India has built its own 'Google map' to speed up infra projects

Maps from Dholera Industrial City became the starting point of GatiShakti..
Maps from Dholera Industrial City became the starting point of GatiShakti..


  • GatiShakti is developing into one of India’s biggest administrative reform tools.

NEW DELHI : About 100 km southwest of Ahmedabad in Gujarat is the site for the planned industrial smart city of Dholera. When the planning for the city began, around 2012, bureaucrats noticed that the nearest railway station was 22 km away, at a small village called Bhimnath.

For a greenfield city spread over 920 sq km—larger than Singapore—and where 1.5 million people could live one day, not having a railway station was a non-starter. Besides, it was important that Dholera be connected to the railway’s dedicated freight corridor for easy shipment of goods produced in the city.

High Toll
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High Toll

The bureaucrats next consulted a digitised map they had, and reached out to the railways.

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“They (railways) were reluctant at first, citing economic viability. It took us some time to convince them but still, we saved time because we had identified the problem early," says a bureaucrat with the ministry of commerce and industry who didn’t want to be identified.

Screenshots from thGati Shakti National Master Plan software showing the map for Dholera and other infrastructure planning layers. Chart-1
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Screenshots from thGati Shakti National Master Plan software showing the map for Dholera and other infrastructure planning layers. Chart-1

A railway line is in the works now, along with other connectivity projects.

The Dholera Industrial City Development Ltd, a special purpose vehicle created to implement all the projects, has equity participation from both the Gujarat government and the central government, represented by the National Industrial Corridor Development Corporation (NICDC) Trust.

Back then, the officials working with these organizations didn’t know that the maps they used would become the starting point of what is known as GatiShakti today.

The PM GatiShakti National Master Plan launched a year ago and is frequently touted as India’s biggest administrative reform tool. It is like the Google Maps of infrastructure planning and offers a dashboard with a bird’s eye view of bridges, roads, tunnels, pipelines, power transmission cables, forests, water bodies, and airports in any region of the country. The maps from Dholera were a tiny spec feeding this giant system. As of now, GatiShakti has over 2,000 layers of data, and it is growing every day as more and more state and central government agencies feed the platform with even more data.

The tool, in short, aims to solve a complex problem—delay in important projects that often leads to cost overruns. An oil refiner, for instance, can potentially cut the time required to get a mega project off the ground if the company knows for sure the land it needs to acquire between place A and B, the number of railway tracks and highways to be crossed, and other hurdles such as water bodies and habitation

Screenshots from thGati Shakti National Master Plan software showing the map for Dholera and other infrastructure planning layers. Chart-2
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Screenshots from thGati Shakti National Master Plan software showing the map for Dholera and other infrastructure planning layers. Chart-2

In the past, this information wasn’t centralized. It was available but in silos, spread across many government agencies. Projects often got stuck in this bureaucratic maze.

“This is not intended as a single window clearance portal as there is already the National Single Window System and the Project Monitoring Group which monitors and facilitates approvals for all high priority projects. But GatiShakti does consider the ease of getting clearances at the planning stage," says Surendra Ahirwar, joint secretary, logistics division, the department for promotion of industry and internal trade (DPIIT), ministry of commerce. “So, if you are building a road between Delhi and Mumbai, it can suggest a route with an alignment which requires the least number of clearances."

Making detailed project reports before a project can take off also involves site visits and on-ground research, which is time-taking. NICDC claims the use of the GatiShakti portal has helped in significant time saving here. While many government agencies and departments are still learning the art of using the tool for faster and more efficient project management, NICDC is already extensively using it in planning the 11 national industrial corridors being worked on, including Delhi-Mumbai, Mumbai-Bengaluru, Bengaluru-Chennai, and Hyderabad-Bengaluru. The industrial corridor development programme is an ambitious infrastructure programme that aims to develop several new cities such as Dholera, cities that would form the backbone of ‘Make in India’, going ahead.

Early users and the tool’s potential have enthused many states. Kerala is one of them.

“There is no doubt GatiShakti is a big reform. It doesn’t create anything new but it connects the dots. It breaks the departmental silos and it should have been done a long time ago," says Suman Billa, principal secretary, department of industries development in Kerala.

“For implementing agencies, it takes you from a worm’s eye view to a bird’s eye view. The lack of one unified database, which gives visibility to every part of the government today, means that agencies tend to work at cross-purposes. We will save a lot of time and money and could potentially optimize our project performance by 25-30%," he adds.

How it works

Ask the bureaucrats, and they are mostly reluctant to talk about how the idea of this dashboard came about. Some trace it back to Prime Minister Modi—and his experience of executing large infrastructure projects when he was the chief minister of Gujarat.

The software has been developed by Gandhinagar-based scientific society, the Bhaskaracharya National Institute for Space Applications and Geo-informatics (BISAG-N). The Gujarat government had earlier used BISAG’s services for state projects. Modi also knew of the digitized maps being used for Dholera. Around 2020, he wanted BISAG-N and NICDC to partner for a tool that could boost India’s ease of doing business. The tool evolved as GatiShakti. Built on open-source technology, GatiShakti uses satellite imagery from ISRO and is hosted on MeghRaj, the government of India’s cloud service.

