By Naina Sharma*
Broadly speaking, the term geospatial technology refers to equipment which facilitate the measurement and analysis of the earth’s features. It typically involves tools such as – GPS, GIS (geographical information systems) and remote sensing. To begin with, these technologies played an important role in the realm of – national security and research. However, over the years the data supplied by geospatial technology has become indispensable for the working of sectors like – universities, NGOs, startups, forest fire suppression, etc. Of late, geospatial information has been an important tool in the field of environmental activism. It has provided much needed data to environmentalists while attempting to highlight instances of – illegal mining, deforestation, encroachment and other violations.
It is in this context, that the current draft of the bill has invoked strong criticism from various quarters. The bill imposes sweeping restrictions on the acquisition, dissemination and publication of geospatial information of India. In other words, an individual/organisation requiring access to any form of geospatial data vis a vis India’s territory shall require permission from the government (security vetting agency). The granting of permission could take as along as three months , and that too only if the govt is satisfied that the contents of the data – “confirms to the larger national objective of protecting the nation’s security, sovereignty, and safety.”
If implemented, the clauses of the bill could sound the death knell for popular ventures like Ola, Uber, home delivery services, adventure sports and rescue missions, all of which depend on continuous access to GPS data in order to function. Not to mention the fact that, in this day and age every smart phone is GPS enabled. Since, the govt is required to respond within three months of the license application, the information would become obsolete for most businesses which depend on real-time data.
Policy experts opine that the draconian provisions of the Bill violate the spirit of Article 21 of the constitution, since it hinders an individual’s right to access environmental information and the right to participate in environmental decision making, which can be tied up with the aspect of Fundamental right to life and a healthy environment. Furthermore, the bill cannot be upheld as a ‘reasonable restriction’ because, the measures it proposes are disproportionate to the object it seeks to achieve, i.e., protection of national security.
It is important to note, the concerns pertaining to national security have already been addressed under the provisions of legislations like National Map Policy (2005), National Data Sharing Policy (2005), and the National Geospatial Policy 2016. These policies classify different categories of geospatial information according to their degree of sensitivity, and accordingly tailor restrictions on their use. The current bill on the other hand, imposes blanket restrictions.
Another problematic aspect of the Bill is that, the clearance agencies and the enforcement agencies comprise of members of the bureaucracy. Such a set up gives too much power to the executive (bureaucracy), such that it is empowered to take on quasi- judicial roles at the initial stages of trial – the judiciary has no role to play till the appellate tribunal. Such provisions weaken environmental democracy since, a lot of precious time would be lost – right from the first step of application (could take three months ) to going through various stages of appeal if the permission is denied. In the past decade, geospatial data had provided much needed information for the purpose of EIA (environment impact assessment).
A popular case would be MP Patil vs Union of India – the EIA documents stated that the site was barren. This was challenged by environmentalists who presented satellite imagery to prove that it was mostly agricultural land . Consequently, the environmental clearance given to National Thermal Power Corporation’s Bijapur plant was suspended by the NGT in 2014.
The draconian nature of the Bill becomes particularly evident while analysing its penal provisions – illegal acquisition of geospatial information could invite fines ranging from Rs 1 crore to Rs 100 crore. While illegal dissemination/publication of geospatial information in contravention of Sec 4, shall be punishable with a fine ranging from Rs 10 lakh to Rs 100 crore. The quantum of punishment in such cases could be up to seven years. In its current form, this Bill is flawed at many levels. For one, the main threat to the country emanates from the usage of geospatial data by ‘enemy nations’ – an arena which goes beyond India’s territorial jurisdiction.
The provisions of the Bill will make the functioning of the govt agencies vis a vis environmental clearances and projects very opaque. Such measures weaken environmental democracy and dilutes the doctrine of ‘Right to Information’. If we are to assume that the govt agencies are working for the betterment of the environment then, logically speaking, they should have nothing to hide. If the bill becomes an Act, then it would undermine even the govt’s stated goal of facilitating ventures like – make in India /startup India /smart city projects ( most of which rely on geospatial data) – a contradiction the govt would do well to resolve. The sly motive behind this Bill ties up with the tendency to perceive environmental activism as a distraction in the path of unbridled industrialisation – a narrative we all need to challenge!