Most of us unthinkingly use location-based, or geospatial data, while navigating roads or ordering a delivery service that uses it. This basic data, which is used as an input across industries, is sourced from overseas companies that produce location maps and sell their services over the internet. This is probably one key reason why last mile costs of delivery in India are an unusually high proportion of the total cost. Finally, that is about to change. In an important reform measure, government this week announced that India’s mapping policy will be liberalised. Existing restrictions on use of geospatial data will be junked to encourage domestic industry.
A sentence from the government statement captures the absurdity of the law thus far. It says that what is readily available globally does not need to be restricted in India. Therefore, restricted geospatial data will now be freely available for companies to create value added products. India’s mapping policies and geospatial regulations have been carrying the burden of 19th century realities when maps had high strategic value that justified secrecy. With the advent of satellites, cartography has changed dramatically. Therefore laws, including the 2016 legislation on geospatial information, were out of sync with contemporary reality.
The current change should be viewed as part of a larger push to help the economy benefit from India’s early public investment in space technology. More than 500 companies provide Isro with equipment for its space programme. There is a compelling case to expand this dimension and help Indian technology companies gain global competitive advantage. Creation of Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Center (IN-SPACe), a vehicle to allow private players to use Isro infrastructure, is in the right direction. These measures will not just help domestic companies but also allow Isro to recoup some of its investment.
India’s private enterprises have been held back by compliances that long outlived their utility. Burdensome compliances are perhaps the bigger deterrent to nimble young firms emerging. Economic activity will get a big boost if sclerotic regulations are repealed. As in the case of geospatial regulation, it requires no additional effort or public investment. Opening access to valuable data with the government is one way of monetising assets. Resulting commercial opportunities give rise to larger tax collections. The government deserves credit for changing its approach to geospatial data.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.