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India Needs a National Geospatial Information Act

With the introduction of the National Geospatial Policy 2016 and the ongoing discussion on the Geospatial Information Regulation Bill 2016 in India, an important point to be considered is the difference between a Policy and a Bill. The Department of Science and Technology has two policies, National Map Policy, NMP-2005 and National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy, NDSAP-2012 in place and is now proposing a third policy, the National Geospatial Policy 2016. The Department of Space has a Remote Sensing Data Policy, RSDP-2011. The proposed NGP 2016 acknowledges these and Civil Aviation Requirement, CAR-2012 and seeks to supersede them all. Is it possible?

A policy is a statement of intent of what a government, an organisation, a Society or even an individual wants to do and also does not want to do. A policy is not legally binding in the sense that if a policy is not followed there is no corrective action indicated. For example, the NDSAP-2012 has not made any visible impact on data sharing or data accessibility. In fact the proposed GIRB-2016 actually forbids data sharing and severely restricts data accessibility. While the RSDP-2011 is broadly respected by all data suppliers who cater to government projects, it is easy to bypass the policy where the government is not involved. Consider Google Maps which makes available half metre data available to anyone with an Internet connection, and the RSDP-2011 can do precious little because the policy does not factor in what to do if the policy is not followed.

A law on the other hand not only says what you can do or cannot do but also lays down corrective action on those who break the law. Thus the desire of the proposed NGP-2016 to see the CAR-2012 superseded is wishful thinking because it cannot be done as it is a part of the Aircraft Act of 1934 as amended till February 15, 2008. Thus, the CAR-2012 is backed up by an Act and is binding on all legally. Violators can and will be prosecuted as per the law governing the Act. To make any changes a bill has to be introduced which has to be laid before the Parliament to amend the provisions of the Act.

DST should recall its efforts to have NSDI established by an Act but in the end had to settle for an Executive Order of the Cabinet. A perusal of the Order on the NSDI site is revealing. A National Spatial Data Committee was set up which “shall be the apex national authority for formulation and implementing appropriate policies, strategies and programmes for the establishment, operation, management of the NSDI and utilisation and any other activities related to spatial data in the country”. The functions of the NSDC are equally revealing. They are among others:

“i. Determine the requirement of spatial data in the country and require the creation or collection of spatial data to fill such requirement.
ii. Formulate and position policies on all aspects related to the NSDI, including its establishment, access, pricing etc.
iii. Decide and arbiter on issues relating to spatial data generation and its availability in the country.
viii. Aid and advise the Central Government on any matter related to or connected with the NSDI”.

Was the NSDC consulted by the MHA while formulating the GIRB-2016? Though this order was gazetted on July 1, 2006 it must have been missed by the MHA ten years down the line. In fact, several Committees had been established under the NSDC and it would be useful for DST to review how many times these committees met and what was achieved. After all, the CEO of NSDI is from DST.

A specific question that begs itself is the availability of the minutes of the NSDC or its Executive Committee which approved the National GIS and the setting up of the NCoG because whatever the NGIS and the NCoG is planning to do is already covered in the Order. In a recent interview it has been ‘clarified’ that NSDI and NGIS have largely been infrastructure development projects. They create the base maps, they create the information and they have been focusing on collecting more spatial data. NCoG is mostly dedicated to development of applications — actual decision support systems. Read with the published objectives of NCOG, this clarification actually muddies the waters, allowing for duplication of efforts or for slippages. in fact, this clarification puts the NSDI and NGIS on the same footing!

Clearly, neither the Government nor the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Departments of Science & Technology and Electronics & Information Technology have cared to look into the past orders throwing the Executive Order setting up the NSDI into the dustbin. If we are to be protected from ill-advised adventures like the GIRB-2016 then the Government departments, industry and academia need to pull up their socks and go for an enabling Geospatial Information Act as opposed to a regulatory, repressive GIRB-2016. Such an act cannot be ignored while setting up new projects which overlap old ones as has been the case with NSDI, NGIS and NCoG. Each department then can formulate its own policies within the ambit of the Act.

Geospatial systems are by nature multidisciplinary and it stands to reason that a Geospatial Information Act has to acknowledge this fact. It is time that a nodal agency begins to draft such a Bill with the participation of all concerned departments, industry associations and academia which can be laid before Parliament for its consideration and implementation as an Act.