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11 May 2016 Editorial


11 MAY 2016

Freedom to map India

The concern about the proposed law to introduce a stringent process for the use of geospatial data is not unwarranted. According to a draft of the Geospatial Information Regulation Bill circulated for feedback, all information that can be represented on geographical maps will have to be necessarily vetted by a special authority before being publicised. Of course, India has always been wary of sharing map-making powers. The anxiety, post-1947, draws as much from the nature of the country's territorial disputes as from the security implications of a more laissez-faire map policy. Most of these anxieties are, of course, overblown. This is why two aspects of the new legislation need to be separated and carefully considered before rushing the final draft for Parliament's approval: the possibility of harassment for possession of widely prevalent cartographic imagery at odds with the official boundary (think most foreign magazines), and the implications for a host of applications, commercial or in the public interest, that need real-time updates. Any company, organisation or individual that disseminates maps contradicting official versions could face up to seven years in prison and a fine of up to Rs. 100 crore. The proposed legislation envisages appellate authorities and enforcement agencies - a signal that issues of misrepresentation could be dealt with more strictly than they are currently.

The Survey of India's two-dimensional, multi-coloured maps, of varying resolutions, have served to give us a static picture of the world around us. But geospatial maps, which the government wants to oversee, reflect how our neighbourhoods are mutating in real time. They allow us to capture the extent and nature of air pollutants around us, plot the unsustainable plundering of our groundwater, gauge the spread of a new flu outbreak to confirm if official estimates of, say, a malaria outbreak are understated, or that simply plot restaurant options in a neighbourhood. The provisions suggest that any modification to the maps or value addition also need to be cleared. The time lag the proposed process would impose, as well as the possibility of updates being rejected have worrying, disruptive implications. The draft Bill says that the government will vet geospatial information to preserve the "security, sovereignty and integrity" of the country - a broad objective that could be misused by the authorities to prevent any inconvenient information from being tracked, besides creating an avenue for rent-seeking. This is ironic considering that the Centre has a data-sharing policy in place since 2012 that exhorts departments to make their data on health statistics, forests, weather, and so on, more accessible to the public and in machine-readable formats. That the government says it is open to modifying the draft is reassuring. Much like telecom spectrum, geospatial imagery too is a resource that is only beginning to be valued. It would be better mined - to the profit of the public and the government - with a transparent policy that values information more than fines.

His name is Sadiq Khan

"My name is Sadiq Khan and I'm the Mayor of London," he said after a bitterly fought election. Whether or not he meant it as just a statement of fact, for voters of South Asian origin in the British capital the words would have carried a particularly affirming resonance. In the end, Mr. Khan triumphed easily in the May 5 vote, giving his Labour Party much-needed cheer. The London mayoral election has been a prestigious one since the directly elected office was created in 2000. It helped that Mr. Khan's two, and only, predecessors were larger-than-life figures who freely took on their party leaderships, giving the office a higher profile than its limited powers may merit. Ken Livingstone staged his 2000 campaign at odds with the Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, still wildly popular at the time. Boris Johnson, consistently flamboyant and attention-seeking, now leaves the office to head straight off on a bus tour to rally voters around the Leave option in the Brexit referendum on June 23. Prime Minister David Cameron, of Mr. Johnson's Conservative Party, invokes the spectre of war and isolation if Britain does indeed exit the European Union. But the prestige of the office derives in greater measure from the civic ambitions Mr. Livingstone and Mr. Johnson realised in their respective two-term stints.


Attracting investment and talent while ensuring urban inclusion is a growing challenge in big cities around the world - and London, with its global city dimensions, continues to project 21st century challenges and opportunities more engagingly than any other. For example, Mr. Livingstone proved critics wrong by successfully implementing the congestion tax and using the revenue to strengthen public transport, creating a template for urban planners. Mr. Johnson giddily got on a bicycle, withstanding outrage from motorists for taking away space for cycles. During his campaign, Mr. Khan promised to freeze transport fares, significantly increase the number of homes created in the city annually, and reserve half of these for Londoners. Zac Goldsmith, his Conservative rival, was comparatively vague on specifics, and mounted what can be aptly described as a ‘racist' attack on Mr. Khan by accusing him of engaging with Muslim "extremists". This was an attempt to harness, if not create, Islamophobia. That London's diverse electorate rejected Mr. Goldsmith's polarising campaign lends a heartwarming sheen to the 2016 mayoral election. After his election, Mr. Khan spoke of the need for "big tent" politics rather than politics that speaks almost exclusively to the ideological base - a message seen to be directed at his party chief, Jeremy Corbyn, too. That is why it is not only the rise of the son of a bus driver and a seamstress of Pakistani origin that makes Mr. Khan's election so fascinating from afar. It is also the promise of a new cosmopolitan politics.

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