Earlier this year, the Indian government issued new guidelines allowing private entities to easily use, create, and access land data instead of going through long clearance protocols. The newly available data includes location information about physical structures, boundaries, natural phenomena, weather patterns, and more, gathered through ground-based survey techniques, photogrammetry using drones, lidar, radar, and so on.
On paper, this means a green light for small- and medium-sized companies to collect and use this data to build commercial applications and services related to mapping. It is also a relief to alternative or participatory mapping communities, such as counter-mapping initiatives (in which local, indigenous populations make their own maps in their own contexts), which have so far lurked in a gray area of legality. For the development and academic sectors, too, it heralds greater access to maps and related data for research.
But a more in-depth analysis raises troubling questions. Who owns this data? Where does it end up? Who is going to be using it? For what?
Before the recent deregulation, mapmaking in India was considered a sensitive activity that needed to be closely monitored, and was handled solely by the government’s surveying department. As a result, OpenStreetMap volunteers, for example, operated under fear of prosecution. Digital cartographer Arun Ganesh, who was once an OpenStreetMapper, acknowledges the freedoms afforded by the new rules. But he also worries that it could enable free data capture.
The new guidelines come with tantalizing promises of progress. Jatin Singh, writing for Fortune India, says it will now be possible to overlay cadastral maps (which provide information about the extent, value, and ownership of land parcels) with crop data and data on assets such as cattle, automobiles, power lines, and more. This data will act as collateral for bank loans for more than 100 million farmers, including, theoretically, those outside the formal credit system. Small farmers who previously weren’t considered creditworthy would then be able to get loans against their land. For banks, this would enable quick, hassle-free loan disbursement as well as fraud detection; this form of virtual collateral may eventually even be accepted for other kinds of lending. “The opening up of maps is going to end leakages and allow banks to underwrite more effectively,” Singh claims. “The cost of credit in rural India should now come down.”
Singh, founder of Skymet Weather Services, is an industry stakeholder. Counter-mapping and open-mapping people, however, see the situation differently. The new guidelines are “a continuation of the policies of the present regime in India to open up all national spaces and resources for capital for the benefit of major corporate houses,” Yemuna Sunny, a social geographer and educator, says. “Their investments in the sector, and the sale of map outputs … will also prove every corner of the country … has the potential for resource exploitation. But this spells danger for communities who are in the margins of the economy, and not part of the capitalist economy in a classical sense.”