In 1954, Jawaharlal Nehru sought to publish maps that would define India's international borders for the first time. Now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying a similar exercise by attempting to define India's geospatial territory.
“Anybody within the territory of India must bear in mind the official position of the Government of India,” said Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju, pitching for a law on mapping, satellite imagery and depiction of sensitive installations. The Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016, a draft of which was released on May 4, seeks to “regulate the acquisition, dissemination, publication and distribution of India's geospatial information, which is likely to affect the security, sovereignty and integrity of the country”.
The home ministry, which has invited public feedback on the draft bill, argues that existing statutes do not have any provisions related to geospatial territory. Also, several social media users have raised concerns about the incorrect depiction of certain areas of Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh as part of Pakistan and China, respectively.
In the bill, the Indian territory includes whole of Jammu and Kashmir and shows the Sino-Indian border according to India's perception of the Line of Actual Control.
Former diplomat Ranjit Singh Kalha told THE WEEK: “We have always asserted our boundaries and, 1962 onwards, a stamp used to be put on any maps showing incorrect boundaries before the customs department would allow it to come into India. So, we have to remain consistent in our position. If any other country objects, it is their problem.”
Pakistan, expectedly, is crying foul. It has raised “serious concerns” with the United Nations, writing to the UN secretary general and the president of the Security Council, stating that India's map, as mentioned in the bill, shows Jammu and Kashmir as part of India, which is “factually incorrect” and legally untenable. China, on the other hand, is unmoved as it does not allow Google to map its territory.
Major General P.N. Koul, former additional surveyor general of India, says the real issue must not be lost in the din. “The law has been proposed just to ensure our international boundaries don't exude confusion,” he said. “Today, maps are floating around on the internet and can have an impact on the psyche of the next generation. When you download a map from the internet, you do not know if it is correct. After this piece of proposed legislation has been put in public domain, sites that wrongly depict the Indian map will be more careful and such arbitrary and free usage of maps will slow down.”
Though India appears to have made its point diplomatically, by telling Pakistan that it is India's “internal matter”, what remains to be seen is whether it can translate the proposal into an actionable piece of legislation.
“The bill has been drafted in such wide terms and extremely broad ambit and amplitude, which is likely to raise legal, policy and regulatory challenges as we go forward,” said cyber law expert Pavan Duggal. “Such a bill, if implemented in the current form, will prejudicially impact the e-commerce and m-commerce markets in a big way.” He said the bill not only proposes to bring in a licence raj in India, but given the fact that information in the electronic form is governed by the Indian Information Technology Act, 2000, there are chances of intrinsic potential conflict between the two laws.
Critics have also said that the government is resorting to “cartographic aggression” rather than trying to find real solutions to border disputes.
“The border settlement issue with China is a different ballgame altogether,” said Rijiju. “Both countries have to agree. But we have to stand on our own demand, our own position. This proposed law is not country specific, nor is it company specific; nor is it any one subject specific. It is specific to the country's security concern.” For now, the home ministry has given no timeline for the bill.
Interview/ Kiren Rijiju, minister of state for home
Pakistan must respect our official position
What was the trigger for the home ministry to bring the draft geospatial bill? It is being widely criticised for its vast provisions.
This draft bill is just at the conceptual stage. All the concerns of the stakeholders will be addressed. I think there will be a major overhaul. Before the final bill is placed before Parliament, there will be a lot of changes, corrections, additions and subtractions because this is a very vast subject. It also depends on the feedback we receive. This is just the beginning.
How will you regulate foreign entities like Google?
There will be disputes and inconvenience to some people outside the country. For those who are inside the country, it will help to have a law. We are mindful of the likelihood of its implications and that is why we have to be careful that it does not harm business groups that want to establish their centre in India. Our Make in India slogan will be successful only if the atmosphere in the country is conducive to the requirements of the various companies.
Would it be applicable to individual users as well?
As of now, it should cover all, but I cannot comment or commit at this stage because, as I said, it has just been conceived.
Why has the proposed legislation started on such a draconian note?
So that you can give them scope. All the concerns must be put before the public. Various stakeholders should be able to react and respond to it. We cannot confine ourselves to a narrow margin of issues, so we have to widen the scope for concerns to be raised. It is good that a lot of response is coming. We need it and we need the law.
What about Pakistan's concern?
Pakistan's concern is within its territory and our concern is within ours. Our concern is that, whatever is our official position, it must be respected.
Are we trying to emulate China, which does not allow Google to map its territory?
No, we are not bringing licence raj or reestablishing a permit raj system. As I said, this particular piece of draft must be taken on a positive note because it is just for getting appropriate feedback from the public. My request to those who are raising concerns would be—please don't make opinions; give suggestions. I think after all the effort, this will become a nice piece of legislation.
Offences and penalties
Penalty for illegal acquisition of India's geospatial information: Fine of Rs 1 crore to Rs 100 crore and/or imprisonment up to seven years.
Penalty for illegal dissemination or publication of geospatial information: Fine of Rs 10 lakh to Rs 100 crore and/or imprisonment up to seven years.
Penalty for use of India's geospatial information outside India: Fine of Rs 1 crore to Rs 100 crore and/or imprisonment up to seven years.
Penalty for wrong depiction of India's map: Fine of Rs 10 lakh to Rs 100 crore and/or imprisonment up to seven years.
Penalty for violation of conditions of a licence: Fine of Rs 10 lakh to Rs 100 crore and/or revocation of licence and/or imprisonment up to seven years.