When the cabinet approved GatiShakti in October last year, its primary aim was to focus on 1,390 mega projects, including the North-South and East- West highway corridors; the railway freight corridors and the Bharatmala and Sagarmala projects. It has subsequently been revised to include projects that costs over 500 crore but all these projects have to be screened before they can use GatiShakti. Because of the amount of data and information the tool throws up—like the exact location of pipelines, bridges, cables and oil wells—the government is treading carefully on who could use it. Private companies certainly can’t, as of now. The government is also worried about private entities and real estate speculators buying land near major project corridors.

A three-tiered system, thereby, monitors the master plan and the projects that are screened.

At the bottom of the pyramid is a technical support unit, comprising eight directors and around a dozen domain experts from various infrastructure-related sectors. This group is in charge of the technical evaluation of India’s top infrastructure projects.

The middle tier has the national planning group (NPG). It has eight permanent members—the planning heads of the government’s infrastructure departments or ministries and is headed by the special secretary of the logistics division of ministry of commerce. This group meets at least once every fortnight and screens the projects that will be planned using GatiShakti, based on the reports submitted by the technical support unit.

At the very top is the empowered group of secretaries that is headed by the cabinet secretary—the highest-ranking bureaucrat in the country—and secretaries of 18 other ministries. This group meets once every quarter to monitor the progress of the projects.

If projects still don’t move, the buck stops with the cabinet secretary who gets to crack the whip.

“That has not been needed till date," says a commerce ministry official. “All the issues have so far been adequately resolved at the NPG level. We would like to keep it that way."

Early movers

So, who apart from NICDC is using GatiShakti as of now?

Well, all states and Union territories have signed up. Initially, 16 central ministries and departments— predominantly in the infrastructure domain—came onboard but now there are 23 ministries in all, including the ministries of home affairs, women and child development, health and education.

The department of telecommunications is one of the early movers. It has enriched the platform with data, besides using it. For instance, the department has mapped 1 million km of optical fibre cable network already laid by different public sector companies such as Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) and Bharat Broadband Nigam limited (BBNL). This data is now available on GatiShakti. About 573,000 telecom towers, installed by various telecom service providers, have also been mapped.

More recently, the department used GatiShakti to assess the right length and cost to upgrade older generation microwave towers (which have low bandwidth) to fiberized towers in Patna and Goa. Fibre cables, with higher bandwidth, are a pre-requisite for 5G.

The ministry of ports, shipping and waterways has been an early user, too. Connectivity to ports has, in fact, emerged as a priority area under GatiShakti. A total of 65 road projects, totalling around 2,041 km, and another 42 railway projects for connectivity to ports have been prioritized.

Yet another example of the tool being used comes from Dehradun’s Jolly Grant Airport, which was mapped to access the land acquisition requirements. In all, the government claims nearly 1,300 issues have been resolved and almost 200 critical infrastructure projects have been sped up.

“Lack of coordination has unintended tragi-comic outcomes. There have been so many instances of a freshly laid road being dug up for laying underground cables or gas pipelines," says a road transport ministry official who didn’t want to be identified. “With GatiShakti, we have a real chance of avoiding such mishaps in future."

The central government, meanwhile, is leaving no stone unturned in trying to incentivize more agencies to use the platform.

For instance, it has extended 50-year interest free loans to states, over and above the limits allowed under the Fiscal Responsible and Budget Management (FRBM) norms, if states planned their infrastructure on the GatiShakti platform. In the Union budget this year, the finance ministry earmarked 1 trillion for the same—so far, about 54,000 crore has been disbursed.

“I think this is one of the bigger achievements—realizing where the states are lacking, financially and technically, and finding ways to bring them on board," says Arindam Guha, partner, government and public services, Deloitte India.

Roadblocks ahead

For all its usefulness, the platform has its limitations.For one, GatiShakti is loaded with sensitive information. That makes the government cagey when it comes to opening it up for the private sector.

Screenshots from thGati Shakti National Master Plan software showing the map for Dholera and other infrastructure planning layers. Chart-3
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Screenshots from thGati Shakti National Master Plan software showing the map for Dholera and other infrastructure planning layers. Chart-3

And without the private sector’s participation, the benefits of the tool can be limiting. In case the private sector has to rely on bureaucrats to access the platform, it would only end up adding another layer to the process. In fact, as of now, only about 400 government officers— at the centre, state and public sector companies—have been trained to use the portal and can access it.

The lack of digitized land records is an even bigger hurdle. Most states do not have adequate and updated records.

“The biggest challenge is non availability of land data. The entire edifice works on every piece of property having a unique identity number. For that, it is important to have GIS mapped property on the platform and it should be readily available to everybody. No state has done this to a level of finesse in India. It’s the only challenge we should fix as we go along," says Suman Billa, the principal secretary from Kerala.

Many great ideas in India suffer at the altar of execution. It is still early days but if GatiShakti is able to overcome the roadblocks and chart a different trajectory, it could greatly enhance the ease of doing business.

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