A draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill that the government put out for public consultation last week can, in its present shape, find almost every smartphone user potentially in violation of its provisions. Yet, penalising everyone is clearly not the objective of the Bill which, without doubt, needs largescale revisions before it can be proposed as legislation in Parliament.
While there has been a pressing need to regulate the fast-growing geospatial sector that is finding an ever-increasing number of uses and users, the primary trigger for the Bill has been the need to restrain individuals and companies from misrepresenting India’s territorial integrity on maps, and to prevent them from circulating location details, and other geo-information, of sensitive installations related to national security. In practice, this comes down to ensuring that no part of Jammu and Kashmir or Arunachal Pradesh is shown to be disputed territory.
India has often faced the problem of foreign publications or global mapping utilities like Google Maps misrepresenting its international boundaries, and has dealt with the issue in different ways. Foreign magazines arriving in India would be stamped at airports with a message that maps in it were incorrect. In 2014, the Survey of India, the custodian of all information related to maps in India, filed a police complaint against Google Maps for incorrect depiction of India’s boundaries. A few years ago, the Economist was asked to place white stickers on a map that did not show all of J&K as Indian territory. Last year, the government blanked out Al Jazeera channel for five days for the same reason. BJP MP Tarun Vijay recently alleged in Parliament that some US agencies were using a wrong map of J&K, and demanded that the government take up the matter with the Americans.
Soft and arbitrary?
Despite such actions, India has often been seen as soft on those who do not take its national security concerns on board. Other countries take a tougher stand, it is said. Google Maps, for example, shows only a sketchy map of Israel. No buildings appear in the map, and only a few streets are visible. The White House in Washington is said to be at a location different from the one Google Maps shows. The US government regularly screens the information on such maps.
The Geospatial Information Regulation Bill is an attempt to crack down on such infringements in future, while removing the arbitrariness in the government’s actions. The harsh penalties that are proposed — a fine of up to Rs 100 crore and seven years’ imprisonment or both — are likely to act as a deterrent.
Larger GIS architecture
Although it has not been presented as such, the proposed Geospatial Information Regulation Bill is part of a bigger architecture the country is building to create and manage all geographic information and data more effectively. A few days before the draft Bill was put in the public domain seeking suggestions and comments, an expert committee had submitted a draft National Geospatial Policy (NGP) to the Ministry of Science and Technology for its consideration. The proposed policy seeks to empower people through the use of Geospatial Data, Products, Services and Solutions (GDPSS), and lay down principles governing the creation, management, access, sharing and dissemination of quality geospatial data for more tangible economic and social benefits.
Interestingly, while the draft Bill stresses that no one should be able to create, publish or disseminate geospatial data without obtaining a licence from the government, the proposed policy suggests that, in principle, such data, “of any resolution”, must be treated as “unclassified” and made available and accessible to all. Only some geospatial data, classified as “restricted access” information because of national security reasons, should require government authorisation. It also says that such data and information should be made available in human-readable as well as machine-readable formats.
The National Geospatial Policy too has been placed in the public domain for consultations and suggestions. Simultaneously, efforts are on to update the National Map Policy of 2005 to reflect changed realities. The Survey of India currently produces two kinds of maps — the classified Defence Series Maps whose use is regulated by the Defence Ministry, and the Open Series Maps accessible to everyone, which are used to support developmental and other activities.
One big problem with the Open Series Maps is their resolution. The Survey of India allows maps only in the scale of 1:1000000. Thus, 1 mm on a map represents 1 km on the ground. This is often not good enough for a number of uses for which maps are used these days. The geospatial industry often asks for maps in the scale of 1:5000 or 1:10000, in the absence of which they are forced to rely on satellite imagery. The updated map policy, when it comes, is likely to address these demands.
Deficiencies in the Bill
While the need to regulate the flow of geospatial information is not contested, the draft Bill does require major revisions in order to get anywhere close to becoming effective. In its current form, experts and operators in the industry point out, the Bill restrains everything unless a licence is obtained. Considering the nature of geospatial technology these days, and the ease of access to geo-information through common devices like mobile phones, a better way to regulate, they say, would be to allow everything except certain activities that are classified as restricted.
Also, if the objective is to prevent foreign organisations from misrepresenting Indian maps, the Bill does not say so explicitly. The Bill says the law would apply to the whole of India and to “citizens of India outside India”. It does not say whether, and how, foreign individuals or organisations, especially those not operating from India, could be made liable.
What has particularly spooked the industry is the fact that penalties have not been mapped to the seriousness of the offence. It has not been specified what kind of offence would attract the maximum penalty of Rs 100 crore or seven years’ imprisonment.