Survey of India has not only missed the geospatial bus but also...

Survey of India has not only missed the geospatial bus but also the bullock cart

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It is great to learn that Survey of India is fast moving towards digitization and use of modern technologies like drone surveying. In the past one year it has produced 2,000 maps of the country for various uses and has made more active efforts to make them easily accessible to users through its Nakshe portal. The maps produced by it are authentic and are produced keeping various parameters and development activities in the mind. This is where I start having trouble with the Survey of India. Having spent 25 years of my 34 years with the Government and another nine-year as an independent consultant on geospatial matters, I do have some interesting experiences with Survey of India and their maps.

The Past

In early 1970s, ISRO was busy with the SITE project and need maps to locate villages. We were directed to the Survey of India Map Sales Office in Hyderabad where we were told that some maps were available for sale some not available and yet others available for sale but not over the counter. That was our first introduction to unrestricted and restricted maps of the SoI. In 1976-77 ISRO was developing its remote sensing program using Landsat imagery and aerial photographs. Maps were needed to orient the imagery for further interpretation. These were traced from Survey of India topographic maps. Now, getting these maps were an exercise by itself. For most of the central portion of India it required a form to be filled and presented to the SoI Map Sales Office and patience as the person in charge collected them out of different filing cabinets. However, if the area of interest was within 250 Km of the coast or international boundaries then it required the application to be certified by a Class-1 Central Government officer and to follow rules of map safety which included the security specifications of the map storage room.

People persisted in spite of these rules and traced out base maps from the toposheets till SoI declared that this was infringing their copyright. One exasperated scientist displayed a slide of a toposheet and declared he was ready to be arrested! Realizing that technology had overtaken ancient rules a committee was set up which decided that eight government agencies and SoI would be authorized to digitize maps. However, the restricted maps would only be digitized by SoI. The recommendation was accepted and an order was issued and promptly marked Secret! While this case of ‘My work is so secret that even I don’t know what I am doing’ got sorted out it was realized that having nine agencies digitizing the same maps was not conducive to uniformity and authenticity of the end products.

After much prodding by the Department of Science and Technology, SoI created a digital mapping standards document and decided to outsource the digitization of the unrestricted maps to Indian industry. This never took off; meanwhile SoI decided to go modern and set up a Digital Mapping Centre and Modern Mapping Centre, both in Dehradun and decided to go it alone. Around this time ISRO was designing data products for the IRS-1 satellite. One of the products was District Imagery. We needed authentic district boundaries. The then Surveyor General was very positive and informed that an all India State, District and Taluka boundaries digital map was in the works which each State capital, district headquarters and taluka headquarters accurately positioned. INR 30,000 was the cost of the product and it took the better part of two years to get the data.

The Open Series Maps (OSM)

In 2005 a new map policy was announced. A new series called Open Series Maps, OSM was identified for civilian use which eliminated Vital Areas and Vital Bases and also removed contours. So if you found a big blank area on a road ending abruptly near it, marked ‘Airport Road’ you were sure that this vital area was safe. Also since digital data is more accurate than analog data, digital versions of all restricted maps were designated secret and all unrestricted maps became restricted. Online ordering was implemented to the extent you had to download forms and submit them with advance payment. There was a single use license for INR 5000 and multiple use licenses for INR 15000. All requests for the single use license were converted to multiple uses at SoI end. Sometime before this SoI had got restructured and the task of digitization and distribution of maps of a particular region fell on the SoI unit of that region. The result was that there was a significant difference in the digital outputs. A major problem was relating attributes to features.  There were no standards followed.

Mylars, which are created from the survey data and which form the original source of the four-color (CMYK) printing process, were scanned, digitized and edited to remove contours, VAs and VBs. This was a good move because the mylars are very stable dimensionally. However, since these are originals for printed maps they contain features which are artifacts, for example, symbols. This means that the scans have to be edited before being released for use. Further, for use in a GIS, these maps have to be separated into layers for point, line and polygon features. Here is where things become complicated because the same color is used for different features. Over and above this SoI released this data in a proprietary format, so if you had another GIS considerable work had to be done to get the data-restructured for use in your GIS. At this time DST had specifications for GML 3.0 available on the NSDI portal but for some strange reason, SoI refused to use it. It had junked its own digital mapping standards long ago.

The Present

Has the situation changed? Well, today we have Nakshe which allows you to download pdf maps. Each time you have to get Aadhaar authentication. Only three sheets can be downloaded per day, one by one, there is no batch download. I downloaded a map of Ahmedabad from Nakshe. The map is of 2011 but it doesn’t show the Sardar Patel Ring Road completed in 2005. To convert the pdf map into a GIS-usable map you have to digitize the map. True, now you have to use on-screen digitization and not tracing paper and light table but then are we not going back to the copyright issue of the 1970s? Further, such digitization will result in hundreds of ‘digital’ maps of the same map sheet which was sought to be avoided in the Map Policy 2005 by making available authentic digital OSM maps. The Map Policy of 2005 remains unchanged. You need to sign a separate license for each possible use. Online browsing and ordering are still not available.

So my question to the Surveyor General is, “Sir, How do you expect a genuine user to get SoI maps easily? As you do not give DEM how can it be used for laying roads and railway tracks? As the maps are so backdated, how do you expect the user to make any sensible use of this product? In what way are these products competitive say with our desi MapMyIndia?”

In conclusion, my opinion is the Survey of India has not only missed the geospatial bus but also the Tonga and the bullock cart. To be competitive you have to move fast with the times and technology. In 2017 a plodding and reluctant pdf dribbling portal is as out of date as is the map policy.