Survey of India Has Failed to Enter the Era of Digital Mapping

From 1970 to 2017, decisions by the government’s mapping agency have resulted in it not only missing the geospatial bus, but also the tonga and bullock cart.

The Survey of India's new Nakshe portal. Credit: The Wire

The Survey of India’s new Nakshe portal. Credit: The Wire

It is great to learn that Survey of India (SoI), the country’s principal mapping agency, is fast moving towards digitisation and use of modern technologies like drone surveying. 

In the past 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 mind.

But as the past and present show us, this simply isn’t enough.  

The past

In the early 1970s, ISRO was busy with the SITE project and needed maps to locate villages. We were directed to the SoI 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 the various unrestricted and restricted maps of the SoI.

From 1976-77, ISRO was developing its remote sensing program using Landsat imagery and aerial photographs. Maps were needed to orient imagery for further interpretation.These were traced from Survey of India topographic maps. Now, getting these maps were a bureaucratic exercise in 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 an extraordinary amount of 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 despite 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! Realising that technology had overtaken ancient rules, a committee was set up which decided that eight government agencies and SoI would be authorised to digitise maps. However, the restricted maps would only be digitised by the Survey of India. 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, somebody realised that having nine agencies digitising 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 digitisation 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 about 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 in which each state capital, district headquarters and taluka headquarters accurately positioned. The product came with a price tag off Rs 30,000 and it took the better part of two years to get the data.

Open series maps phase

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’ (VA) and ‘vital bases’ (VB) 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 Rs 5,000 and multiple-use licenses for Rs 15,000. 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 digitisation 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, digitised 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.

Nakshe, Aadhaar and the present

Has the situation changed? Well, today we have Nakshe, which allows you to download PDF maps. Each time, however, you have go through the process of 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 digitise the map. True, now you have to use on-screen digitisation and not tracing paper and light tables, but then are we not going back to the copyright issue of the 1970s? Further, such digitisation will result in hundreds of ‘digital’ maps of the same map sheet which was sought to be avoided in the 2005 map policy by making available authentic digital OSM maps. The 2005 policy remains unchanged otherwise. 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: 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 SoI 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.

The author is former Deputy Director, Satcom and IT Applications, SAC- ISRO. He is currently the Managing Editor of Geospatial World.

A version of this article was originally published by Geospatial World.

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