The draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill 2016, which places severe restrictions on the acquisition, use and dissemination of geospatial information, has attracted sharp criticism for its potential to obstruct technological innovation. An equally damaging effect that the Bill might have is to hinder independent environmental research. Online geospatial platforms like Google Earth, USGS LANDSAT viewer, Bhuvan maps and Water Resource Information System are key tools in the arsenal of environmental activists who use them to critique Environmental Impact Assessment Reports and document environmental violations. Although the ostensible purpose of the Bill is to safeguard national security, given the government’s deep suspicion of environmental activism, there is real concern that the Bill will also be used to clamp down on what are perceived to be anti-development activities.

The Bill clearly violates the right to access environmental information, and public participation in decision-making, which have been recognised by the Central Information Commission, the National Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court. It is also contrary to existing government policies that encourage the proactive sharing of data.

What is geospatial information?
The broad manner in which Clause 2(e) of the Bill defines geospatial information means that any map or landscape photograph that includes explicit geographic positioning information falls within the Bill’s restrictions. The Bill will have an impact on a wide range of geospatial information acquired using a variety of technologies – by land surveyors, census takers, aerial photographers, researchers, and even common citizens with GPS-enabled cell phones that can collect geographically referenced data.

Application of GIS in environmental governance
Geospatial data has emerged as a highly effective tool of environmental democracy in India. The EIA Notification 2006 requires most development projects to go through a rigorous Environmental Impact Assessment, or EIA, process, which requires the collection of important geo-referenced information like the coordinates of project boundaries, land use and land cover map, the location of nearby forests and area drainage maps, based on which the impact on the surrounding environment is assessed.

All environment and forest clearance permission letters mention the geo-coordinates of project boundaries, technically bringing them within the meaning of geospatial information as defined in the Bill. The EIA notification requires documents that contain such information to be made available to the public, so that citizens may use the data to form their own assessments and raise objections. Using free geographical information system applications, any computer literate person can easily overlay the project boundary on satellite imagery and use available remote sensing data to personally verify the topography of the area. Such tools have been used effectively to point out the concealment or misrepresentation of critical topographical data in EIA reports submitted by project proponents, ultimately leading to the quashing of environment and forest clearances by the National Green Tribunal.

For instance, the National Green Tribunal suspended the environment clearance granted to NTPC’s Bijapur thermal power plant in March 2014, because EIA documents stated the site to be barren while satellite imagery and other evidence showed the site was mostly agricultural land. In another judgment in May 2015, the green tribunal took cognizance of Google Earth images provided by the petitioners to show that construction activities in the catchment areas of the Agara and Bellandur lakes in Bangalore were started before the grant of environment clearance.

What is wrong with the Bill?
The Bill requires general or special permission from a security vetting authority before geospatial information may be acquired, disseminated, published or distributed. Contravention can attract a fine ranging from Rs 10 lakh to Rs 1 crore as well as imprisonment up to seven years.

The sweeping ambit of the Bill appears to suggest that the use of geospatial information by environmental researchers and activists would also require a prior licence from the Ministry of Home Affairs. The government’s past record with respect to environmental organisations does not inspire any confidence that such licences will be readily forthcoming or that their terms and conditions will not be onerous. Such a requirement will also impose a tremendous administrative and financial burden on individual researchers and smaller organisations.

Although there is some indication that the provisions of the Bill are likely to be diluted, it is not enough for penalties to be reduced or a few exemptions granted through rules that are yet to be framed. The fundamental architecture of the Bill, which restricts access to, and the use of, geospatial information is problematic. Moreover, if the true objective of the Bill is to protect national security, existing policies governing the use of geospatial information in India must first be reviewed to determine whether or not they already adequately safeguard this interest.

Is the Bill necessary?
The National Map Policy 2005, the Remote Sensing Data Policy 2011, the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy 2012 and finally the National Geospatial Policy 2016 all contain provisions on the use of geospatial information, some of which directly contradict the Bill. For instance, one of the objectives of the National Map Policy is “to promote the use of geospatial knowledge and intelligence through partnerships and other mechanisms by all sections of the society and work towards a knowledge based society”, a clear indication that geospatial information ought to be built collaboratively. There are also sufficient checks in the policy to allay national security concerns. Open Series Maps are to be made available to the public only after a one-time clearance from the Ministry of Defence.

The Remote Sensing Data Policy similarly ensures that national security interests are protected by requiring all such data of resolution higher than 1 metre to be screened and cleared by an inter-agency High Resolution Image Clearance Committee before being distributed. Data resolution up to 1 metre is to be distributed on a non-discriminatory and “as requested basis.”

The importance of public access to geospatial information is recognised in the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy 2012, which cites Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration affirming the individual right to access environmental information, and Section 4(2) of the Right to Information Act 2005, which requires public authorities to take proactive steps to disclose information to the public. The policy also classifies geospatial data into open, registered and restricted categories, unlike the Bill that fails to distinguish between different kinds of geospatial information.

Finally, the National Geospatial Policy, which was published by the Department of Science and Technology only a few weeks before the Bill is based on principles that are entirely at odds with the Bill’s provisions. These include the availability of geospatial data collected through public funded mechanisms to all users, no restriction on data acquisition, value addition and dissemination for any of the geographical areas outside the country, permitting ground based data collection for surveying and mapping, and an inclusive approach to contemporary technologies such as mobile mapping and crowd sourcing.

This demonstrates that the use of geospatial information, including the incorrect depiction of India’s international boundaries or the acquisition of sensitive maps is already adequately regulated by appropriate government bodies. The Bill is therefore not only redundant but positively damaging to legitimate uses of geospatial information, one of the most important of which is the strengthening of environmental democracy.

Debadityo Sinha is Senior Research Fellow with the Public Health and Environmental Justice Initiative at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.