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Towards a national geospatial policy

In 2012-13, the India government’s annual Economic Survey had called for “careful mapping, assigning of conclusive titles to facilitate land leasing, and creating a fair but speedy process of land acquisition for public purposes”. McKinsey Global Institute’s report had earlier highlighted the annual 1.3% of GDP loss because of land market distortions in India.  This loss amounts to $31 billion each year at current values. The Indian GDP currently stands at $2.384 trillion. In other words, effective use of geospatial and information technologies in India’s land records management could unlock $31 billion. This amount is the exact equivalent of FDI inflows into the economy between January and June last year, that made India the top foreign investment destination. 

India has for long been using remote sensing and GIS technologies for various development projects, empowering citizens and future nation building. The renewed government vigour on big-ticket infrastructure projects brings the focus back on large-scale updated maps and spatial technologies.

The Indian government’s dream project, Digital India, could help in connecting the dots of various projects, past and present, to bring India on a global platform, says a recent Deloitte report.

In every major program of the government, including Digital India, Smart Cities, Skill Development, Start-Up India, Make in India, highway development, river linking, industrial corridors, smart power, and agriculture, geospatial technologies are poised to play a critical role. With the government actively showing interest in connecting space and location technologies with development and governance, the industry feels there is a clear paradigm shift at the ground level. “Earlier the decision makers and other stakeholders had a high level idea that the geospatial technology could play a valuable role in some form or other, but it lacked a clear mandate from the top as to how and which were the areas that these could be used for,” says Nikhil Kumar, Director – Technical Marketing (SAARC Region), Trimble Navigation, India. The usage was largely dependent on leaders in different industries and the understanding of the bureaucrats involved. But things are fast changing.

Avers Abhay Kimmatkar, Joint Managing Director, ADCC Infocad, “The government is coming with some flexible policies in use of space technology in governance projects. For instance, geospatial services will act as the backbone for Smart City initiatives for Tier 1 cities and AMRUT for Tier 2 cities.” With innovative projects such as mandatory use of Building Pass Approval System (BPAS) for infrastructure development, LiDAR in National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) projects, and Road Asset Management Systems, the government has shown keen interest in the use of technology.

“The government is encouraging private players to go for technologies like LiDAR and ground penetrating radar by shaping healthy policies and also investing through ISRO for the high resolution satellite imageries and navigation data,” elucidates Kimmatkar.

Dr Ajay Kumar, Additional Secretary, Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY), is emphatic that wherever there is room for GIS-based application, geospatial technologies will add to the whole workcycle. “I cannot pinpoint how much the size of the geospatial industry will be, but, I can say with certainty that we are making a conscious effort to introduce GIS into e-governance applications and mission mode projects in a big way.”

Need for a common framework

To address these needs and to encourage private players to participate in large-scale mapping of the country, the Government of India (GoI) has mooted a National Geospatial Policy (NGP). The policy seeks to put in place appropriate guidelines to address all issues related to sharing of maps and other spatial data.

Work on the policy has already begun. A consultative meeting with the geospatial Industry, media and individual participants was held on February 3, 2016, to assess the need of geospatial data in government projects, based on which, a draft policy will be advocated. This was part of the consulting exercise undertaken by the National Expert Committee constituted by Department of Science and Technology (DST), with Maj Gen (Dr) R. Siva Kumar (Retd), former Head of NRDMS and NSDI CEO, as Chairman, and Dr Bhoop Singh, present Head of NRDMS & NSDI, as Member Secretary. The other members of the committee are Dr Sandeep Tripathi from the Odisha Space Applications Center (ORSAC), Wg Cdr Satyam Kushwaha of the National Security Council Secretariat (PMO), Prof I.V. Murali Krishna (DRDO) and T.P. Singh (DeitY). Interestingly, there are no representatives from the Department of Space (DoS) in this committee.

