Jayachandran/Mint
Jayachandran/Mint

The 21st century race to map India

  • Nearly 200 years after George Everest’s survey, a digital redo is on the cards. How will it change the country?
  • A highly accurate, free-to-use map layer, which is available in the public domain, can be a game changer. A McKinsey report says land market distortions in India lead to a 1.3% loss in GDP annually

NEW DELHI : It has been nearly three years since Suresh Kumar, a 28-year-old IT engineer from Noida, visited a family-owned patch of land in his ancestral village in Narwana, which is roughly 170km away from Delhi. “Frankly, I do not even know if the land is still ours," he says. “Maybe it has been encroached upon."

Kumar’s expression of an odd helplessness, fuelled by doubt, is such a common occurrence in India that Bollywood plot lines have built satirical comedies around it. The unique difficulties and dilemmas of men like Kumar also grabs the World Bank’s attention every year via the Ease of Doing Business rankings—which records that despite rapid improvements on several other counts, India languishes at 154th in the world on the “registering property" metric.

In large parts of the country, nobody knows for certain who owns what. Land disputes inevitably clog up an already overburdened court system. Ownership and address have also become important for an entirely unrelated reason. More than 5 million e-commerce packages are expected to shuttle across the country every single day by 2020, according to RedSeer data. Without good spatial data, how will these be delivered?

So, nearly two centuries after the entire length and breadth of India was first mapped, the country’s oldest scientific organization, the Survey of India (SOI), has embarked on a mission to drag the country into the realm of other modern economies. And the plan hinges on a medieval instrument/tool: maps.

“We currently do not have the requisite map data in digital form, which is of high quality and accuracy. The country needs this digital data and we cannot afford to wait anymore," says former surveyor general of India, Swarna Subba Rao.

A highly accurate, free-to-use map layer of the country which is available in the public domain can be a game changer. According to a report by McKinsey Global Institute, land market distortions in India lead to a 1.3% loss in GDP annually. This amounts to $34.45 billion each year.

On top of that, every private entity and state government has an in-house mapping effort. Flipkart, for example, uses machine learning to convert addresses into sub-regions, which are essentially neighbourhood names suggested by field executives, says Mayur Datar, chief data scientist at the e-commerce firm. “Addresses in India are very hard to determine unlike other countries," he says.

A national base map layer will, thus, limit the need for multiple parallel efforts and transform everything from disaster relief to delivery of goods. The question is: will India’s notoriously statist establishment begin to view the humble map as a public good that should be freely available? And will the secrecy around spatial data make way for a plan like the one unveiled by the UK, whose SOI-equivalent, the Ordnance Survey, announced in 2018 to make taxpayer-funded digital maps freely available for businesses and citizens?

The project

SOI’s plan is to develop a high-resolution 1:500 Geoid model of the country. That essentially means 1 cm on the map will represent 500 cm on the ground, which is roughly equivalent to showing the boundaries of each house.

Like the decades-old revenue maps, these maps would show the details of village boundaries, canals, agriculture field limits and roads, with a high accuracy of 10 cm, which is critical for land records. Compare this with the present topographical maps available in public domain, which are at a scale of 1:50,000.

The project has already begun in three states—Haryana, Maharashtra and Karnataka— and about 300 drones are expected to be roped in. The deadline: 2021.

“For the first time, we will know the exact boundaries of the land," said Lt General Girish Kumar, surveyor general of India. “Today, people have their khasra (survey) number, but have no idea where this khasra (survey) number is located. This will enable them to check their land boundaries and ownership online, rather than depending on the patwari. It will (also) facilitate the registry and transfer processes."

Till now, the limited efforts to improve India’s maps have largely focused on urban areas, where most businesses generate their revenue, and swathes of rural areas have remained unmapped, especially the abadi (habitation) areas in a village, which have traditionally not been seen as a source of revenue and, till date, have no formal address system.

“We carried out a pilot project in Maharashtra last year and realized that most people living in abadi areas have no ownership records," says Gireesh Kumar. “But based on our survey, the government gave ownership cards to citizens, which allows them to buy/sell that land and even take loans. This could transform the economy, because the government will also get fixed revenue, which was not coming in till now."

The move could also bring greater transparency into land acquisition processes and could potentially help deal with encroachments across cities, especially those on government land.

India’s mapping needs have, for long, been viewed through the colonial prism of security and secrecy. In the 1950s, a newly independent country opened up two series of maps—the open series for public use at 1:50,000 scale and defence series maps, which are meant exclusively for security agencies.

But as Naveen P. Francis, an open street mapper from Kerala, highlights, the process of getting a useable official map is incredibly tedious. “Everything in India is copyrighted or licensed and that’s where the problem lies in terms of data sharing," says Francis, who was actively involved in creating maps for Kerala during the 2018 flood relief effort.

“Each government department, be it IT or SOI, have their own map data, which they do not readily share with individuals. And they usually share it in PDF format which is not readily usable," he says.

While the defence services remain the core client of government-generated data, the demands of the fast-growing commercial sector have been largely ignored. “Only whatever SOI thinks is not classified is shared with the public because they are not really looking to address (the) everyday needs of people," adds Francis.

