New Geospatial Bill Raises Questions on Private Industry Use, Academic Research and Digital India

India does need a Geospatial Information Act, just not a regressive and punitive one.

Solar Resource Map of India. Credit: Wikipedia.

Solar Resource Map of India. Credit: Wikipedia.

The Ministry of Home Affairs, last week, surprised the various stakeholders of the geospatial data industry with a document titled “The Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016”.

Its preamble starts thus: “A Bill to regulate the acquisition, dissemination, publication and distribution of geospatial information of India which is likely to affect the security, sovereignty and integrity of India and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto…”

What are these heinous crimes which might affect “the security, sovereignty and integrity of India”? As it turns out, anything between “possession of geospatial data without the permission of the Security Vetting Authority” to “disseminating, publishing or distribution or visualising any geospatial information of India through Internet platforms or online services…without the general or special permission of the Security Vetting Authority.”

Persons and geospatial data

Two important definitions are in order, viz. ‘person’ and ‘geospatial data’. According to the bill a person is “an individual, a company, a firm, a trust, an association of persons or a body of individuals, whether incorporated or not, every artificial juridical person, not falling within any of the preceding sub-clauses, and any agency, office or branch owned or controlled by any of the above persons mentioned in the preceding sub-clauses.”

The proposed bill defines geospatial information as “geospatial imagery or data acquired through space or aerial platforms such as satellite, aircrafts, airships, balloons, unmanned aerial vehicles including value addition; or graphical or digital data depicting natural or man-made physical features, phenomenon or boundaries of the earth or any information related thereto including surveys, charts, maps, terrestrial photos referenced to a co-ordinate system and having attributes.”

However, the Central Government excludes itself and state governments from this draconian regulation by stating that, “The Central Government may, by notification in Official Gazette, exempt the Ministries, Departments, Public Sector Enterprises or any other attached or subordinate offices of the Central Government or State Governments from the provisions of this Act to the extent it deems fit.”

Private industry, academia and the common person

So where does it leave private industry, academia and the common person? Consider possession of geospatial data. The definition is so wide that it includes everything from satellite imagery, to atlases, books, magazines, car navigation systems and GPS-enabled devices like cameras, smartphones and tablets.

Does the bill envisage the licensing of all these items for ‘persons’ as defined in the act? What about navigation services? Will car manufacturers need to obtain a licence from the SVA? Will individuals using these services also need a licence from the SVA? What about Google Maps on smartphones and tablets? Will this be banned or licensed?

On similar lines, subscriptions to foreign geospatial magazines and journals such as National Geographic and IEE Transactions in Geosciences will also potentially come under the scanner. Will these subscriptions be licensed? What will happen if the map of India in these publications depict the politically sensitive regions of Jammu and Kashmir wrongly? Will the subscriber be liable or will the issue be confiscated? Will this make the subscriber an offender by violating the conditions of the map licence?

Next consider the issue of dissemination and publishing which is forbidden in physical and electronic forms. Will a person have to go through the SVA before submitting a paper to a geospatial journal about some research work conducted by him/her on India? If the paper is accepted and put up on the journal’s website will the researcher be liable? What about publication by an Indian researcher working on an Indian problem in a foreign university?

Bhuvan is presumably exempt as it is an effort by a Central Government Department but can researchers download and use Bhuvan data or will they have to be licensed first?

Consider the bit about wrong topographic information and wrong international boundaries. Will Survey of India which is the sole authority on both these issues make available the authentic information at all scales from I:40M (atlases) to 1:4000 (city maps) for ‘persons’ to use after they have been duly licensed?

Disposal of data by unlicensed persons

On the matter of ‘people’ already in possession of geospatial data, sub-section (4) of the bill says “No person shall continue possession of geospatial information of India, after rejection of the application by the Security Vetting Authority under sub-section (3) above or after dismissal of appeal, if any, by the Appellate Authority or the High Court or the Supreme Court, as the case may be, whichever is later.”

Now, the interesting part is what happens if an agency’s application is rejected. To which agency should the data be handed over? In the old map policy, the paper maps had to be burnt. How do you burn digital data? Media can be destroyed but what about data stored in the Cloud? What about ephemeral data like the map temporarily downloaded from Google or Bing onto a smartphone or a tablet?

