What do the new Geospatial guidelines have for Spatial planners?
While there are many positives that will accrue from the changes brought about by the Guidelines, there are some aspects about which the Planners will need to be concerned about
Planners have been using maps for making plans and for its implementation. With the emergence of the field of geospatial industry there has been increasing dependence for various planning tasks. Over the past few decades, changes in the policies and guidelines have impacted the work of the planners. The authors have here attempted to analyse the New Geospatial Guidelines from the perspective of Spatial Planners.
What do planners’ do?
Planners’ prime role is to plan the towns, cities, and the areas in the immediate vicinity of the urban centers. Their key deliverable being development plans, popularly known as master plans. One of the first steps in any planning activity is surveying and mapping of the existing conditions. Initially, these activities had been taken up by the authorities themselves involving long hours of data collection in the field using various traditional surveying techniques and collation of same on the drafting table. Some efforts were made to use the then latest available technology of aerial photography and photogrammetry to map some towns. The process of obtaining the aerial photographs involved special approvals from concerned ministries involving time and laborious procedure. These and related activities involved large time periods, significant investments, specific hardware and software and skilled professionals.
With the ease in availability of computers, some tasks began to be done using semiautomated processes. This process largely consisted of digitization and vectorization of various data layers leading to the reduction in the time for creation of the data which had primarily consisted of drafting of the existing and proposed land use maps. Over the decades, efforts were put in by some city authorities towards creation of the spatial data using the available CAD and GIS technologies (Bedi, 2016). The deliverables till now were limited to drafting the maps using these technologies instead of by hand. Use of the GIS technology in analysis and application was still far in between like better enforcement and collection of property tax in Mirzapur (Gibbons, 2010) and billing (and prevention of theft) of utilities like water, electricity, piped gas was the earliest examples.
What Geospatial industry has been offering to planners?
The advancement in information systems and technology saw initiatives being made towards using GIS software for not mere data creation and generating colorful maps, but for its more intense use like in municipal services applications. Various government led missions and schemes were launched like National Spatial Database Infrastructure (NSDI) and National Urban Information Systems (NUIS). Under these, guidelines and standards were set up for creation and use of data and applications. Agencies and organisations like Survey of India, National Atlas and Thematic Mapping Organisation (NATMO) and National Remote Sensing Centre (NSRC) have been undertaking the ongoing gargantuan task of mapping the country and adapting to the changes in the technology. The availability of satellite images through national (BHUVAN) and international (Google Earth and likes) platforms to the academicians, researchers, and industry professionals, brought some level of ease in the work of Planners. The mapping tasks that were solely dependent on physical surveys, could be more easily accomplished using the satellite images and aerial photographs. Though access to these geospatial products was limited largely to government organisations and even these required special approvals. Overtime, access to the maps and data produced by these organisations became fraught with delays due to long wait for approvals from the involved government departments.
National Map Policy of 2005 was the first step towards easing the access to spatial data without compromising on the national security. Remote Sensing Data Policy, 2011 removed the restrictions on all satellite remote sensing data up to one meter resolution. During the last decade, government has come up with various policies and draft bills on data sharing, geospatial information, and drones in order to streamline the fastgrowing geospatial industry. In 2016, government released the draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill (GIRB) on the use, creation and storage of spatial data. It has been stated by the authors about it being regressive and reverting everything urban to the dark ages (Bedi and Mahavir, 2016 and Mahavir, 2016). All these policies have had an impact on the planning field. Though there have been downsides of these policies, but to a large extent these policies have benefited the planners in their work towards making more informed decisions for the plans across the various scales. The most recent New Geospatial Guidelines, 2021 is a liberalisation initiative in the field.
What do the new guidelines have for planners?
Planners’ involvement and requirement for the quantum, accuracy and detailing of the data in the process of plan preparation varies by type and scale. Some plans vary by the sector addressed as environmental or transport plans at sub-city, city or intercity levels. Others vary at neighborhood, zonal, urban to regional scales. The starting point for all these is data on maps and provide the end deliverable in the map form too. Planning is a repetitive and cyclic activity. Every few years, plans are to be revised and new plans are required to be drafted. Planners’ work is highly dependent on data, which needs to be spread over a timeline implying that data creation and updation an ongoing activity and is the basic infrastructure for the planner (Mahavir and Bedi, 2012). Quality of data and ease of access to same has the required effect on the success in plan preparation and its implementation process. Any delay in the procurement of data like satellite images has an impact on the resultant data creation further having repercussions on the delay in completion of the projects.
Satellite images today are considered as the starting point of most planning projects. The practice that has been adopted by most private players in the planning field due to the delays in procuring the satellite images is to rely on easily and freely available satellite data on the web to start the projects and undertake the preliminary tasks, until the government approved satellite images are made available for the project. This is the method adopted to relatively reduce the losses in project costs and time. The liberalised Geospatial Guidelines do state the involvement of small players in data production. With the liberalisation of acquisition and production of geospatial data and services, the delays in data procurement due to various approvals are likely to be reduced. At this stage it is being assumed that such data is likely to be available that has since long been listed under restricted and prohibited zones like coastal zones and border area or those in close proximity to the strategically sensitive establishments. More clarity on the ease of availability of satellite images specially in terms of time in procurement and paperwork involved would be detrimental in the much-required success of the planning projects. The Guidelines do state that there will be not any negative list of prohibited and restricted areas. This is being largely understood as no restriction in the mapping and data creation of such prohibited areas that are strategically important from country’s defense perspective. The question still remains will the satellite images of these areas be available?
