Democratising access to data

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

INDIA'S politicians and bureaucrats have often been compared to the five blind men and the elephant, with the difference that they have consciously chosen to be blind. For years, they have woven a shroud of secrecy over the state of the country's natural resources and every bit of relevant data remains an official secret stored in sacrosanct files.

This state of affairs is comfortable indeed for policy-makers because data is information and to be informed is to have power. Without information, pertinent questions cannot be asked and officials can take wrong decisions and get away with the mess that ensues. Hence, it is little wonder that data collection became an intensely political exercise.

Then, the Americans came up with a device that they had perfected to pinpoint Viet Cong soldiers who would hide behind a thick mass of vegetation and attack US positions. In a more benign application, however, the US National Aeronautical and Space Administration launched the first of the LANDSAT satellites in 1972. It orbited the earth 14 times per day at an altitude of 918 km and procured valuable data about the earth's resources. This data was then made available to the public.

In a limited sense, LANDSAT has proved to be the Indian bureaucracy's nemesis, for, suddenly, the buck no longer needs to stop at the bureaucrat's desk. The realisation that the Americans could obtain through remote sensing, information about India's geophysical status, provided a major impetus for this country to develop its own remote sensing capabilities. This did not come easily. Defence officials battled with then space supremo Vikram Sarabhai for years until it began to sound ludicrous to all that we were denying to ourselves the knowledge that the US already had about us.

A major fallout of this availability of data was the tussle over estimates of the forest cover. The National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA), using LANDSAT imagery, set the area under forest cover in 1980-82 at only 46.3 m ha, much to the chagrin of the forest department. Later, efforts were made to reconcile the differing figures in a manner acceptable to both the forest authorities and the remote sensing agency. But the fact remained that satellite imageries provided the data for a strong indictment of the country's forest management policies. Degradation of forests, grazing lands, water bodies and arable land is usually a slow but inexorable process. Now, most of these processes can be monitored through remote sensing.

Unfortunately, such monitoring does not take place. In a study entitled Increasing Drought Conditions in Southern Rajasthan, Narendra Gupta, who worked among the Bhil Meenas of Rajasthan, graphically describes his experiences in trying to get information on drought conditions in the Pratapgarh sub-division of the state: "What was shocking was the non-availability of adequate and appropriate data with the various government departments to monitor and gauge the phenomenon of fast spreading drought conditions in Southern Rajasthan. The forest department, district rural development agencies, agriculture and soil conservation departments and the statistics department had no relevant data regarding the rate and magnitude of deforestation, soil erosion, silting of reservoirs and other environmental effects contributing and resulting from the drought situation in the Pratapgarh sub-division."

And, he comments further, even if this data had been compiled at a higher level, it wasn't made available at the local level in Pratapgarh.

Because information is power, remote sensing has the potential of both concentrating power in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats and of empowering the people at large by profoundly democratising access to data. It is vital that the latter prevails -- and not the former.

Good management of natural resources can only become a reality if people have access to information about their environment. This is the only way there can be a check on users -- public or private. Remote sensing, despite its high costs, can help make this possible. Agencies outside the government should try to develop their own capacity to analyse satellite data.

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