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India’s new mapping exercise

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  • Published
    10th Dec, 2019

Government of India is set to launch a new mapping exercise to accommodate the needs of present times.


Government of India is set to launch a new mapping exercise to accommodate the needs of present times.


  • The last mapping exercise in India took place nearly 200 years ago by George Everest’s survey.
  • A new mapping exercise is being planned by the country’s oldest scientific organization, the Survey of India (SOI).
  • The objective is to drag India into the realm of other modern economies and digitally update maps of India.
  • The idea is to create highly accurate, free-to-use map layer, which is available in the public domain.
  • For now, the plan is to make data public, and charge a small amount for commercial use. Earlier, the data was sold.
  • Currently, every private entity and state government has an in-house mapping effort.
    • Flipkart, for example, uses machine learning to convert addresses into sub-regions, which are essentially neighbourhood names suggested by field executives.
  • UK experience: United Kingdom, who’s SOI-equivalent, the Ordnance Survey, announced in 2018 to make taxpayer-funded digital maps freely available for businesses and citizens.

How will it be done?

  • SOI’s plan is to develop a high-resolution 1:500 Geoid model of the country. That essentially means 1 cm on the map will represent 500 cm on the ground, which is roughly equivalent to showing the boundaries of each house.
  • Like the decades-old revenue maps, these maps would show the details of village boundaries, canals, agriculture field limits and roads, with a high accuracy of 10 cm, which is critical for land records.
    • Present topographical maps available in public domain are at a scale of 1:50,000.
  • The project has already begun in three states—Haryana, Maharashtra and Karnataka— and about 300 drones are expected to be used for the exercise. The deadline is 2021.
  • SOI’s plans to create a complete 3-D model of cities, which would include details about the altitude above sea level of each point.
  • SOI has established about 2,500 ground control points that are uniformly distributed throughout the country, whose standardized coordinates (latitude-longitude) are known.
    • For improved accuracy, SOI would set up an additional 700-1,000 ground control points to continuously operate as GPS reference stations, at a distance of 50-60km from each other.
    • Professionally operated drones would then cover the remaining gaps.
  • Data will be made publicly available for everyone through map APIs (application programming interfaces).

Problems with current mapping system

  • Land and landownership is not clear. There are a lot of
    • Even in World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings, India ranks low on “registering property" metric.
    • Land disputes clog up an already overburdened court system.
    • According to studies, market distortions in India lead to 1.3% loss in GDP annually.
  • 5 million e-commerce packages are expected to shuttle across the country every single day by 2020. Without proper ownership and address mapping there are doubts if delivery will be accurate and seamless.
    • Addresses are very hard to determine in India, unlike other countries.
  • Today, people have their?khasra?(survey) number, but have no idea where this?khasra?(survey) number is located.
  • Till now, the limited efforts to improve India’s maps have largely focused on urban areas, where most businesses generate their revenue, and swathes of rural areas have remained unmapped, especially the abadi (habitation) areas in a village.
    • Till today they were not seen as a source of revenue and have no formal address system.
  • Everything in India is copyrighted or licensed and that’s where the problem lies in terms of data sharing.
    • Each government department, be it IT or SOI, have their own map data, which they do not readily share with individuals.
    • They usually share it in PDF format which is not readily usable.
  • In the 1950s, India opened up two series of maps—the?open?series for public use at 1:50,000 scale and defence series maps, which are meant exclusively for security agencies.
    • While the defence services remain the core client of government-generated data, the demands of the fast-growing commercial sector have been largely ignored.
    • Only what SOI thinks is not classified is shared with the public because they are not concerned about the everyday needs of the people.
  • Our basic understanding of maps is limited to Google Maps, mostly through Uber/Ola or delivery apps. But, as a nation, we cannot be dependent on other countries for our mapping
  • The urban landscape changes every day--roads, businesses, restaurants, ATMs--and maps need to be updated daily, or they lose value.
  • Current maps pose challenge because there is no proper and accurate data on height.

Benefits of the new maps

  • People will now know and be able to locate their survey number. This will enable them to check their land boundaries and ownership online, rather than depending on the ‘Patwari’.
  • For the first time, we will know the exact boundaries of land. It will also facilitate the registry and transfer processes.
  • Citizens living in the Abadi areas will be give ownership cards, which will allows them to buy/sell their land and even take loans on them.
    • This could transform the economy, because the government will also get fixed revenue, which was not coming in till now.
  • The move will bring greater transparency into land acquisition processes and can potentially help deal with encroachments across cities, especially those on government land.
  • Google maps are can help in navigation but is not very helpful to plan government infrastructure project or build a new railway line. The new survey will solve this problem.
  • 3-D modelling of cities in new maps will be an important input for planning a city’s drainage profile, especially given the future threat of inundation.
    • When integrated with weather forecast, this could help India Meteorological Department to provide impact-based forecasts ahead of severe rainfall events.
    • In future, with introduction of autonomous vehicles, high level of accuracy will be needed, which can come from these maps.

Creating own maps

  • The lack of accessibility to government maps, led to the emergence of an open-street mapping movement in early 2007.
    • Youngsters armed with GPS sensors and internet began mapping their local areas using the Wikipedia-like user-generated “Open Street Map" (OSM).
    • Private organisation like ‘MapmyIndia’ has also been creating digital maps.
  • OSM is a collaborative volunteer project to create crowd sourced editable maps that can be freely used and shared by anybody under an open licence.
    • Since they are freely accessible, they are particularly attractive to start-ups that shift from Google Maps in order to cut down costs.
  • Some volunteer organisations started mapping the public transport system in Chennai and Mumbai, and then, the entire country.
  • To gain the OSM advantage, in 2018, SOI also opened itself to crowdsourcing through a mobile app called “SAHYOG".
    • SOI also launched web portals to improve access to digital maps.
    • But government efforts till now have been patchy.


For long, government had looked at survey data purely through a political/security lens and did not know how to release it strategically in order to earn royalty for the exchequer. Publicly available Geospatial data can transform governments, businesses, and communities for the better. Private sector companies must be incentivized to invest in improving official spatial data.


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