By Ashi Mehta
At a time when India is taking bold steps to revive its economy through a series of reforms cutting across sectors, the importance of geospatial data and technology in this process cannot be overlooked. Geospatial data, which includes location information, is an integral part of the modern digital ecosystem. It is critical in order to unlock economic and social opportunities to sustain growth in India.
On 15 February 2021, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) released guidelines for acquiring and producing geospatial data and geospatial data services including maps (Guidelines). These Guidelines have been issued with the aim of liberalising the regulations in relation to the collection, acquisition and use of geospatial data. Geospatial data is positional data, with or without attribute data tagged, whether in the form of images, videos, vector, voxel and/or raster datasets or any other type of geospatial dataset in digitized or non-digitized form or web-services.
This blogpost shall discuss the history of map regulation in India, and the key reforms introduced by the Guidelines and their implications.
Moving Past India’s Anachronistic Map Regulations
The closest thing to a map regulation in India is the National Map Policy 2005 — a quasi-legislative document — and Customs Notification №118-Cus/F.№21/5/62-Cus.I/VIII dated 4 May 1963. These essentially spell out the prohibition on the export of maps of a scale larger than 1:250,000. Hence, till date, the restriction on the export of digital maps was based on a 1963 notification — well before such technologies even emerged as a possibility.
Today, highly accurate maps of India are available anywhere in the world. The only effect that restrictions such as these had was to prevent Indians from being able to take advantage of the benefits that high quality mapping provides. Regulatory restrictions on map creation meant that Indian companies that need to use location services for their business in India — whether it be e-commerce, logistics, transportation or delivery –all have to rely on mapping products produced and maintained by companies outside of India.
In 2016, the Government of India had prepared a draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill. It poorly conceptualised provisions for creating or publishing such data. It said that any person — not just companies — who produces geospatial data is required to apply for a licence or permission to publish that data. Anyone creating such data without the requisite permission was liable to a hefty fine (minimum of one crore rupees).
If enacted, the consequences of such a legislation would be potentially disastrous. Ordering food from a food delivery app or booking a cab involves creating the geospatial data which is displayed on the website/app as the delivery or pickup location. The provisions of the proposed Bill absurdly envisaged that a consumer applies and waits for a government licence for a basic everyday function.
A Radical Change in Indian Policy
The Guidelines which were announced last month replace our decades-old practices and policies with a set of forward-looking guidelines that, if implemented in the spirit in which they are written, stand to transform the sector.
Firstly, the Guidelines have done away with all requirements for prior approvals and security clearances. Map companies will be trusted to self-certify their compliance with Indian guidelines. It has also done away with the requirement for certain sensitive areas to be blacked out, stipulating instead that no map should identify or associate any place on a map with a list of prohibited attributes. This may significantly cut down on the burden on mapping companies who spend inordinate time and resources in applying and waiting for government approval for every map revision that they make.
Secondly, the Guidelines have also permitted the export of maps above specified threshold values (1 metre horizontal resolution and 3 metres vertical) and allowed their storage on the cloud. Maps of this resolution are sufficient for most purposes they are put to, today, including turn-by-turn navigation, logistics and delivery, and urban transport. By explicitly liberalising these regulations, the government has made legal all the apps on our phones that provide us any form of location-based services.
Thirdly, the Guidelines have liberalised the creation of maps at resolutions far finer than those currently being used in India. To this end, it has also explicitly permitted the use of advanced cartographic technologies such as terrestrial mobile mapping, drones and LiDAR, that are capable of creating high-resolution three-dimensional maps.
What Lies Ahead for India?
The poor state of location services in India– in industries such as logistics, manufacturing and emergency services — costs the country $10–14B annually (~0.5% of the total GDP). Regulatory easing will not just spur innovation in these sectors, but also enable entrepreneurs to work towards next-generation technologies such as autonomous vehicles and drones. Not just these industries — even academics had a difficult time obtaining such data for research purposes or applications. Rectifying these target issues will help Indian entities leapfrog into an established competitive global market and be able to deliver high quality products/services.
The Guidelines limits the use of these advanced mapping technologies to Indian owned or controlled companies, and limit the storage of maps created by these technologies to servers in India or a domestic cloud. Ostensibly protectionist in its approach, it now remains to be seen if these measures allow an Indian company like MapMyIndia to innovate and overtake an industry leader such as Google Maps. It also remains to be seen if such measures spur regulatory liberalisation in other heavily regulated sectors such as e-commerce and operating payments systems.
The author is an intern at the Esya Centre.