The problem of enforcement

To enforce this bill the government plans to set up four bodies, namely the Apex Committee, the Security Vetting Authority (SVA), an Enforcement Authority and an Appellate Authority. The Apex Committee will make regulations, decide on fees and oversee the entire process of implementation. The committee may delegate some of its responsibilities but not the regulation-making power. Considering the number of issues raised in this piece, which is really just the tip of the iceberg, the work of the Apex Committee will be cut out to last several years.

The work of the SVA has been made clear. It is a three member committee headed by a bureaucrat (Joint Secretary or above), a technical expert and a security expert. The SVA too can delegate most of its responsibilities except its power to grant licences. Here too, the work of the SVA will be overwhelming given the breadth of the definition of geospatial data and the wide net of ‘persons’. It is expected that the Enforcement Authority which has policing powers, will generate ample ‘rent-seeking’ opportunities while the Appellate Authority will also not exactly remain idle because refusal of licence will not be easily swallowed by bonafide users.

Impact on government programmes

What is the impact of this proposed bill on some of the government’s flagship programmes? Clearly, the Ministry of Home Affairs, which floated this bill, is out of step with the Prime Minister Narendra Modi when it comes to geospatial matters. On the one hand the PM lays great stress on the use of geospatial technologies for rapid development. He personally oversaw a major thrust on the use of space technologies for development which resulted in the identification of 160 projects across government departments. The flagship projects of the government such as Amrut, Smart Cities, Housing for All, Clean Ganga, PMKSY and Digital India place a great deal of emphasis on the industry taking up much of the work.  With this proposed bill there will have to be a licensing of these industries and the personnel working on these projects. In the end there will be project reports which will have to be vetted by the SVC. These reports will then need to be made available to the implementing agencies. Here too, the private industry will play a major role in manning  back-office operations, therefore there will again be a need to licence these operating personnel who will need to access the reports.

This now adds another link to the data acquisition process. Say a company is contracted to work on the Smart Cities project which will need high resolution data. Not only will it have to go through the High Resolution Committee (HRC) as per the Remote Sensing Policy but will have to get a pre-approval from the SVA to approach NRSC for approaching the HRC. Assuming the company plays it safe and orders one metre data, it will still have to be cleared by the SVC. This is hardly the “ease of doing business” that was promised.

Will the scientists in the government and in industry working on these projects now have to carefully vet each application lest they err and are subject to, as per Chapter 1, Section 1: “(Sub-section 3) Every person shall be liable to punishment under this Act for every act or omission contrary to the provisions thereof, of which he is held guilty in India.”

One can only guess what this will do to schedules and to the morale of the staff.

Impact on Digital India

While the proposed bill puts a blanket ban on dissemination of geospatial information by electronic means and specifically the Internet, has its impact on Digital India been assessed? According to Ajay Kumar, Additional Secretary, Department of Electronics and Information Technology, “Geospatial and GIS will be the software tools that will enable us to see things in a spatial perspective, giving insights which textual data cannot give. There are certain aspects of information which are very, very amenable to spatial representation. There is a need to represent these on a GIS platform, so that better decisions can be made. Wherever there is a room for GIS-based application, geospatial technologies will add to the whole work cycle. We are making a conscious effort to introduce GIS in our e-Governance applications and Mission Mode projects in a big way”.

Impact on Skill India and Make in India

Skill India seeks to impart practical skills to youth to enable them to become employable. Make in India seeks to turn job seekers into entrepreneurs who in turn can create jobs. In effect, teach persons how to fish rather than giving them fish. With this draconian bill, what are the chances of youth learning geospatial skills and further how many budding entrepreneurs will dare to dream of launching a start-up that revolves around geospatial data?

This proposed bill needs to be dropped. In its attempt to cover all bases it has been made so broad and all-encompassing that it may actually impede the progress of work on geospatial systems and therefore on key government programmes and projects. The bill does not take into account the fact that with the advent of the cloud, data as a service, software as a service and platform as a service there is no need for ‘persons’ to possess data. They can just access data, do their work and retain only the final results. This bill does not, in fact cannot, even begin to comprehend the paradigm shift in geospatial technologies which makes it a non-starter.

India does need a Geospatial Information Act, but it needs to be an encouraging and enabling piece of regulation that makes for faster and better implementation of programmes. What it does not need is a regressive and punitive bill that will hold the country and industry back.

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.