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“An available National GIS could have easily been the corner-stone for Digital India”

Jul 2015 | No Comment

Mukund Kadursrinivas Rao

Adjunct Faculty, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), India

Initiative on National GIS now has been a lost opportunity. Comment.

Good and sincere efforts (that too by so many professional experts) in the interest of the country can never be “lost”. Even now, as I gather, there are sincere and committed efforts that are being made for a nation-wide GIS. Actually, in my view, demand for a good, reliable and high-quality nation-wide GIS has never been more at any time than it is today. I am aware that departments are being motivated and persuaded to shed their “silo-turf” out-look and look broader at the interest of the nation; they are being persuaded to work in an aligned manner – I think at the top-level there is conviction that India cannot do without high-quality images and map services for its governance, growth and development. Bear in mind, GIS brings in an all-together new-type of integrated work-practice hitherto less practiced in India – integration not just of maps, data and images or hardware and software but foremost, multiple “silo” role-based agencies/departments have to change their work-practice and “align and integrate their tasks” and commit to work-together – that is extremely important and critical for getting a nation-wide GIS going and operational for perpetuity. For years now, departments and ministries have only worked in their own “silos” and have hardly realised that today’s governance and development need is to over-arch and integrate tasks and products with what other departments and users – crosscutting impacts are so many. For example, rural development decisions must take into consideration land ownership, urban infrastructure needs, demographics, weather etc; urban development cannot ignore needs of rural areas, movement of goods, amenities/facilities and so on. Thus, inter-dependency and alignment across departments is utmost essential today – one technology department cannot be all and end all for GIS in governance. I feel that this needs to be “inculcated” and in my view, this government is thinking on those lines and the process seems to have started – it is taking time – almost looks “lost opportunity” but, being an optimist, I believe that underneath the perception of what appears, a newstructure is emerging as a new foundation for integrated governance and use of GIS. I am confident because that is the only way-forward for the country – images and maps are becoming fundamental waydown tools in the hierarchy of the nation’s governance and meeting aspirations of citizens. In fact, anybody (or any department) who “resists” or “blocks” this “juggernaut” will be doing so at their own existential peril. I am sure that the key 4 or 5 important government departments for a nation-wide GIS are all thinking on same lines and are wise and pragmatic – they all want their individual department to “shine” but their aspirations can best be realised when they align to “national goals” and learn to work all together and not by pulling in different directions.

Had National GIS been place in now, it could have acted as a backbone to many of the recent government initiatives regarding e-governance, smart cities, Digital India, etc.

Yes, no doubt about it. Just imagine, the vision and programmatic details were all ready by end 2011 and today by 2015 the whole system would have been ready and fully operational – note this would have been the only such world system even in 2015. Had a nation-wide GIS been operational and available, then not just these initiatives that you mention but a whole host of governance could have started to get streamlined – based on ready-to-use GIS. Take, for example the 2013 Uttarakhand disaster or 2014 and 2015 J&K flood disaster and others – the real-time management of these disasters could have been easily supported by accessing a realtime, uptodate, scientific map and image database of realities of the ground-level.

Another major aspect where National GIS would have helped is mapping of public-funds utilisation on every “inch” of land – this is something we are trying out. If we can look at every village/ward of land in India and see what is the public fund expended over past 1-, 3-, 5- and 10- years and compare that with what is the aspiration/need/expectation of that village/ ward, we will see a disparate dynamics of development mapped out. And add population density to that, add water availability (or school education or health) – we would have got a very different perspective of our country in map form at village-ward level – this could have been major input to Smart City programme or rural development initiatives. An available National GIS could have easily been the corner-stone for Digital India (even now I think one element of Digital India frame can be a nation-wide GIS; it is so easy to make that element operational in a few months). Similarly, Smart-city selections and planning could have been lot easier – with scientific ward-wise data and landuse maps and city growth maps available from National GIS. Land Acquisition could have been supported by nation-wide GIS maps in a transparent manner. Changing crop production and assessment, mapping of crop-migration from normal agriculture crops to horticulture or floriculture that is happening in the country could be easily mapped and analysed – even impact of these changes on economic scenario at local-level and what is its long-term impact to economy could have been mapped out. Another major benefit could have been to launch farmer-advisories as a service – so that each farmer could have obtained real-time advisory for his farm/ cadastre – it would have helped farmers so much (and also provided major analytics for farmer suicides by doing a psycho-metric analysis of farmer’s land and economic scenario over time). We still do not know with precision whether our country is still having 140mha under agriculture – or has it shrunk or expanded – I feel these could have been real-time annually provided. Even for Jan Dhan Yojana, one could have got maps of all bank accounts linked to Aadhar and mapped out bank-transaction patterns or pension-claim patterns. All schools and colleges, hospitals and health centres, bridges, roads, banks, seed centres, agriculture yards, fertiliser centres, government offices, Post Offices etc could have all been mapped and visualised in map form for whole country. Such a detailed GIS System of System could have easily brought out the gaps and challenges of development in the country and a different perspective of poverty (nay, development) could have emerged for policy-makers. Just imagine, if all of these GIS analytics were available to Hon’ble PM and decision-makers – what a difference it would have made for them to make their policies and decisions – citizens would have benefited in a much more effective and meaningful manner.

