The date, February 15, 2021 will be regarded as a watershed moment when new guidelines took effect to completely de-regulate the geospatial sector for Indians. As we celebrate the first anniversary of this moment, it is time to look back and assess its impact and identify the bottlenecks so that the full potential of the geospatial sector can be realised.
Not much of a percolation
India has a robust ecosystem in geospatial, with the Survey of India (SoI), the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), remote sensing application centres (RSAC)s, and the National Informatics Centre (NIC) in particular, and all ministries and departments, in general, using geospatial technology. However, the full benefits have yet to percolate to the public; neither is there much contribution to the nation’s GDP.
Since the declaration of the guidelines, there has been a lot of hype and hoopla about the geospatial sector. The Prime Minister’s speech during Independence Day and mention of geospatial in the Union Budget have created the necessary buzz. The media too published many articles projecting the market to some ₹1 lakh-crore by the year 2029 with 13% Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR). Consequently, the geospatial sector, which was considered taboo by investors, is seeing new interest.
The last year has also witnessed some activity on the ground. The most noticeable was the over subscription of the initial public offering of MapmyIndia. The other noticeable activity was the launching of a city mapping programme by Genesys International in India. Such an aggressive stance by investors for geospatial was not seen in the earlier regime; it is certain that the new guidelines have played a role. Today, there is a positive mood in the private industry, which is no more apprehensive and conservative like it was in previous years.
While the Government has done its bit and industry is gung-ho, questions remain: is the full potential of geospatial being exploited? Or are there roadblocks still despite the enabling policy in place? These are important questions and should be dealt with.
Among the most prominent hurdles is the absence of a sizeable geospatial market in India. There is no demand for geospatial services and products on a scale linked to India’s potential and size. This is mainly due to the lack of awareness among potential users in government and private. The other hurdle has been the lack of skilled manpower across the entire pyramid. The unavailability of foundation data, especially at high-resolution, is also a constraint. The lack of clarity on data sharing and collaboration prevents co-creation and asset maximisation. Lastly, barring a few cases, there are still no ready-to-use solutions especially built to solve the problems of India.
Unless these issues are addressed, the policy alone will not suffice. Of course, it can be argued that the restrictive data policy of yesteryears was the root cause of many of these limiting factors. However, the experience has been that despite one year since the new guidelines came into effect, users are still not fully aware of things. This is true across government departments, and confusion prevails in private industry.
Have a protocol in place
It is understood that these issues cannot be resolved overnight and that the formulation of guidelines alone is not enough. The inertia and the mindset due to decades of restrictions will be difficult to shrug off. However, India needs to be aggressive to make a leapfrog; therefore, special attention is required as far as this sector is concerned. First and foremost is the need to publish the entire policy document and make government and private users aware of things. The data available with government departments should be unlocked, and data sharing should be encouraged and facilitated. This will only be possible through an open data sharing protocol. The Government needs to invest in developing standards and must mandate the adoption of standards. There is a need to establish a geo-portal to make all public-funded data accessible through data as a service model, with no or nominal charge. Most important is to inculcate the culture of data sharing, collaboration and co-creation.
While different types of data will be produced on a project-to-project basis, there is a need to generate foundation data across India. This should include the Indian national digital elevation model (InDEM), data layers for cities, and data of natural resources. Solution developers and start-ups should be engaged to build solution templates for various business processes across departments. Local technology and solutions should be promoted, and competition should be encouraged for quality output. As the new guidelines prevent high-accuracy data being stored in overseas clouds, there is a need to develop a geospatial data cloud locally and facilitate a solution as service. For instance, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change can host a complete suite of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) applications like working plan, wildlife corridor mapping, social forestry, etc. National organisations like SoI and ISRO should be entrusted with the responsibility of regulation and the projects related to the nation’s security and scientific significance. These organisations should not compete with entrepreneurs for government business as the latter remains in a disadvantageous position.
An academic programme
Though India has many who are trained in geospatial this is mostly either through a master’s level programme or on-job training. Unlike the West, India lacks a strata of core professionals who understand geospatial end-to-end. India should start a bachelor’s programme in geospatial also in the Indian Institutes of Technology and the National Institutes of Technology Besides these, there should be a dedicated geospatial university. Such programmes will propel research and development efforts which are crucial for the development of technologies and solutions locally.
The geospatial sector in the country is rightly positioned for investment. However, clarity on the issues discussed and the creation of an enabling ecosystem are essential. By the time we celebrate the 10th anniversary, we should have achieved the projected market volume and have Indian entrepreneurs stand out internationally.
Bharat Lohani is a Professor at IIT Kanpur and the Founder-Director of Geokno India Pvt Ltd. Rajesh Mathur is an adviser to ESRI India Technologies Ltd.