It is believed a single policy framework will synergize various departments towards ensuring quality, accuracy, interoperability and commonality, and will also give a direction to how the geospatial domain needs to develop. However, before we get gung ho about a new policy, let us remember this is not the first time we are talking about this issue. The demand for clearer data-sharing mechanisms to ensure quality and availability has been there for some time now — both from within the government as well as the private sector — and there have been multiple attempts to address the issues. The need for a comprehensive policy was felt after innumerable attempts earlier hit dead-ends owing to what many describe as lack of clear guidelines and mandate.

The National Spatial Data Infrastructure, for instance, was an idea mooted back in 2000 and launched in 2006 under the DST. The project envisioned a national infrastructure for the availability and access to organized spatial data and use of the infrastructure at all levels for sustained economic growth.

Today, 16 years later, NSDI is a toothless body which has not achieved much, not even managed to get the complete metadata in one place. But, as Siva Kumar says, “The biggest achievement of NSDI is that it created a forum for all 17 agencies connected to geospatial data to come together and resolve issues. NSDI has brought out standards for metadata, data exchange and content standard for soils which are accepted as de facto standards.”

He, however, agrees that the metadata is not completely populated due to lack of resources, especially skilled manpower, within the agencies. “The agencies were prepared to share data but the policy environment is not conducive,” adds the former NSDI chief. And that exactly is the point — the policy environment was not conducive. The departments were not mandated to share data, so some did others did not. There was no regularity, no continuity. Even as the NSDI was struggling to take off, in 2013 the government did what India is famous for — forget the existing arrangement and instead of setting right any anomaly found therein, propose a brand new one.

The NGIS was pushed through the Planning Commission and was considered to be a pet project of Sam Pitroda, the then adviser to the Prime Minister on information technology. The XII Five Year Plan 2012-17 sanctioned INR 30 billion (approx $440 million) for the project, and listed 1:10,000 mapping of the country as one of its primary focus areas.

There were even plans to establish a separate Indian National GIS Organization committed to further the use of GIS in governance. However, owing to the changes in the Planning Commission and after several inter-department turf wars, the project was handed over to the DST.  So, we now have two agencies working towards the same goal under the same department! Three years down the line, NSDI is still floundering, while NGIS remains only on paper. Again, as DST grapples with NSDI and NGIS, DeitY on its own launched the National Center for Geoinformatics (NCoG) last December. While the industry is by far unclear as to what purpose the NCoG will serve, Dr Ajay Kumar explains it is focusing on development of applications so that people can actually use the data that is there.

Issues that existed, exist even now

The National Map Policy 2005 is restrictive and outdated, overrun by security concerns. Moreover, the national mapping organization, Survey of India, has consistently failed to upgrade its maps, which are dated and available at 1:50,000 scale.

“Forget about revamping a policy; the existing policy needs to be implemented first,” says an irate industry player on the condition of anonymity. “Today, digital maps at 1:50,000 scale are available from SoI, but not on its NSDI portal, not even on its own website! The old paper route is the only way to place orders for digital data.” The data supplied is raw vectorized scans without any cleaning of artifacts, rendering the data virtually unusable unless put through a cleaning process. NASSCOM chairman B.V.R. Mohan Reddy (also the MD of Cyient) categorically says: “The map policy needs to be amended to bring in greater clarity or simplification on the data definitions, usage and access process.

”Atanu Sinha, Director, India and SAARC, Hexagon, also believes that a regulatory mechanism is direly needed. “Maps should be made available to the people who need them. Now that the government has considered a high powered committee to look into the current policies, and Smart Cities project is gathering steam, hopefully, the map policy in India will open up.”

Similarly, the National Remote Sensing Policy 2011 limits free distribution of satellite data with resolutions of up to 1 meter, and also authorizes NRSC as the single-window clearance shop for all foreign remote sensing data in India. This in itself is a bottleneck. Government departments as well as private players complain that NRSC takes about 6 to 18 months to clear foreign data. At a time when the use of satellite images for all purposes has grown dramatically and the industry is demanding cm-level engineering grade data for infrastructure projects, the highly restrictive RSDP 2011 needs a fast revamp. A senior government official confirms that discussions are on with ISRO.

