National Geospatial Policy, 2022: An urban perspective
A clear, methodical and scientific distinction needs to be drawn between land use and land cover, especially in the context of urban planning and development
The geospatial industry got another impetus from Government of India on 28th December 2022 in the form of National Geospatial Policy, 2022. The policy has been received well by the industry, especially the private sector. It has been lauded for enabling the promotion of digital economy, involving private enterprises, blue economy, and taking India forward to become a world leader in global geospatial space with the best ecosystem for innovation (Government of India, 2022).
The geospatial sector has grown from a largely government owned and enabled segment to increasingly privatized industry. It is pertinent to note that, the spatial data has been created at the base level by various government bodies like Survey of India (SoI), since before Independence.
As geospatial industry matured in the country and the role of information technology became more and more embedded in various segments of the economy, the importance of geospatial information came to be realized across the government hierarchies and sectors. The realization of data as infrastructure (Mahavir and Bedi, 2012) led to the opening up of the sector from times when data could only be bought from government authorities to the most recent de-regulation of geospatial sector in 2021 (Ministry of Science and Technology, 2021). It had been stated (Majumdar and Tavawalla, 2021) that some bottlenecks still needed to be addressed to ensure a more decentralized and democratic adoption.
The geospatial industry as it exists today can be broadly categorized into data creators, data builders, data providers, and data users. Organizations like Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and National Remote Sensing Center (NRSC) can be categorized as data creators, which use remote sensing technology to gather data. The output of these organizations, in form of satellite images and aerial photographs, is used across industries. To this, in recent years, the drone images have been added. Dominated by private sector, the use of drones and drones generated data has been facilitated by the recent Guidelines for acquiring and producing geospatial data and geospatial data services including maps, 2021 (Jayadevan, 2021). This has brought to the forefront a new method of highresolution spatial data creation specifically for smaller areas, anticipated to serve as an input for faster decision-making in urban infrastructure and development projects.
The data builders are organizations that build maps using surveying techniques, and more recently satellite images. Survey of India (SoI) has been the key organization in this arena providing toposheets at various scales. There are other organizations like National Atlas and Thematic Mapping Organisation (NATMO), National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning (NBSSLUP), and schemes like National Urban Information System (NUIS) that provide sectorbased value-addition to the base data, using either toposheets as the base or the images produced by data creators.
The data providers are all those organizations listed above that have been creating and building the spatial data. Traditionally, this has been done by SoI and other segment specific government bodies. In recent decades there have been attempts to aggregate this role into Spatial Data Infrastructure organizations at national and state levels like National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), Delhi State Spatial Data Infrastructure (DSSDI) and National Urban Information System (NUIS).
The last category is that of data users, consisting of government bodies, academia and research organizations, NGOs, and private organizations across industries. The data creators, builders, and providers till recent years have been solely government bodies. The role of private organizations and consultants until the recent years has been limited to sub-contracted projects and spatial and/or non-spatial surveys or those organizations that have provided technology in form of hardware and software to various data creators, builders, providers as well as users.
As stated, the role of private enterprise in mapping sector commenced in the allied field of surveying which largely became inputs to updating base maps. With advancements in information technology, private sector led another ancillary segment of the mapping industry, namely, the software and hardware, an industry that emerged and gradually branched into training and application development on the respective proprietary software platforms. In time, these private companies ventured into providing consulting services (using proprietary software) to government organizations. This came to fore with the realization that toposheets required updates using surveying techniques and/ or derived inputs from then aerial photographs and later satellite images. This became an important step in keeping data updated specially as most updated data was a vital input in plan making and led to speedier map/ plan production. At each of these stages, the capacity of government authorities was not substantially upskilled, increasing the dependencies on the private enterprises.
Building of spatial data by the private organizations using Survey of India toposheets for numerous urban planning and development projects came into foray at a much later stage wherein the images for updates were required to be procured from government agencies, namely data creators. This saw numerous consultants and private organizations foray into the business of digitization and updating the base data of Survey of India using satellite images.
In the geospatial industry, since early stages, international, proprietary and privately developed software has dominated the geospatial data and software development segment (Sardana, 2022 and FICCI, undated). The software have developed from standalone versions to client/ server architecture to on-thecloud versions, where both the data and software may reside in some remote server, maybe outside the country, which brings the question of security to the fore. The recent de-regulations in the geospatial industry to involve the private sector to the stated extent actuates to willingly giving away the data, keeping nearly nothing secure, concern that has been voice by others in the industry as well (Katoch, 2023 and Ajaykumar, 2022).
In the past few months since the release of the National Geospatial Policy, much has been written in terms of its benefits and has been welcomed especially by the private sector (Siddiqui, 2022 and Geospatial World, 2023). The elimination of the requirement of seeking permissions and even scrutiny has been much welcomed. The Policy states that companies can self-attest, confirming to government guidelines without actually having to be monitored by a government agency (Government of India, 2022).
