The change in the mindsets at this level is already emerging.

Nikhil Kumar, Director – Technical Marketing (SAARC Region), Trimble Navigation, India, highlights the clear statement of vision by the government and says that while earlier private companies had to educate the potential project owners prior to getting into the project specifics, now getting into proposal level discussion is easier. This is a paradigm change from education to discussion around related technological nuances. The mandate for the use of technology in large national programs has paved way for exploring its intense use at various stages of project implementation.


Role of the industry

The ISRO chairman believes that the country needs more and more industries and academic institution participation because the workload is tremendous. He says, “Our general idea is to encourage the academic institutions and industry to work together and come up with solutions which we will provide. We want more indigenous software to get in because nowadays we are dependent on the GIS software from others. That’s one stumbling block needing a solution. We want to promote indigenous software development. About 90% of the software that we develop is for the problems outside the country, whereas it is exactly the reverse in China.”

On the issue of an ISRO industry meeting, he adds that is contemplated for both communication and GIS areas. One of the ideas is to promote the Association of Geospatial Industries (AGI) to take a bigger role in terms of dissemination, training and making things known, he tells.

According to HERE’s Harnathka, the government is working closely with the private industry have a huge role to play on fostering innovation. A great example of this is supporting Smart City-related initiatives. For the Smart City initiatives to be successful, they need to be a mix of policy, seed funding and private industry investment. Harnathka sees “India as having a great opportunity to leapfrog existing smart city projects and take a global lead in this area. India has strong pool of leading global IT and infrastructure companies that can bring real innovation to table”. As an example, he cites the possibility of the government leveraging the use of mobile LiDAR in Indian cities in the future to provide data about streetside infrastructure and help government departments answer questions like: exactly how high is that bridge; where are my sewage entry points; how close to the road is that powerline, etc.

Both Reddy and Harnathka quote their involvement in programs in states as well as at the central government level to highlight the fact that industry involvement is already a reality. HERE is working on several projects with the GoI either directly or through our partners. For example, they are working with Department of Information Technology & Communication, Government of Rajasthan, to address their spatial need for better governance. Cyient is working on urban development and town planning projects, land records maintenance and modernization, rail and road corridor mapping, navigation data update, 3D modelling of cities and landmarks, coastal zone mapping, etc.

A few of Cyient’s large government projects are the UPOR (Urban Property Ownership Records) project of Karnataka, where property survey was done for two towns and the UPOR system that acts as the citizen service portal for PR card management was developed. The Indian Coastal Zone Mapping project, which is a SoI-led project that maps the entire coastline of India, and land records management projects for five states that are aimed at updating and managing the land records under the NLRMP program are other examples.

Kimmatkar says that the government is encouraging private players to go for technologies like LiDAR and ground penetrating radar (GPR) by shaping healthy policies and also investing in high-resolution satellite imagery and navigation systems through ISRO. By making the use of BPAS for infrastructure development and LiDAR in National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) projects mandatory, the government has shown keen interest on the usage of technology. “ADCC Infocad has dedicated domains in urban & rural development, natural resources, hydrology, energy and engineering services. Under these domains, we are providing services on forest cover monitoring, preparing master plans for cities, geo-morphological mapping for mining, toll information system for national highways, water bodies, Ganga cleaning mission and ground water prospect mapping. We are also involved in major projects like R-APDRP, NLRMP, PHED and Sujal Nirmal Abhiyan”.

Jindal recounts RMSI’s involvement in the Ganges river basin sustainability-related projects. Over the years, especially working very closely with the World Bank, it has developed numerous projects which have already been made available to the country. A lot of work is also happening in the open source domain and shared on open websites.

MNCs like Trimble and Hexagon are upbeat on the big ticket infrastructure and smart city projects. “The biggest area of growth we are seeing is basically three or four areas — Smart City, AMRUT, inland water ways and agriculture,” says Nikhil Kumar. “If you see smart city is actually an urban transformation. So a smart city actually talks about your physical infrastructure — your social infrastructure, your environmental infrastructure. This means intelligent transportation and parking systems, better utilization of space.” Trimble has 12-14% of its global revenue from India in terms of R&D and its total workforce in India is about 20-25%.Hexagon’s Sinha feels the sentiments are quite positive. “Big programs like Smart Cities, Start-Up India and Digital India will give a big push to geospatial technology, making it a part of every implementation that is happening.”

Role of the government

While the focused thrust on the use of geospatial technologies for mission mode projects of the government is a move appreciated by all, and the thrust towards involving industry in these efforts is commendable, there are issues which need to be resolved at the policy and administration levels.

