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The other part of the map

Bal Krishna
[email protected]

I remember my grandma telling me a story. There was a demon who created havoc in a kingdom. The demon did evil things and the king did not know how to deal with it. The only ray of hope was that the king had a part of the map of the area where the demon resided. However, the other part of the map was missing. There were chances, if the king gets the remaining part of the map, the demon may be located and eventually may get killed. The story is not yet complete. The demon is yet to be killed but where is the map?

The search continues…
Last year some time in December, when I was interacting with some of the students at the University of Allahabad, I started the discussion by asking if anyone had seen the map of Allahabad city. The answer was no. In fact, even myself, despite spending my entire formative years in Allahabad, I have yet to see the map of Allahabad city. A historical city known for its religious and political activities, does n’t have a map? And even if it does, I don’t know where it is and who has it?

The intentions behind
What led us to make a map? Since time immemorial, maps are being made. People did make maps on clay when they neither had computer nor paper. Eskimos of the Canadian Arctic to the Bedwin tribesmen of the Arabian desert had an almost inborn skill to produce rough but quite accurate sketches on pieces of skin or in the sand, indicating the positions and distances of the localities known to them. The ‘Mahabharata’ is the first among the Sanskrit literary sources that has a separate section devoted to the geography of the Indian subcontinent and its adjacent countries in central Asia. In the Rig Veda, ‘Nadi Stuti’ (River Hymn) enumerates most of the 31 rivers of South Asia. The chart postulating a symmetrical four-continental earth (Catur-Dvipa Vasumati) probably represents the oldest formal cosmography in India, formulated in ancient Brahmanical times. ([email protected] January 2000).

What is this desire? A desire to locate from anything to everything on the earth. A desire to know about ourselves, about our surroundings, our earth, our universe. Or is it a desperation to find a footing on this vast earth?

In the context of mapping in India, Mathew H Edney, the author of ‘Mapping An Empire’, writes “Imperialism and map making intersect in the most basic manner; in order to “possess” or even comprehend a territory, one must map it”. As Edney investigates the century long British effort to “transform a land of incomprehensible spectacle into an empire of knowledge”, focussing especially on the Great Trigonometric Survey (GTS) undertaken by the East India Company, that relates how the modern scientific survey techniques led to legitimate its colonial activities as triumphs of liberal, rational science bringing “civilisation” to irrational, mystic and despotic Indians.” The country was mapped to exploit and glorify the imperial power of British. However, the efforts to map this country with such accuracy was no easy task. John Keay, in his book ‘The Great Arc’ writes in foreword, “The Great Arc was hailed as ‘one of the most stupendous works in the whole history of science’. It was ‘as near perfect a thing of its kind as ever been undertaken’. …If the impression given is less that of a scientific set-piece and more of a monumental example of human endeavour, then so it was. This 1600 miles of inch perfect survey took nearly fifty years, cost more lives than most contemporary wars, and involved equations more complex than any in the pre-computer age.”

Whether this mapping enterprise was undertaken to cater the need of imperialists or it was a typical scientific adventure of mankind or it may be the combination of both, people may have different opinions. But, the fact remains, when the British left this country, India was mapped considerably. They knew this country much more than us. Hence, they used the information for their purpose. No problems. They anyway did not come to this country for charity. The more important question is what happened thereafter?

Followed the legacy, religiously
In India, we feel a burden of carrying the British legacy. And we did it religiously. Maps in India are chained. “Nearly 227 out of 385 degree toposheets come under restricted category and cannot be accessed in normal course. The Survey of India catalogue published in 1962 is also restricted. The basic reason for restriction is more due to security apprehensions of Government of India. The area restricted includes whole of Jammu and Kashmir, northern and eastern districts of Himachal Pradesh, northern districts of Uttaranchal, Sikkim, the whole North east. In south, all topographical and geographical maps of the area between thick line and coast belt (on Survey of India Index map) on the scale larger than 1:1 M, South of 200 latitude are restricted. All topographic and geographical maps pertaining to outlying islands viz. Andaman and Nicobar, Lakshdweep. Mini Coy and Amindivi on scale 1:1 M or larger are restricted.” (S V Srikantia, Restriction on maps: A denial of valid geographic information, Current Science, Vol 79, No 4, 25 August 2000).