“The RSDP limits resolution at 1 metre because that is the capability of ISRO right now. While they keep selling the idea of the Cartosat series as panacea for all ills, that is far from being true. Imagine building a bridge or maintaining land records with data that has accuracy levels of up to 2 to 2.5 meters!” says the official.

There needs to be a general consensus from stakeholders on an acceptable view, upholding security concerns of the Defence Ministry. The policy could be made to address different requirements differently. For instance, as Nikhil Kumar suggests, high resolution data may be required for many mission critical applications, civil or defense. The same dataset can be shared in lower resolution in public domain. “But it shouldn’t so happen that when you need it the most, say in a case of disaster, you cannot find any high resolution data simply because you have completely deleted it from the system!”

Data duplication happening enmasse across the country is another concern. While states are creating their own cadastral maps, urban and rural development ministries, revenue departments, highway authority, municipal corporations, power utilities, all are generating their own maps for their own use. Yet, none of these data talk to each other. They lie in silos, and every time there is a need for a map, a new tender is floated for fresh mapping. “Until and unless there is a clear framework on where all this data is residing in various government bodies — which is governed by various rules and procedures — and how can it be unlocked and made available to the private sector, you cannot really have innovation,” says Anup Jindal, CEO and Joint MD, RMSI.

“As a part of the NGIS program, we must take inventory of geospatial information products available in the country. This will ensure that we avoid duplication,” says Rajesh C. Mathur, Advisor, Esri India. But that will be possible only if the framework for collaboration and sharing among various stakeholders is created. This is precisely what the National Geospatial Policy should facilitate. The existing data sets also need to set to a standardized framework.

Mandating data sharing

So how exactly do we make these banks of data talk to each other and mandate departments to share? The National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (NDSAP) came in place in 2012. Though not specifically dealing with geospatial data, the policy sought to address the fundamental issue that the geospatial industry faces — a data deluge but none to share. NDSAP was to provide an enabling provision and platform for proactive and open access to data generated by various GoI entities — exactly what the industry as well as various departments so desperately desired. Sources say the policy never really became effective since it was the last days of the UPA II government. The intention was good, but the eagerness to implement wasn’t there.

Meanwhile, ISRO generates its own data which is published on its Bhuvan geoportal platform. To its credit, Bhuvan is unique and most importantly, regularly updated and upgraded and perhaps the best geoportal for Indian data. It also boasts of a rich ensemble of value-added products and analysis models. NGIS, NSDI, NCoG will probably take years to reach such a level of sophistication. Further, because Bhuvan is free, it is popular across stakeholders.

But, Bhuvan has its limitations. The fact that it caters to 1 metre data makes it good only for thematic visualizations, not engineering grade work. Further, as Siva Kumar points out, Bhuvan can provide limited solutions as it is devoid of elevation data and ground-verified attributes which SoI alone can provide. Ideally, Bhuvan assets should form a part of the resources accessible by NGIS users.

Another challenge is data quality. Today, multiple agencies are generating independent datasets without a common guideline. This lack of coordination is leading to problems of quality, authenticity, interoperability and convergence. Often, no two datasets sit on each other. So who will check and clear the quality and authenticity of data that is generated? At the moment, there is no system or proposal for a mechanism for geospatial data certification.

Siva Kumar feels mapping agencies themselves should do the quality control and quality assurance. “For example, any map given by Survey of India will have an accuracy of 0.25 mm on the scale of the map. Data models adopted by SoI are robust and the processes ensure the quality. However, the need for an independent agency to ensure the accuracy, standards and quality is felt more now than before with growth and technology reach to the common man.”

Mathur believes creation of a certification agency for geospatial data products will be beneficial. There is also a proposal to establish a National Geospatial Authority. This, Siva Kumar, believes, can also look into accrediting agencies for the purpose, on the lines of NABL (National Accreditation Bureau for Laboratories) of DST. This mechanism has worked well in other areas, such as, education.

