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As Modi visits US, geospatial Bill targetted by activists, academics, digital industry protagonists

By Our Representative
The Government of India may have reacted sharply to Pakistan's objections to the proposed Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016 but now sharp objections to the Bill have come from within the country, with senior academics, activists and digital industry protagonists usually joining hands. The objections have come just ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the US.
A senior researcher with the Public Health and Environmental Justice Initiative at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Debadityo Sinha, has said it will deal "a body blow to environmental democracy in India", while Nikhil Pahwa of medianama.com, a premier source of information and analysis on digital business in India, has told the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) that the Bill "is impossible to implement".
According to Sinha, a Senior Research Fellow with the Public Health and Environmental Justice Initiative at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, the Bill "places severe restrictions on the acquisition, use and dissemination of geospatial information", even as seeking to "obstruct technological innovation."
Pointing out that Bill will also "hinder independent environmental research", Sinha suggests, online geospatial platforms like Google Earth, USGS LANDSAT viewer, Bhuvan maps and Water Resource Information System will become difficult to use, even though these are “key tools in the arsenal of environmental activists in their critique Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports."
Sinha says, "The EIA Notification 2006 requires most development projects to go through a rigorous 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."
Sihna says, based on geospatial information, the "National Green Tribunal suspended the environment clearance granted to NTPC’s Bijapur thermal power plant in March 2014, as EIA documents stated the site to be barren while satellite imagery and other evidence showed the site was mostly agricultural land."
Sinha adds, "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."
Suggesting that all of it would stop, Sinha says, "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."
He insists, "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."
Pahwa, on the other hand, tells the MHA that the Bill seeks to disseminate an "impractical policy”, adding, "It appears to have been created only with the limited understanding of physical maps or just Google maps, without a clear understanding of how users and businesses use location data."
Pahwa asks the MHA to "define of National Security and Sensitive Geospatial Information", underlining, "Specificity in defining National Security and which locational information is sensitive, can help in identification of violations and in enforcement, and reduce the burden on security agencies and citizens."
He adds, "Without a definition of National Security, and the definition of sensitive Geospatial Information, this law will lead to arbitrary enforcement by security agencies."

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