On February 15, the government announced a new set of guidelines deregulating the geospatial sector in India. “Our government has taken a decision that will provide a huge impetus to Digital India,” tweeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Liberalising policies governing the acquisition and production of geospatial data is a massive step in our vision for an Aatmanirbhar Bharat.”
Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) essentially collect and pool data on everything on the planet — be it objects or events — and tag them geographically using geospatial metadata (such as latitude and longitude coordinates, altitude, trajectory, etc.) so that they can be identified based on their exact locations. Managing the apps on your smart-phone, traffic lights, air travel, weather forecasting and the raging pandemic all depend on GIS for accuracy.
A robust GIS infrastructure is indispensable for a country’s social and economic growth, and it is not possible to think of any development activity without connecting it, in one way or another, to geospatial data. In India’s case, however, the lack of a sound GIS policy contradicted the country’s big power aspirations.
For a long time, successive governments believed in severely restricting the collection and usage of geospatial data: an overly cautious approach that had much to do with national security concerns. As a result, governmental agencies had exclusive access to such data, while private agencies were made to face an interminable wait for getting government clearances to tap into the GIS.
This created a dearth of data which hamstrung key development projects. So much so that the latest Countries Geospatial Readiness Index (CGRI) regional list for Asia Pacific shows India trailing China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
The new policy on deregulating geospatial data seeks to rectify this by overlooking atavistic security concerns so that private players can draw from the GIS grid without any hindrance to fast-track projects. In the new scheme of things, the Department of Science and Technology will act as a single point of contact for acquiring geospatial data. The policy also spells out new rules of the game for cartographic agencies such as Google and Apple Maps, restricting them to a one-metre accuracy mark. This levels the playing field for domestic companies whose home grown technologies will make foreign mapping services less relevant, if not downright redundant in the subcontinent.
Delhi-based Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation company MapMyIndia, for instance, had better maps than Google as far back as in 2004, but could not capitalise on it due to regulations. With the new guidelines, it has now reportedly signed a deal with ISRO to launch mapping portals, apps and geospatial services. The joint venture plans to develop ‘holistic geo-spatial solutions’ using technologies such as Earth observation datasets and Navigation with Indian Constellation, besides application programming interfaces (APIs) that foreign entities must share with Indian companies.
But overcoming the dearth of geospatial data by deregulating GIS brings in khaki-coloured concerns that all users may not correctly map sensitive areas such as borders. Currently, mapping land and underwater terrain within 25 kilometres of land borders or the sea coast is prohibited.
So the new policy will also have a ‘negative list’ of areas where the acquisition and use of geospatial data would remain regulated. At the same time, this reflects the strategy that at sea or in the air, an open GIS approach — with adequate safeguards specifying limits and ‘no-go’ zones — would benefit individual users as well as the requirements of the military.
The military uses GIS primarily as a force multiplier on the battlefield where information dominance is crucial. Intelligence agencies, defence planners and military commanders depend on GIS for analysing geospatial information to take swift decisions on the battlefield. The very concept of Command Control Communication Computers Intelligence Information (C4I2) is based on the availability of spatial information and GIS data is invaluable for augmenting command and control systems.
The Indian armed forces have used this to good effect time and again, drawing geospatial data from ISRO’s satellites for virtual reconnaissance to make tactical decisions. In fact, observers consider the Kargil War of 1999 as a turning point in India’s strategic thinking on military preparedness. At the height of that conflict, the United States refused to give Global Positioning System data to India which hammered home the importance of having an indigenous GIS independent of data from outside sources.
With space and cyberspace emerging as key dimensions of modern warfare, defence planners often turn to space agencies for developing and deploying military assets in space. As India reforms its geospatial sector, ISRO should become more actively involved in enabling the armed forces with frontier geospatial capabilities by providing state-of-the-art integrated platforms and sensors. It is an open secret that satellites launched expressly for civilian applications need only minor tuning to become dedicated military satellites.
The synthetic aperture radar of the Earth Observation Satellite launched by ISRO last year, for instance, captures images under all weather conditions, night and day. Although this is meant for gathering agricultural data and helping with disaster management, the technology could also offer outstanding capabilities for intelligence gathering on the borders.
If the new geospatial policy can tap this potential, it will be an excellent roadmap for India to ensure data sovereignty across civilian and defence domains.