Why it is so? Srikantia explains in the same article “During the colonial rule great importance was attached to the security of maps by the British Government of India. There was a strict rule that surveyors should treat their work as secret and not pass on copies even to local officers, civil or military, without proper authority. It is presumed that this was because many public officers were carrying papers in their charge to England, especially maps which could be put to sinister users”.

However, R N Srivastava differs, “Maps on various scales covering the entire territory of India are available for sale to public on one million and smaller scale. Topographical maps on larger scales, are being released to public except of areas near the international boundaries and coastline, which being sensitive for the external and internal security of the country, are being released on need to know basis. Generalised district maps of these areas on 1:250,000 scale are available to public. …The euphoria, that the Survey of India is coming on the way of development, is therefore baseless except for those segments of society who either do not know the procedures or have no respect for the law of the land.” (R N Srivastava, Survey of India’s plan to meet the country’s need for digital geographical data, Current Science, Vol 79, No 4, 25 August 2000).

Regarding the availability and accessibility of maps, I will not go into further detail as [email protected] has already published a number of articles on this. The [email protected], July-August, 1999, with a cover page “Enough is enough” triggered off a debate and brought the issue to the forefront. The fact remains that users have been facing difficulties in accessing the maps from national mapping agencies in this country even after 55 years of independence.
Life is changing…
In a last few decades, life has changed considerably. With the advent of GIS, GPS and Internet, neither the needs of the users nor the atmosphere in which our national mapping organisations used to operate remains the same. Moreover, every year reducing budget from government is also forcing these organisations to think on the lines of fund generation for their own survival. The private sector, even if it is not that organised, is also emerging as a key player. There is a need to think if users need large-scale maps in digital version, what to do with those paper maps which are mostly outdated even if they are excellent and of very high quality? You keep precious data to your heart but even if you want to sell it, are there people to buy it? If maps are made with so much of effort and investment they have to be used. All these clearly indicate on the need to change. And change with a sense of urgency. The issue needs to be addressed at two levels. If policy needs to be changed, there is also a need for the national mapping organisations to reorganise themselves to meet the present day challenges.

…So have to change policies
There are two perceptions regarding the map restriction policy. One is of the Ministry of Defence, which has its own reasons and appre-hensions regarding making available these data in public domain. After WTC attack, the way Government of the USA started withdrawing some of the spatial data from the public domain, this viewpoint has further strengthened. Given the vulnerability of India from terrorists attacks well demonstrated by the Parliament attack on December 13 last year, people who are responsible to defend the country will surely think twice about the implications of any decision, which they take to release spatial data in public domain. On the other hand, there are people who feel that given the present technological development especially with the arrival of high resolution satellite imageries such as IKONOS and QuickBird, GPS and the Internet, these restriction basically do not address the security issues for which they are meant. Moreover, the maps we try to restrict, at times are available outside the country.

We must find a way out? May be on the lines suggested by R Narasimha and S R Shetye in Current Science, Volume 79, No 4, 25 August 2000. They write, “…restricting access to data on the grounds of national security stems from two features of the systems: a) The system either lacks the mechanism for or does not possess confidence in the technical analysis that should lead to decisions to restrict access to data. In this situation playing safe in the face of fear of unanticipated uses of data determines policy at the expense of hard technical analysis and b) The agencies charged with the task of distribution of data have no incentive to encourage them, and restrictions in force seem to serve only to hinder dissemination. They further write, “We urge the government to follow a policy of conditional classification, rather than that of case-to-case clearances that is now the norm; i.e. all data acquired at public expense should be conveniently accessible to the public, except where clearly understood security considerations demand that access be restricted. Any other policy will, we believe, damage the national interest rather than protect it, by discouraging the creative exploitation of the data for scientific, commercial and cultural purposes.”