The Policy limits the role of Survey of India being “generation and maintenance of minimal foundational data and core functions”, “maintaining geodetic reference frame, orthoimagery, elevation, functional areas and geographical names… collaboration with…private sector”. The Policy encourages the “ministries to engage with private sector…for creation and development of geospatial data”. The Policy further states that Survey of India would be transformed into a fully civilian organization. The role of the private sector is emphasised in the Policy in playing a “key role in creation and maintenance of geospatial and mapping infrastructures, innovation and process improvements and monetization of geospatial data”. Diminishing the role of Survey of India and increasing the role of private enterprises will have a far-reaching impact on the security of the country.
Many parallels can be drawn between the trajectory that the emerging geospatial industry is taking and that of the urban planning and development sector of the country. It has been stated in numerous instances that the delay in completion of the development plans had always been due to no data or long time taken in creating and updating the data. This process initially consisted of conducting surveys followed by updating base map keeping SoI toposheets as the bases, which though have been accurate but, in many instances, outdated. Later, after the availability of satellite images for public use, lengthy processes in securing permissions from Ministry of Defence to obtain these images was cited at the cause for delays in updating maps. Data constitutes a major and vital aspect of any development plan. In the recent years, under various missions, these plans, especially for small and medium towns, have been prepared in under 4 to 6 months. The speed up has surely been due to easier availability of satellite data either from government or private agencies to update the base data. NUIS has been an endeavour to bridge this data gap, by creating a national level urban information system, which is a unique concept worldwide (Bedi and Mahavir, 2013). In recent times, projects have been based on private data sources that may not have been as accurate as the SoI toposheets.
Under the situation, the quality of data and analysis needs a thorough review. The plans in many instances have emerged to being replicas amongst a bunch of cities. The role of the state and local authorities being limited to accepting and approving the plans prepared by the private organisations rather than being involved in the preparation of the plan. Last 20-25 years have seen this trend of sub-contracting the task of preparation of development, infrastructure, and related plans to private agencies to complete the task in tight deadlines. The privatized and hasty plan preparations may have indirectly landed us in situations of waterlogging and flooding of the urban areas every monsoon, unwanted sprawl, extreme densities, poor sanitation, and other vagaries of privately planned and developed urban India.
On the other hand, the urban planning field has grown from a stage where plans were made only for large metropolitan cities to have the plans for small and medium towns. This has been achieved due to Government of India schemes as AMRUT and the trainings and hand holding sessions held for building the capacity of planners in various government authorities at local levels with the involvement of Town and Country Planning Organisation (TCPO), Survey of India and NSRC (Mahavir, Surendra and Khan, 2020).
The Policy states the use of very high-resolution satellite images (5-10 cm resolution) for urban areas. Is this really a requirement for preparing a development plan or a neighborhood plan or an infrastructure plan? Would emphasis on excessive data lead to making of good plans and good implementation? A clear, methodical and scientific distinction needs to be drawn between land use and land cover, especially in the context of urban planning and development. It needs to be understood that data and maps are one part of plan making, in which the resolution and granularity of data is important. Excessive detail in data would lead to unnecessary distractions and deviations. Plan making is integration of multifaceted concepts of space, environment, socio-cultural and economic conditions that lead to a plan for the future of an area. The Policy talks about National Digital Twins of major cities and towns, with no reference to City Digital Twins in the context of Smart Cities Mission or 4IR.
Urban India is projected to house 40 percent of country’s population by 2030 (United Nations, 2019). The key bodies of urban planning and development at the national level, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) and its advisory, Town and Country Planning Organisation (TCPO), have no representation in the National Geospatial Policy, 2022. The role of MoHUA seems limited to providing of certain layers including addresses, some of which may not be in their direct domain. On the contrary, one of the leading planning schools should be a Centre of Excellence in the field of application of geospatial technologies in planning.
Till the time spatial data was created using non-digital techniques or manual methods, this sector was completely owned and run by the government. With gradual digitalization of the methods of creating data, the role of private sector has substantially increased. When the methods of creating maps was manual, the tools, like surveying instruments, printers, and ancillary hardware to create the maps was provided by private sector, but the key task of creating the map remained in the government domain. In these modern times, the tools for creating the maps (software and hardware) are still being provided by the private sector, then why is the task of creating maps being contracted out to the private organizations? Is there a learning here, to keep the core data building activity in the domain of the government totally?
Instances can be drawn from World over, where data creation and building at national level is the sole responsibility of the government, as illustrated in the table below:
A lacuna had got created due to the slower pace of capacity enhancement and training of planners with the various government agencies at state and local levels. With the help of the national level missions, the gap has been reduced. However, much still needs to be done at a continuous and ongoing mode in building and enhancing the capacity of the planners across the hierarchy to keep their technology skills relevant in the rapidly evolving technological environment. This is essential to enable the planners to handle the new and emerging technologies and concepts in plan-making. This will in time negate the need for hiring international experts in project management for urban planning and infrastructure development projects.
