In the challenging times of COVID-19 outbreak, satellite monitoring has been playing a pivotal role in curbing the spread of the infection, mainly by helping in identifying risk zones and facilitating quick response. However, there remains a huge potential to use Earth Observation (EO) data to shed new light on the societal and economic changes currently taking place. While these areas of application need to be explored, restrictions imposed on sharing of EO data also needs to be worked upon. India has been facing the brunt of such restrictions since long. However, the current government is thankfully analysing things in a new light. It thus seems safe to assume that the COVID 19 pandemic is serving as an eye opener for better Remote Sensing Policies in India.
The spate of reforms announced by the Indian government designed to create and nurture private enterprises in the field of space exploration, SATCOM regulations and remote sensing has not only inspired hope for countless space entrepreneurs but has the potential to transform the delivery of social dividends by earth observation and remote sensing technologies. Firstly the context- as per the Geospatial Media and Communications report of 2019, the earth observation industry alone is estimated to grow at a CAGR of 9.1% during 2018-2023 into a 11.8 billion dollars economy by 2023, in turn generating revenues of 88.3 billion dollars from GIS and Analytics Applications. Thus, EO assets demonstrate that space technologies are driven towards solving real world problems and not just by a need to indulge mankind’s existential curiosity.
Benefits of EO data – The endless possibilities
The transition of EO Satellites from being mere expressions of state and military aspirations in space to an industry has been enabled by the integration of satellite data with artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud, block chain and internet of things based technologies. The resulting convergence together with rapid privatisation has transformed raw EO data into reliable insights and geospatial applications with proven applications for better governance and better decisions. Today satellite EO derived applications are used in India to improve the integrity of agri-risk based insurance, enable informed decisions in agri-finance credit transactions, improve mapping and mining of mineral resources, expand lawful surveillance, aid forest conservation and enable urban planning and address land encroachment. As opposed to conventional means that try to meet the very same governance and commercial objectives, EO data is defined by three distinct advantages viz., scale of data capture, frequency of data capture and timeliness of the data capture.
However, these technologies assume more urgency and significance in a world defined by the limitations around COVID 19. As social distancing becomes the norm and considering the risks and potential costs associated with travel including those to health, the demand for real time intelligence of activities on distant lands can only be met with the innovative and steady use of EO assets. By enabling cost effective supply chains, real time identification of new market opportunities and improving customer connectivity through integration of relevant ICT tools, EO assets and applications will continue to yield business benefits while reducing risks to human health as well as costs that are associated with travelling. The corresponding meteoric rise in demand for EO data based analytics can only be met if the states partner with private enterprises to scale up capacity and to rapidly innovate.
Also Read: Why India needs a geospatial strategy?
Growth Stifled by Remote Sensing Policies
However the bold vision for a world optimally exploiting EO assets and the efforts to realise their social dividends for India have been stifled by the opaquely worded Remote Sensing Data Policy 2011 (“Policy”). The Policy has concentrated the power and function of aggregating and distributing all EO data in the hands of the National Remote Sensing Centre of the ISRO and for high resolution satellite images specifically, the High Resolution Image Committee. The mechanism suffers from lack of transparency and avoids providing a measure of predictability on the success of obtaining EO data from NRSC and HIRC. Predictably, it has been criticised for failing to appreciate current market realities, where transactions involving EO data occur regularly through the internet and often at highly subsidized prices without the role or interference of state intermediaries.
The policy’s current structure seems peculiar given that firstly it establishes a platform for trading in EO data that is cumbersome and business unfriendly, in stark contrast to the internet enabled free markets for EO data. Even in terms of its effectiveness in addressing national security concerns, the policy suffers from the same opaqueness as the map policy, which in the judgement of the Hon’ble Madras High Court in the case of J. Mohanraj v. The Secretary to the Government, North Block, New Delhi in WP 29713/2008, was held to be unenforceable. On the other hand, the only utility that this policy has achieved, contrary to its presumably noble intent, is to deter EO data based businesses by leaving their legitimacy and legality always open for interpretation. Therefore, the commitment towards reforms by the Finance Minister is a refreshingly honest admission of the policy’s obvious shortfalls and vindicates the applause her government has earned.
The necessity to get over the national security myth
Conversely, the case for de-regulation or minimalist regulations of EO technologies and data is well supported. The Land Remote Sensing Policy Act, 1992 of the United States adopts a market based approach to regulating EO Data. To paraphrase its contents, any remote sensing data free of national security implications, generated by the state remote sensing space assets are released into the hands of licensed distributors who are statutorily required to distribute them liberally on non discriminatory and fair terms. A clear licensing regime for aspiring private EO satellite owners and operators that is also liberal has enabled a vibrant EO economy with abundance of data freely available for application developers. Yet no evidence exists to show that the free availability of such data or the consequential usage thereof, per se, caused or inflicted upon the country, a national security vulnerability. Therefore, a de-regulated remote sensing data framework can advance economic and social interests without compromising national security.
To conclude, the present conservative regulatory climate for space and specifically for EO data, not only fails to assure national security benefits but is a poor competitor to the internet enabled minimally regulated market for EO data and products and services based on it. The policy unreasonably assumes a level of distrust with the private sector that is unsupported by experience especially when, in the most recent history, startups in India developed EO applications that aided the Kerala flood relief efforts. The efforts to balance national security and economic interests must be through a policy that is realistic and pragmatic, a learning that is reflected in the announcements of the Hon’ble Finance Minister. If action follows these words meaningfully, then this Government is entitled to be credited as the author of a truly remarkable transformation of the space industry in India.