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Too late and too little

While visiting the newly-built headquarters of one of the leading geospatial companies in Denver last week, I could feel the contrast between possibilities and limitations. I got to know that the building was built using the advanced geospatial tools ranging from surveying, laser scanning, machine control to building information modelling (BIM), which resulted not only in efficiency in construction process saving time and cost, but also offered an enterprise wide information with regard to the assets and facilities of the building for maintenance and safety functions. In contrast, an invitee of the company was denied visa to visit their facilities by US Mission because as per their geospatial information system, there was no building at this specific address. As it happens, the question is how frequently geospatial information system is being updated and shared across different organisations.

Having been working as an advocate/activist/evangelist for promoting geospatial tools across the world for almost two decades, I feel very limited and constrained about this ‘too little too late’ approach with regard to harnessing and utilising the value of geospatial information and tools. Despite having gone through the entire process of commoditisation and industrialisation via initiatives like Google Earth and Bing Maps, spatial enablement of industrial work-flow in the field of engineering and construction, mechanisation of agriculture, management of emergency services, and of course critical utility in defence and national security, geospatial technology gets attention too late in enterprises and governments and often too little effort is made to create high quality frequently updated geospatial information. It’s not that there haven’t been successful implementations at all. Over the last few decades, integration and convergence has led to geospatial embedment in several areas of governance and business processes. However, it still remains highly under-valued and under-utilised technology vis-a-vis its potential and offerings.

Developing countries which need geospatial tools and information more than others, do have the potential to take leap frog steps of being second, third or fourth mover advantage. However, it seems due to lack of political attention, administrative priorities and probably vested interests of existing research and industrial institutions, it’s becoming much more challenging for geospatial community to think forward and contribute towards overall national development. For instance, the Government of India under the visionary leadership of Dr. K Kasturirangan initiated two very important programmes known as National GIS and National Centre for Geospatial Knowledge, which could have provided necessary boost to overall geospatial capabilities and utilisation for national development, couldn’t see the light of the day. National GIS — a project with about an estimated value of Rs 3000 crore was aimed at providing a national geospatial platform offering updated maps of 1:10,000 scale for various applications across different government departments and probably for citizens as well. This was substantiated by another parallel but connected initiative of developing infrastructure for high quality research, education and training centre through the Ministry of Human Resources Development with an estimated value of Rs. 2000 crores. (Refer to PDF -https://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/RportNTFGE2013_0.pdf)

Recently, when the Prime Minister outlined his mega plan for transport infrastructure, energy, smart city development, rural infrastructure, and industrialisation, such a national geospatial information infrastructure could have been very useful information base to make a quick start. Do we think that we can achieve such national programmes of worth several thousands of crores without having necessary high quality and updated geospatial information? It’s next to impossible to even start planning such large projects without highly accurate and updated geospatial information, let alone implementation and monitoring the progress. We may end up in collecting critical geospatial information through set of different sources for different national projects and without ensuring coordination and quality, ultimately leading to somewhat greater degree of inefficiency and wastage and of course delays costing multiplying losses.

What were the reasons which made such noble initiative failed to take-off and deprived the nation from an appropriate base for building geospatial infrastructure and capacity for the development of India? Was it the cost of investments of Rs. 5000 crore? I don’t think so otherwise a visionary like Dr Kasturirangan and host of other bureaucrats through the Committee of Secretaries wouldn’t have approved the National GIS project at its first stage itself. It’s been almost five years of journey for the earlier government to get through the process of consultations, coordination, and consensus building, but why the previous government couldn’t get this important project through despite the best of their intentions. Why this project was delayed and delayed so many times to be at the mercy of the last few days of previous government. And moreover what made the two major stakeholders of geospatial information i.e., the Department of Space (DOS) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST) to take contradictory views/positions only during the last days of the previous government? Why did they agree initially on the overall design and structure of National GIS, and worked together to delay the process and finally took opposite stands only during the last days of the previous government, which of course put the matter on pause forever?

According to sources, initial delay was caused due to non-agreement on the individual who would be leading this project and instead of solving that issue through dialogue, it was found much easier to delay the overall process. Is one individual so important to deprive the nation from such an important project? Later on, only after approval through Committee of Secretaries and Expenditure and Finance Committee, Department of Space realised that they already have sufficient knowledge base and infrastructure to deliver the desired outcomes of National GIS through existing programme of NNRMS. I have my own doubts because if NNRMS was equipped to deliver the same outcomes, Dr Kasturirangan, who has been a renowned space scientist and who has provided leadership to NNRMS wouldn’t have initiated National GIS at all. It seems that vested interests of protecting legacies and controlling the domain of geospatial knowledge has been seen as major priority for respective departments instead of synergising, converging and working together for national development.

With a forward looking national government in place under the leadership of Shri Narendra Modi who is a believer in the value of geospatial information and technology, I only hope the virtues and purpose of strengthening geospatial infrastructure and capacity of India will prevail and the nation would benefit from the immense value and utilisation of geospatial tools in the overall development of the country.