Restrictions are redundant

For the rich

Published: Wednesday 15 December 2004

Restrictions are redundant

Indian rules: maps cannot have

MoD, however, persists in deleting coordinates from maps, believing this would prevent access to such information. But its officials themselves use the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS), which through a device similar to a tiny calculator can accurately provide coordinates anywhere in the world. In fact, India is negotiating a deal with the European Union and some other countries to set up such a system of its own and create an alternative to the only GPS satellite system in existence today -- owned by the US. The hand-held GPS device is available for as little as Rs 10,000 and gives the exact latitude and longitude (and at times the height from sea level) of any place at the mere click of a few buttons.

Besides, many of the restricted maps are available abroad. Ramachandran notes in his article on mapping policy in Current Science, "The toposheets that are restricted by SoI on security grounds are available for sale from foreign agencies like the Stanford International Map Centre, London. Satellite imageries of even larger scale, which provide all the geographic and topographic information, are easily available abroad."

Against a plethora of sources available abroad, what the obsolete regulations do is simply create a divide -- those who can pay can get the map from abroad; those who cannot, fill the requisite form and wait endlessly. (see table: Turning a blind eye)

Later editions
Moreover, maps of India available abroad are usually updated more regularly than government can manage. Says Hrishikesh Samant, department of geology, St Xavier's College, Mumbai, "Russian-made topographical maps of strategic cities like Mumbai are later editions than the presently available SoI toposheets. The same is the case with very high-resolution remotely sensed satellite data as well as topographic elevation data from sources like the SRTM (Shuttle Radar Telemetry Mission of the US government)."

Samant narrates a classic example: a high-resolution image of part of Mumbai city acquired by the Russian satellite KVR 3000 is available as a free sample on the web. This image shows the entire Western Naval Command Headquarters, the aircraft carriers that can be distinctly identified and of course, every destroyer and submarine. "When this was brought to the notice of some naval officers, they were overjoyed to have copies of the satellite imagery depicting the Naval Dockyard where they could proudly pinpoint their ships. Yet, any aerial photograph covering this area is, and will be, a highly classified 'TOP SECRET' document."

For those in the mapping business in India, such anecdotes are commonplace. An ecologist based in southern India recollects how researchers working in the Northeast (another restricted area) acquired old maps of the area from Russian sources for ground surveys. On one such survey, they came upon an army camp. In that sparsely populated area, interaction with civilians was rare and so the army treated them like royalty and got friendly. So friendly that the officers admitted they were finding it difficult to navigate their way around; so, could they trace the maps the researchers had? The latter readily obliged!

But sometimes, possessing a map of a restricted area can become a nightmare. Delhi-based GIS experts cite the example of a state chief secretary against whom an enquiry was ordered for possessing maps of a border area, only to find he had got them for development work in the region.

Scientists and researchers often complain of the lack of geographical information to carry out studies. Seismologists working in the Himalayan regions say permission to work close to the border is next to impossible unless strings are pulled. And it is rather pointless to mention the plight of an individual who may, due to curiosity or otherwise, wish to see a toposheet or want to "play" with the plan of his locality on a digital map.

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