India’s Draft Geospatial Bill
If any of our map regulations are strictly enforced, many of the conveniences we have come to take for granted will vanish.
I’ve been quite amused to listen to the raucous chorus of dissent that has accompanied the publication of the draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill. Yet, despite the gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts, there isn’t much in the Geospatial bill that is new. The requirement for all newly acquired map information to be vetted by a security agency is a reality Indian map companies made their uneasy peace with over a decade ago — they regularly submit upgrades to their map dataset to the ministry of defence before releasing them to their consumers.
The requirement for a license to operate will be a minor adjustment as most map-making companies already operate under one of the five licenses set out in the National Map Policy, 2005. It has always been illegal to publish a map that wrongly depicts the Indian national boundaries — The Economist learned this the hard way more than once. And as for the restriction on using of Indian geospatial information outside the country — well that’s been in the statute books since the time of the British.
Indian map regulations can trace their origins to a time when making maps was the sole preserve of the Survey of India (SOI). In those days, maps were drawn on the Everest Spheroid, a reference surface that Sir George Everest determined, in 1830, and that most accurately corresponds to the physical surface of the Earth covered by India. Everest Spheroid maps offered the most cartographically accurate distance between two places in India and since the Spheroid was offset from the geographical centre of the earth, without the benefit of this reference framework, any other map of India could be inaccurate by as much as a kilometre.
SOI maps represented a valuable tactical advantage that the defence establishment felt it was obliged to protect — which is why Indian map regulations have historically contained stringent restrictions on their use — in particular a prohibition on carrying these maps outside the territory of India.
While that explanation may have made sense all the way up to the ’70s, there is literally no tactical advantage in preserving country-specific geodetic reference points today. Ever since the US Department of Defence developed the World Geodetic System (WGS-84), to serve as the reference framework for the modern Global Positioning System (GPS), mapping agencies around the world adapted their map data sets to this common global standard. Why the Indian government wants to continue to preserve a set of regulatory restrictions that were designed to apply in the context of maps made to an archaic frame of reference is inexplicable. As is the government’s insistence on applying restrictions intended to control the movement of physical paper maps across national borders, to flows of data across the Internet.
Yet, despite this anachronistic regulatory environment, we have, over the past 4–5 years, witnessed something of a renaissance in map-based services in India. We’ve come to rely on our phones for turn-by-turn navigation and live traffic updates and services such as Uber and Swiggy that tap into the navigation ecosystem, offer a variety of value-added services that are an integral part of our lives. So how did all this come to pass in spite of our country’s stringent map regulations?
In over two decades of advising map companies in India, it has been my experience that, when approached for clarifications, the government has consistently stood by the letter of the regulations, intractably applying the strictest possible interpretation to its provisions. Yet, when it comes to enforcement, it’s been remarkably reticent to punish transgressions, even when the evidence of the contraventions are obvious. It is thanks to this outwardly strict but practically benevolent approach that our map ecosystem has flourished and location-based services developed to the extent that they have.
I am not surprised by any of the provisions in the draft Geospatial bill. Disappointed perhaps, but not surprised. Yes, the fines are steep and, arguably, the punishments far exceed the crime, but these regulations are not new and so long as the government adopts the same laissez faire approach to enforcement we should be good.
What does concern me is the belligerent manner in which the government is defending the bill. If this aggression is indicative of the manner in which they intend to enforce the law, we are going to have to brace ourselves for an uncomfortable new reality. Because, let’s face it, if any of our map regulations, present or future, are strictly enforced, many of the conveniences and comforts that we have come to take for granted won’t be there. We’ve always known it could happen some day, but it is a shame that after decades of looking the other way, the government suddenly seems keen to pull the rug under our feet.
This article was first published in The Mint.