Who addresses taxation issues

Both NGIS and NGP deal with data generation and sharing. But geospatial goes beyond data. However, the NGP draft doesn’t address issues such as the skewed taxation system. “It is high time that the government moves towards more conducive policies,” says Kimmatkar. There is an additional 30% (approximately) hidden cost (Custom duties, taxes, etc.) applied while using UAVs, LiDAR and GPR technologies, which poses a hindrance to use of these technologies. Aerial flying must also be relaxed in India for data capture as it will bring in a lot opportunity and investment.

“The policies today inhibit, rather than foster, growth,” says Nikhil Kumar. “Our policies should talk more about what one should do, instead of suggesting what one should not. Actually, we need less of these. Even the Prime Minister is asking for policies that the country needs to do away with, not what new policies should be implemented.”

MNCs observe that at the ground level, change is happening very slowly. Hexagon’s Sinha says even though the sentiments are positive, with big programs coming up, like Smart Cities, Start-Up India, Digital India, etc., the country needs to rethink its map and data policies, as well as the availability of data.

Currently many of the components that make up the geospatial industry are being covered in different policies across sectors. The industry wants all such components to be got under one umbrella. There could be elements borrowed from other relevant policies to contribute to one national policy and tax structure for the geospatial industry.

A comprehensive policy framework will ease the adoption of this technology by user departments. “While the NGP committee is currently focused on the geospatial content policy, we also need to review issues such as import classification for hardware products like GPS and import duties,” says Mathur. The industry feels there is much that can be done in terms of taxation, right from classification of products, to encouraging measures to allow influx of latest technologies, on the one hand, and for the industry as a whole to grow on the other hand. “This is a complex issue and taxation is an issue we have not discussed much,” accepts Siva kumar. “Though, I have been advocating that AGI should meet the Finance Minister for discussions before the Union Budget where we could not only seek cut in taxation rates, but also incentives for use of geospatial technology.”

The way ahead

The country’s growth curve is at a critical juncture, and space and location technologies can be immense value-adds. This is all the more possible given the innovations and advancements made by India in space technology and infrastructure in the past couple of decades. ISRO’s Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) and earth observation mission programs, coupled with the existing IT and engineering capabilities, can spur India to be a manufacturing hub for positioning and navigation sensors, and associated advanced solutions and services.

“A comprehensive geospatial policy would also invigorate the economy and provide more jobs,” emphasizes Siva Kumar. One estimate by MHRD (Task Force Report on Geospatial Education – 2013) suggests that geospatial could create 500,000 jobs in five years if proper ecosystem is available.

Echoes Jindal: “Our industry today cannot be just viewed in a myopic way that this is only about creating maps. We are enabling much larger industries which are built around maps.”
As Reddy explains, for the geospatial industry to grow to a global ranking, related policies need to be amended so that access to geoinformation is easier and yet secure.

The main considerations today are of the data and scales needed from the application and service delivery perspectives, as well as of the user profiles, explains Bharti Sinha, Executive Director of Association of Geospatial Industry (AGI).  The projects are now calling for robust, sustainable and scalable processes that allow for interaction and collaboration between different stakeholders, eliminate duplication, and are implementable on a pan-India scale. An important factor that must be borne in mind is that the structure of these national programs needs to be federated to allow for both centralized as well as localized governance.

But as Jindal says, policy is one thing and its effective implementation is another. As the lessons of the past show, having policies do not help as long the implementation mechanism is not there.

It is said too many cooks spoil the broth. But getting all the cooks on the same page also requires a head cook. Perhaps, if a person of Sam Pitroda’s stature had continued to push NGIS five years ago, the project would have taken shape by now. In this case too, there needs to be a person of similar stature leading the initiative. It is time that the national geospatial policy also talks about an overarching central authority with clear mandates to overlook its proper implementation. And the sooner, the better

Repeated attempts to contact SoI for their version were unsuccessful.