Do you see any future for National GIS in current scenario?

Yes, I am very hopeful that the present government will take pragmatic steps. In fact, our Prime Minister is so tech-savvy and he is fully aware of the power of GIS and maps – I personally know the drive he gave to Gujarat to organise a statewide GIS and also ensured that it is best utilised. Gujarat has done it so well, so has Karnataka and few other states – there are also islands of GISs in few cities, panchayats – that is the way to go for the whole country. Actually, I am also seeing that states are getting much more active for State GISs and many of the states have taken leadership steps to provide a state-wide GIS for their own governance. Maybe in 2015, that is the model to work upon – motivate, support and enable State GISs and then a “smartly aggregated sum of these state GIS could automatically become a nation-wide GIS”. In fact, such a path may be easier because the pulls and tugs of the departments that is seen at centre has less impact at state level – so states can easily organise and own and use their GISs. At same time, there is another model that can happen – route of Indian private-sector organising and owning a nation-wide GIS and allowing users to pay-per-use model. We are seeing signs of that as some companies have already organised nation-wide GIS layers and provide LBS and other navigation services. And of course, there is this massive international effort of Google Maps and others – they are slowing getting the “teeth” of a GIS character and are most widely and easily used across our billions. So, to me, these are options – though, I personally would like an indigenous effort of National GIS fructifies because that will spur lots of jobs, “promotions” to many existing government scientists/ people and more importantly will strongly build a national capability in imaging, GIS and Information Systems – which is very weak in India, presently. But whatever the model, we must make a serious and committed effort – not a frivolous “I too can” or “I already have it” approach. I say this based on what we are hearing about some interesting “claims” in some corners – that in 80/120 crores National GIS can be achieved (or augmented to what “we have”) – good, I say, that is “peanut amount”. The nation should just go ahead and get National GIS established from the claimant but, yes, do make them fully accountable and responsible if it is not delivered. Some claims are there that “take my images, take their maps, top it with all other datayou- have” and, bingo, that is National GIS – maybe few 100s crores. Good, I say, ask the claimants to get going but make them accountable and responsible for non-delivery. To me, claims are for insurance companies – there is only one way according to me – please implement the well-thought out and largely-inclusive National GIS Vision of 2011 – it can only and only help and benefit the country. Will it be done – a 3000 crore question, I hear!!

Do you think that National GIS initiative should be realigned along with Digital India programme?

You know I have been hearing this for sometime. When arms of the government still squabble in silos (and mark turfs) and think so parochially, what option does the government of the day have than to re-position or re-christen or re-align and still achieve the goals of nation-wide GIS under a different nomenclature. But, as they say, a “good wine” is always a “good wine” and will remain that way. But now, with the Hon’ble PM bringing fresh breath and vigour to “national good” and wanting to “Make in India”, hopefully the restructuring could happen and could lead to good success for National GIS to become a driving force across the country and certainly across governance. I am hopeful and optimistic – the only thing I would say is do not reduce and marginalise the scope that has been defined in the National GIS vision. In whatever nomenclature, I am sure GIS will be a primary element of the nation’s good and if that means through Digital India (or any other nomenclature), so be it (but I would not like it to be a “East India Co” model of yore – that will not be good for the nation!!).

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