It needs to be mentioned that the geospatial industry has largely grown from the needs of data and allied services in primarily the defence, urban and infrastructure segment and subcontracting of government tasks is a similitude between the urban planning/ development and geospatial industries.
At this juncture of geospatial industry’s growth in the country, it is pertinent that the Survey of India be revitalized. The dilution of its role that is stated in the policy by involvement of private sector in data creation needs to be seriously addressed, which at least in the geospatial industry is now being dominated by the international brands. The emerging trajectory appears to be similar to what has happened in the field of urban planning and development. To take an analogy, the urban sector has been by and by privatized through various schemes and missions, the execution of which was thought to be in excess of the capabilities of the urban planning and management authorities of government. The tasks that are the core of an urban planning professional as preparation of the development plans have been gradually sub-contracted to the private agencies – international and national. Similarly, the project management consultancy of most missions and schemes have been contracted to intranational big brands.
The question that needs to be addressed is why at each stage, government agencies have not been amply strengthened and enhanced in their capacities to address the inadequacies that have arisen out of the rapidly evolving technological domain.
Government of India, 2022, National Geospatial Policy, 2022, The Gazette of India, Extraordinary, Part-II Section-3 Sub-Section-(ii), New Delhi, December 28, 2022.
Mahavir and Bedi, P., 2012, ‘A Case for financing the ‘data’ as part of infrastructure’, Coordinates, accessed at https://mycoordinates.org/a-case-forfinancing-the-data%E2%80%99-aspart-of-infrastructure/ on 11 Feb 2023.
Ministry of Science and Technology, 2021, ‘Guidelines for acquiring and producing Geospatial Data and Geospatial Data Services including Maps’, accessed at https://dst.gov. in/news/guidelines-acquiring-andproducing-geospatial-data-and-geospatial-data-services-includingmaps on 12 February 2023.
Majumdar Anuruddha and Tavawalla, Huzefa, 2021, ‘Maps and Geospatial Data in India–Regime Liberalized’, accessed at https://www.natlawreview.com/article/ maps-and-geospatial-data-india-regimeliberalized on 10 February 2023.
Jayadevan, Poojitha, 2021, ‘What India’s geospatial data liberalization means for mapping innovators’, accessed at https:// www.cio.com/article/191433/what-indias-geospatial-data-liberalization-means-formapping-innovators.html on 10 Feb, 2023.
Sardana, M. M. K. ‘An overview of geospatial industry in India’, accessed at https://isid.org.in/wpcontent/uploads/2022/09/DN1804. pdf on 16 February 2023.
FICCI (Undated), ‘Overview: Geospatial Technologies Sector Profile’, accessed at https://ficci.in/sector/85/Project_ docs/Sector-Profile-Geospatial Technologies.pdf on 16 February 2023.
Katoch, Prakash (Lt. Gen.), 2023, ‘National Geospatial Policy of Inia needs serious review’, accessed at https:// news4masses.com/national-geospatial policy-india/ on 01 February 2023.
Ajaykumar, Shravishtha, 2022, ‘The importance of geospatial data in national security’, accessed at https:// www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/ the-importance-of-geospatial-data-innational-security/ on 09 February 2023.
Siddiqui, Huma, 2023, ‘National Geospatial Policy 2022: Expert anticipates scope for potential data violation’, accessed at https://www. financialexpress.com/defence/nationalgeospatial-policy-2022-expertanticipates-scope-for-potential-data-violation/2936736/ on 11 February 2023.
Geospatial World, 2023, ‘Geospatial Policy 2022: what the industry leaders feel’, accessed at https:// www.geospatialworld.net/prime/ geospatial-policy-2022-what-industry-leaders-feel/ on 10 February 2023.
Bedi, P., and Mahavir, 2013, ‘Indian National Urban Information Systems as Urban Planning Decision Making Tool’, paper presented at Geospatial World Forum 2013, Rotterdam.
Mahavir, Surendra, S. and Khan, Mohd. Monis, 2020, ‘UAV technology for formulation of GIS based master plans for small and medium towns’ Coordinates, accessed at https://mycoordinates.org/ uav-technology-for-formulation-of-gis-based-master-plans-for-small-andmedium-towns/ on 10 February 2023.
United Nations, 2019, ‘World Urbanization Prospects, The 2018 Revision’, accessed at https://population. un.org/wup/publications/Files/WUP2018- Report.pdf on 28 February 2023.
Wikipedia.com, 2016, ‘National mapping agency’ accessed at https:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_ mapping_agency#:~:text=A%20 national%20mapping%20agency%20 is,also%20deal%20with%20cadastral%20 matters. On 15 February 2023