Home >Politics >Policy >Govt seeks to make Google, others toe the cartographical line

New Delhi: Boundaries, personal and geopolitical, are a touchy subject. India knows this all too well. The government of the day (no matter which one) has, over the years, often taken umbrage over what it sees as a wrongful depiction of the country’s international borders. In 2011, it blanked out a map of Kashmir depicting the region divided between India, Pakistan and China, deeming it incorrect. In 2013, it raised concerns about Google Maps’ depiction of Arunachal Pradesh as a part of China — on the site in China. Interestingly, in India, the map showed the state as part of India.

Now, the government is seeking to make its displeasure about such cartographical violations, official. According to the draft of the Geospatial Information Regulation draft bill 2016, geospatial data on India cannot be obtained or distributed anywhere without the permission of a three-member Security Vetting Authority. “False" topographic information, basically representing international boundaries that India does not accept, is punishable with a fine that can go up to 100 crore.

A licence will be required for creation of maps as well as dissemination of map data. According to the draft, Geospatial Information is described as “geospatial imagery…acquired through space or aerial platforms such as satellite, aircrafts…or digital data depicting natural…physical features." In a blogpost hosted by Geospatial World, Arup R writes, “the definition is so wide it includes everything from satellite imagery to atlases, books, car navigation system, GPS enabled devices like cameras, smartphones and tablets." From car manufacturers to publishers to ordinary users, the act might end up bringing everyone under its purview.

Sajjad Anwar, a Bangalore-based programmer, might even be considered an offender under the current draft of the bill. Anwar used satellite images to map camps of internally displaced people in the wake of the 7.5 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal last year. The maps, Sajjad says, helped first responders establish contact with the affected population and kick-start the relief programme. “When a disaster strikes, the government can’t execute relief activity all on its own, so maps like these help volunteers identify victims and fasten relief process in inhospitable terrains like Nepal."

These maps created by Anwar and others like him were used by the American Red Cross, Canadian Armed Forces and the Nepalese National Army to identify road networks and locate thousands of victims.

The bill, if passed, would require Anwar to get a “licence" from the SVA. “From the volunteer point-of-view, if this becomes a law, no one’s going to take such a big risk by using these maps," Anwar says.

Our boundaries

India currently has a National Map Policy which was introduced in 2005. The policy states that only the Survey of India can bring out “Open Series Maps" for development activities. The policy, however, does not mention any punitive measures for wrongful depiction of India maps. Swarna Subba Rao, Surveyor General of India, says his office is currently examining the draft law– and adds that this is not the final version of the proposed bill. But he is all for a law. A strong law governing geospatial information is important for India, he says. “Because we didn’t have a law pertaining to geo-spatial information, we got into a problem with Google."

Google earned the ire of the Indian government in 2005 when it depicted PoK (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) as part of Pakistan.

But Google has understood the game.

Ed Parsons, Google’s chief cartographer wrote in a June 2014 article published in The Telegraph (UK), that Google complies with local laws that makes the company display borders differently in different countries.

“We are probably the most well known for it but you will find it across the board…The reality is that maps have always been a representation of the world view seen in particular parts of the world, we just have to correspond to that.

Indeed, “all maps are political considerations: even the most carefully drawn will betray some geopolitical bias. All maps are political constructions…traditional print cartographers…have a number of options, all of which require the judgement from the map maker," The Economist explained in a 2014 piece on how Google maps represent disputed borders. Traditionally, solid grey lines represent international borders while a dashed grey line means it is disputed. This is what we see in maps of India when used by foreign publications when it comes to Kashmir with the line of control used as a demarcation point. Arunachal Pradesh remains a contentious issue.

A Google spokesperson Mint spoke to refused to comment for this story, saying that the company was in the process of reviewing the draft of the bill.

Yet, there are many, especially in journalism who don’t agree with the Google way.

A foreign correspondent with a prominent UK publication said Google’s policy of displaying different borders depending on the country you view it from isn’t a viable solution. “Maybe, it’s a smart commercial move, but definitely not what journalists should do. Our job is not to pander to anyone."

“As journalists, our job is not to pass value judgements or undermine any country’s sovereignty; it is to be honest with our readers and tell them what’s actually happening on the ground," added this person, who asked not to be identified.

India’s political map as put out by Survey of India continues to show PoK as part of India. Happymon Jacob, associate professor in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, says that the draft is not enforceable as “it is a fact that PoK is administered by Pakistan and Aksai Chin by China so as a country we have to be honest about it. Maybe, it’s not how we like it to be but we can’t possibly be in denial."

“We have made it clear that this is a disputed issue so the bill is frankly, quite redundant. The world is not going to stop showing Kashmir as disputed or divided," says a former diplomat who did not wish to be identified.

But there are enough people and companies who will comply if there is a law.

The impact

Indian mapping apps and companies are loath to discuss the bill on record, but do say that they show borders the way the government wants them to. “The guideline may be more for the big companies but we need to see the final form of the bill to determine just how it may impact businesses," says a senior executive associated with a map app from India who asked not to be identified.

Even publishing houses will need to seek a licence before they produce the map. “With international distribution there are many books and if one map with contested boundaries slips through the cracks then does it mean the editor will be responsible? The punishment is disproportionate," says Karthika VK, publisher and chief editor, HarperCollins Publishers India. She adds that all HarperCollins books carry the Survey of India map, even in books that are imported and have been published elsewhere.

The draft of the bill has been widely denounced as draconian with cartographers even starting a hashtag on twitter, #savethemap. Their concerns are even shared by former government officials. Former home secretary GK Pillai says a bill like this is unnecessary. “There are already enough laws in place to handle such issues. Now anyone with an Internet connection can access geospatial data, so security vetting all would lead to a tremendous misuse of resources," Pillai added.

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