It is heartening that the Government of India has agreed that a new series of maps on WGS84 datum will be prepared and made available to everyone for unrestricted civilian use. However, some experts have different opinion on this. N K Agarwal writes in [email protected] Nov 2001 issue, “It is not understood if good reasons exist for restricting data in Indian system then why the same reasons do not exist for WGS84? To my mind de-restriction of WGS84 may not be in our interest as it is an accurate system, which will be useful if launching pad and target of intercontinental missile are in WGS84, whereas if the coordinates are in local system, e.g. Everest Spheroid the target may not be reached. We should therefore consider de-restricting maps/data in Indian system for civil use for development whereas data in WGS84 may have some restrictions, and may be used for defence and scientific purpose only.”

…and organisations
Dr P Nag, Surveyor General of India, writes in his article ‘Maponomics: Map products and their commercialisation’ in [email protected], February 2002, “It has become imperative for the survival and flourishing of mapping organisations that their products should be market viable. These products should be directly linked with economy and its changing facets… Commercialisation is possible in the ways by taking up projects in the respective field of specialisation, outsourcing of a part of the activities, joining hands with industry and universities and offering services in terms of training, consultancy, etc. However, Dr Nag mentions, “Since the policy regarding digital map production and its dissemination is yet to be finalised, the digital products are limited and mostly for official use.” The same concern was echoed by P C Mandal, Director General, Geological Survey of India in an interview with [email protected] May 2002. While responding to a question on how accessible are the GIS prepared maps to its users especially in the private sector, he said, “Regarding the digital products, the department is bounded by Ministry of Defence guidelines.”

No doubt, policies are the issues, which have very serious impacts. Still these can be taken as external factors, which organisations can do very little with especially when issues pertains to defence and security related. However, there is a lot which mapping organisations can do internally. Assuming if there are no major policy issues to confront with, are national mapping organisations of India at present ready to cope up with new scenario and market dynamics? What market and relevance do they have for their products? Has there been any market research regarding that? There is a need to appreciate the shift in their role from passive data generator to active data provider. They also need to look at market needs and reorient them and their products accordingly. Hence, with or without restriction, they can work upon various issues related to their size, structure, state of the art technology infrastructure, training of man power, capacity building, their outputs, relevance of their products, how to reduce financial dependence on the government, etc. In this background, one must appreciate the initiatives taken by the Survey of India recently to reengineer itself to present day needs.

Positive indications
There have been efforts, and they are not in waste. One can recall the workshop on National Geo-spatial Data Infrastructure (NGDI) held in Delhi in February 2001. The workshop can be considered as a landmark development on two counts: one, it was a first public poser of Government of India on NGDI and second, is the release of a discussion document NSDI: Strategy and Action Plan. The discussion document was well received and appreciated during the workshop and held long term prospects in making NGDI a reality. In this context I would quote one presentation in the workshop by Georgiadou, Y. and R. Groot (2001): ‘Advancing the concept of NGDI: Reflections on the bottom line’, “There cannot be, nor will there be, a single organisation responsible for designing and implementing some kind of GDI blue print, especially at the national (NGDI) level. Instead we can imagine almost organic web of partnerships and relationships evolving purposefully within a given jurisdiction. It will sometimes be pushed by technology, sometimes pulled by market requirements. But at some point there will be sufficient inter-connectedness of databases, a level of access to the data and use of the data, as well as the maturing interest of stakeholders, to participate and invest in the partnerships required for a nascent NGDI to be recognised. Having said, this evolution of any GDI concept will most likely to emerge from a combination of “top-down” and “bottom-up” strategies, the specific mix of which will vary significantly from one jurisdiction to another.” It means, if NGDI has to be a success, all the other leading mapping organisations also need to gear up and actively participate in it.

The other part of the map
This year in April, on the occasion of bi-centennial celebration of the Great Arc Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, Union Minister of Human Resource Development, Government of India made some landmark announcements: Survey of India (SoI)plans to revitalise, modernise and re-engineer the institution, SoI intends to offer a wide range of products and services to meet the geo-spatial needs of users and NSDI will be launched by 15th August 2002 ([email protected], April 2002).

Seems a new era emerging in this country. And if that happens, may our search for other part of the map ends.