With the permission being granted to Indian companies for terrestrial mobile mapping survey and street view survey (Government of India, 2021), there will be concerns for data quality. Data quality concern here is being stated with respect to spatial and non-spatial data accuracy. The Guidelines clearly state that only Indian organisations will be able to create resolution higher than one meter. This is an aspect that needs to be treaded with caution as in high resolution images and large-scale mapping accuracy, especially in urban areas can have a long-lasting impact on the projects.
The change being brought in by the Guidelines stating that maps and geospatial data of accuracy/value finer than the threshold value of one meter can be not only created but be owned by Indian entities only and be stored and processed in India only. This leaves the status of all those multi-national organisations that are involved in the various planning projects in question as these companies will not be able to create the geospatial database, but only license the same from the Indian companies which opens up the avenues for startups and Indian Planning firms to venture into projects in the likes of SMART City and AMRUT Mission and projects for small and medium towns, thereby opening up business avenues to the tune of one lakh crore by 2029 (Sharma et. al., 2021). At the same time, the Guidelines have created an opportunity for Indian companies as these will be solely the ones that can undertake such tasks.
The use of geospatial technology in the field of planning has been largely limited to data creation and map making. Though some use of application has been done from time to time, there are many aspects of planning that can be further enhanced with these liberalised guidelines like local area planning, planning enforcement where high resolution images and maps would play a vital role for stringent enforcement of building byelaws and check unauthorised use and violation of FAR.
In the plan making process, more effective public participation can be possible with linking the new liberal Guidelines to emerging social media platforms and tools. This easy access would lead to more transparent documentation and management of mutations and sub-division of built property further improving the litigation process.
The Guidelines will also play a positive and supportive role in disaster management with quick and timely creation of the data including satellite images for the purposes of post disaster activities. Digital maps of finer accuracy will help in providing timely support to the victims. In light of the current pandemic, there is a scope for better identification and management of containment zones with the availability of high-resolution satellite images and higher granularity of non-spatial data, as has been the case with Gurgaon’s Integrated Command and Control Centre.
The 4IR, which is at a nascent stage and City Digital Twins are other areas that will benefit with these liberalised guidelines and have a scope for integration into core planning activities in turn enabling the planners in providing the citizens with better living spaces ad experiences.
The Guidelines change is also seen at a time of rise in competition in the geospatial field. With the liberalisation in the geospatial industry many planning professionals are expected to be more involved in its various processes – surveying, data procurement and creation, editing, collection, manipulation, application, hosting and other related activities which had been typically sublet to geospatial professionals. This is expected to positively influence the costs of production and at the same time impact the quality of data produced. It is reiterated that there will be a need for strict adherence to the data and application standards. It is also foreseen that the Guidelines may lead to monopolisation of amongst the private players.
While there are many positives that will accrue from the changes brought about by the Guidelines, there are some aspects about which the Planners will need to be concerned about, that is danger of too much data – like too much data creation and high resolution of images is likely to create data noise. Standardisation of the requirement for the application at various scales and resolution is a possible solution to such problems. Though the Guidelines themselves are generally silent on the frequency of availability of geospatial data, these will further reinforce the need for availability of more frequent socioeconomic data, viz., the Census of India, which is provided decennially at present.
It must be noted that the current initiative are guidelines, which in due course may lead to a policy and an act, which will put the various aspects put forth in the Guidelines in clearer perspective. The liberal Guidelines released by Department of Space and Technology is a step towards creating a competitive and vibrant geospatial environment in the country. It is sure to be a watershed not only in the geospatial industry, but all those related fields that this industry supports.
 Bedi, Prabh, 2016, Indian National Urban Information Systems as an input for Planning Decision Making by Municipalities, unpublished Ph. D. Thesis, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi.
 Bedi, Prabh and Mahavir, 2016, ‘Smart Cities and Not So Smart Geospatial Information Regulation Bill 2016’, in SPANDREL, Issue 12, Monsoon 2016-17 (ISSN:2231- 4601 SPANDREL), pp 82-91
 Gibbons, Scott, 2010, ‘Mirzapur-A GIS that works’ accessed at Mirzapur: A GIS that works – Geospatial World on 01 March, 2021
 Government of India, 2021, ‘Guidelines for acquiring and producing geospatial data and geospatial data services including maps’ accessed at Final Approved Guidelines on Geospatial Data.pdf (dst.gov.in) on 28 February, 2021
 Mahavir and Bedi, 2012, ‘A case for financing the ‘data’ as part of infrastructure’, accessed at Coordinates : A resource on positioning, navigation and beyond » Blog Archive » A case for financing the `data’ as part of infrastructure (mycoordinates. org) on 10 March, 2021.
 Mahavir, 2016, ‘The Geospatial Information Regulation Bill’ accessed at Coordinates : A resource on positioning, navigation and beyond » Blog Archive » The Geospatial Information Regulation Bill (mycoordinates. org) on 09 March, 2021.
 Sharma, S. N., Singh, S. and Aravind, I., 2021, ‘Mapping the way to Rs. 1,00,000 crore’, Economic Times February 21-27, 2021.