This led to the emergence of an open-street mapping movement in the country in early 2007, when youngsters armed with GPS sensors and internet began mapping their local areas using the Wikipedia-like user-generated “OpenStreetMap" (OSM).

Creating our own maps

Arun Ganesh, an engineer from Chennai, was among the first few in India to actively lead this volunteer project. For him, it began with mapping the public transport system in Chennai and Mumbai, and then, the entire country.

“OSM was a blank space for India. We are pretty late, but we are now trying to catch up with rest of the world," says Ganesh, who is now working as a digital cartographer with Mapbox in Washington, US. “Our basic understanding of maps is limited to Google Maps, mostly through Uber/Ola or delivery apps. But, as a nation, we cannot be dependent on other countries for our mapping data. Other countries like the UK have made giant leaps in making this data open."

OSM is a collaborative volunteer project to create crowdsourced editable maps that can be freely used and shared by anybody under an open licence. Since they are freely accessible, they are particularly attractive to startups who shift from Google Maps in order to cut down costs.

In response to this vibrant open mapping community that had begun to develop in India, the government’s mapping agency, in 2018, also opened itself to crowdsourcing through a mobile app called “SAHYOG". SOI also launched web portals to improve access to digital maps. But government efforts, until now, have been patchy. That is precisely why a lot of hope is riding on the fact that things may change dramatically within a few years.

Reliance on Google Maps

The Indian government has also begun to realize a pressing internal need for good spatial data. While we may rely on Google to help us navigate across cities and states, the data may not prove very helpful for governments across the country when they have to plan an infrastructure project or build a new railway line. The new survey will solve that problem.

SOI’s plan also involves creating a complete 3-D model of cities, which would include details about the altitude above sea level of each point—an important input for planning a city’s drainage profile. When integrated with weather forecast, this could help India Meteorological Department to provide impact-based forecasts ahead of severe rainfall events.

“It is the biggest challenge because there is no proper and accurate data on height. Once we have a 3-D model of the city, we can plan our drainage also, especially when there is a threat of inundation in the near future due to a changing climate scenario. Also, tomorrow, if autonomous vehicles are to be introduced in the country, they would need a high level of accuracy, which can come from these maps," says Girish Kumar.

As a preliminary step towards achieving these diverse goals, SOI has established about 2,500 ground control points that are uniformly distributed throughout the country, whose standardized coordinates (latitude-longitude) are known. But to provide online positioning with the desired accuracy, SOI would set up an additional 700-1,000 continuously operating GPS reference stations, at a distance of 50-60km from each other. Then, professionally operated drones would cover the remaining gaps.

For now, the plan is to make the data public, and charge a small for commercial use. “Earlier, we used to sell the data. Now, we are going to make it available for everyone through map APIs (application programming interfaces)," says Kumar.

Race of private players

For a long time, India’s business ecosystem heavily relied on Google Maps. But with the company capitalizing on its near monopoly in the market with hefty charges, which were increased further in 2018, businesses are now increasingly scrambling to find alternatives.

Building a private mapping business in India, however, comes with high barriers and huge upfront investments. Nonetheless, a few indigenous companies, including MapmyIndia, have been attempting to fill the void left by the absence of usable publicly-funded maps.

“We began creating digital maps of the country 25 years ago," says Rohan Verma, chief executive officer of MapmyIndia. “It began with Coke, which wanted to mark its distributor territory clearly on a digital map when it was trying to expand in the Indian market."

Nothing much has changed since those early days in the shadow of India’s liberalization, says Verma. Public maps are still of poor quality, forcing businesses to find private hacks. Which is why SOI has increasingly come under pressure to release its data. “Data is an asset. So, it is not just a question of transparency, because it can also lead to new revenue generating strategies (for the government)," says Anant Maringanti, director of Hyderabad Urban Lab Foundation, an interdisciplinary research and action initiative based in Hyderabad.

For long, the government has looked at this data purely through a political/security lens and public institutions do not know how to hold on to these assets and release them strategically in order to earn royalty for the exchequer, he says. Geospatial data can transform governments, businesses, and communities for the better, says Maringanti and adds that this is an area of policymaking which has just not taken off in India.

“The urban landscape sees hundreds of changes every day--roads, businesses, restaurants, ATMs--and maps need to be updated daily, or they lose value. This is where Google is far ahead," says Prasanto K. Roy, a tech policy consultant, and a former vice president at IT industry association Nasscom.

There are also serious issues with our official mapping policy, he says and adds that private sector companies must be incentivized to invest in improving official spatial data.

Caught amid this jumble of competing interests and policy failures is the Indian citizen. Come 2021, after an estimated 500 crore is spent on a mammoth mapping exercise, will things materially change for her? Will land records improve?

Much will depend on whether SOI keeps its promise of making the data usable and publicly available. Businesses are already beginning to make plans. “Spatial data is a gold mine and we need this," says Vishal Agarwal, a GIS (geographic information systems) expert from Mumbai and founder of startup Spatial Ideas. One measure of the extent of India’s still-nascent promise of liberalization may be in the maps that ultimately tumble out of government control in 2021.

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