?Availability of Data: Kimmatkar feels that the map and data policies are more relaxed now. “The government is very flexible on giving permission to use UAVs for data acquisition. Earlier, the government was very rigid on the sharing of data which even caused it heavy losses. Digital India, under which they propose to launch SDI program, will reduce losses. These moves give opportunities for industrial growth.”
Sinha, however, is of the view that the change on the ground level is very slow. “One of the biggest concerns for every company is the base information that they are getting to process the data. We need to have a look at some of the map and data policies in India, along with the availability of data. We also need to have to look at how the UAV policy is being governed by India.”

Ray raises the issue of more frequent availability of high-res data for agriculture as well as the need to reduce data costs, particularly for the research community. In this context, ISRO’s decision to make 6-month-old data open and its effort to make the image data available for the users with the help of some 200 servers located at various places is commendable.

Dr P.G. Diwakar, Deputy Director, NRSC, adds, “ISRO has been working hard to see that policies are relaxed and data is made freely available for the users. That is how from 5.8 m resolution of RSDP 2000-01, we brought it down in RSDP 2011 to 1 m without restriction on purchase. We are looking to improve this policy for higher resolutions and ultimately to remove restrictions so that data can be made available to people”.

?Government policy: There is an additional 30% (approx) hidden cost due to Custom duties, taxes, etc., on UAV, LiDAR and GPR technologies. Regulations governing aerial imagery acquisition must also be relaxed in India to encourage investment.
Jindal indicates that the government needs to take three steps. Firstly, there needs to be an environment and set of policies which would enable companies to function autonomously without too much interference. A considerable amount of data needed by the industry is generated by the government itself. Therefore, the government needs to establish a clear framework where all of this data, which is resident in various bodies, governed by various rules and procedures, be unlocked and made available to the private sector. Secondly, specific incentives need to be provided for companies to develop skills or to work with educational institutions across India and create skills in specific domains. Thirdly, there are policies governing the usage of satellite imagery. It is a fact that imagery is easier to procure and process outside of India. Lastly, the government has to realize that this industry is still largely driven by SMEs and the policies have to be in sync.

Sinha admits that though there are changes happening, but, they are very slow. “We also have to look about how they are reworking the map policy and data creation and data acquisition policy. We will also have to look at how the UAV policy is being governed.”
Giving tax friendly norms, easy paperwork and other facilities to encourage young entrepreneurs will change the business scenario in India in all sectors. Many small players have come out with good and low-priced geospatial solutions in recent years.

Agrees Reddy: “The government’s Vision S&T 2020 policy aims at articulating the science and technology vision for India to develop and grow in this space.” This policy can be backed up by supporting government grants and incentives that enable startups and SMEs to develop innovative thinking and solutions. The Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Policy-2013, aspires to position India among the world’s top five scientific powers. “For this to happen, the government should act as an enabler for the access to technology and R&D. While relaxation in duty regulations on GIS technological equipment (for example, Customs on GPS devices is currently around 50%) is welcome, a more viable and sustaining option is in participation and framing of policies that promote innovation and technological thinking.”

The industry also expects the government to release forward-looking policies and programs that encourage greater investments in R&D and technology activities. For this, industry and private collaboration will play a major role. One such initiative is the T-Hub initiative which is India’s largest incubator for startups. This is a collaborative partnership between the Government of Telangana, the academia and corporate/private sector, that is enabling entrepreneurs bring to life new technological ideas.

The future

The industry is very positive about the future. Kimmatkar indicates that the major sector which will dominate the market using geospatial technology will be agriculture where overall demand will increase by 1.1 % per annum, energy anticipates 1.7% growth per annum, and infrastructure represents 10% to global GDP. Other areas include water distribution, precision farming, agriculture insurance and GIS in utilities. Jindal says the geospatial industry today cannot be viewed in a myopic way of being only about creating maps. Much larger industries are being enabled which are built around maps. The government has to realize this and create more jobs and growth in various regions across the country.

The government sector is one of the fastest growing GIS markets across the globe because of the increasing investment in GIS at all levels. This is true for India as well, where government and defense would continue to be the major sectors for geospatial business. “With the Smart Cities and Digital India initiatives gathering momentum, utilities and infrastructure sectors would also have a growing demand for GI data and technology solutions to help them plan and manage their operations smarter,” feels Reddy.

Government initiatives under Digital India and Make in India, and a focused fillip to the adoption of geospatial systems have galvanized the Indian public and private sectors. While the government will continue to be the major driver, enabling policies will ensure that private industry will have many opportunities that will grow with time. This is a good time for entrepreneurs to innovate and set up MSMEs and grow with India.