Saturday, 30 May 2020

What Is The Draft Of Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016, All About?

Updated: July 28, 2016 11:38 am

A lot of sound and fury is being raised over the proposed Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016, as it proposes a whooping fine of Rs 1 crore to Rs 100 crore. In addition, a seven-year jail term is also proposed.  The details of the punishment to clear the whole picture will be there in the later part of article. Legal experts are decrying such an extreme step which, they feel, cannot be justified under any circumstances. They feel there should be more deliberations on it before giving it the final touch and such a whooping fine is totally unjustified.

The Ministry Home Affairs on May 4, 2016,  released a draft of “The Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016”. According to the draft, it will be mandatory to take permission from a government authority before acquiring, disseminating, publishing or distributing any geospatial information on India and take licenses for acquiring or sharing maps. It is a Bill to regulate the acquisition, dissemination, publication and distribution of geospatial information of India which is likely to affect the security, sovereignty and integrity of India and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.

The Bill is still only in the draft stage and has been opened up for suggestions from all quarters. The government felt compelled to bring in this Bill due to frequent controversies arising out of wrong depiction of Indian maps. Here are some of the glaring controversies in recent past. In March 2014 in the run up to the 2014 national elections, the AAP and BJP very heatedly had daggers drawn out over embedded Google maps on each other’s website for the depiction of Kashmir and Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir (PoK). Soon after, we saw how in November 2014, Queensland University of Technology, Australia had displayed a map of India without the state of Jammu and Kashmir, while PM Narendra Modi was on a visit there. The University later tendered an apology after a strong protest over the wrong portrayal by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). More recently, in April 2015, Indians saw how a news channel, Al Jazeera English was banned for five days for wrong depiction of Indian map on air.

Thus, we see that all such huge embarrassing controversies over wrong depictions of  Indian maps created a huge furore. The government felt compelled to put in place a strong law so that such unsavoury controversies are checked immediately. Before proceeding ahead, it is imperative to understand its salient features.

What does “geospatial information” means? According to Section 2 (e) of the Draft Bill: “Geospatial Information means geospatial imagery or data acquired through space or aerial platforms such as satellite, aircraft, airships, balloons, unmanned aerial vehicles including value addition; or graphical or digital data depicting natural or man-made physical features, phenomenon or boundaries of the earth or any information related there to including surveys, charts, maps, terrestrial photos referenced to a co-ordinate system and having attributes.”

In simple terms, one can say that any addition or creation of anything that has to do with any geospatial information– or location –within the territory of India will need the permission of the government or, in this case, a Security Vetting Authority. The Security Vetting Authority grants licenses to organisations/individuals who want to use geospatial data. It will check the content and data provided and make sure it is well within national policies, “with the sole objective of protecting national security, sovereignty, safety and integrity”.

The Section 3 (3) of the Bill stipulates:  “The Security Vetting Authority shall, within three months from the date of receipt of an application made under sub-section (2), either grant a licence with such conditions as may be specified thereon or reject the application as the case may be after examining the application in terms of the guidelines: Provided that no application shall be rejected under this section unless the applicant has been given a reasonable opportunity of presenting his case.” Section 3 (4) further states :  “No person shall continue possession of geospatial information of India, after rejection of the application by the Security Vetting Authority under sub-section (3) above or after dismissal of appeal, if any, by the Appellate Authority or the High Court or the Supreme Court, as the case may be, whichever is later.”

We thus see that very strict norms are being put in place to ensure that maps of India are not wrongly projected. It also must be brought out here that an ‘Apex Committee’ under the Ministry of Home Affairs would oversee the Security Vetting Authority as is elaborated in Section 7 of the Bill which will adhere to policies involving national security as well as public interest as the Central Government may give to it in writing. The Security Vetting Authority shall consist of an officer of the rank of Joint Secretary to the Government of India or above as Chairman and two members, one, a technical expert and the other, a national security expert.

This will certainly go a long way in checking the wrong depiction of Indian maps. The huge fine that is proposed has been ushered in by the government to check the growing instances of certain social networking sites depicting Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh as part of Pakistan and China respectively. So also has the Security Vetting Authority been created to ensure that wrong maps of India are not allowed a free run in social networking sites and in other places, which creates a huge embarrassment for the Centre. Now apart from Google, the other apps like Ola, Uber, Zomato, AirBnB and Oya as also Twitter and Facebook will have to be careful against wrongly depicting Indian maps.

Older maps, after this Bill is passed, would be required to seek license within a year of the Bill being passed. No license can be suspended for a period exceeding 10 days. An Appellate Authority will hear appeals against Enforcement Authority decisions and appeals to be disposed of within six months of receipt. No courts will  have jurisdiction in matters that can be brought to the Appellate Authority.

The decisions of Appellate Authority can be challenged in the High Courts. Section 27 envisages that any person aggrieved by any decision or order of the Appellate Authority may file an appeal to the High Court within sixty days from the date of communication of the decision or order of the Appellate Authority to him on any question of fact or law arising out of such order. It also provides a provison that the High Court may, if it is satisfied that the appellant was prevented by sufficient cause from filing the appeal within the said period, allow it to be filed within a further period not exceeding sixty days.

Section 28 of the Bill provides for prompt disposal of Appeals. It  states:  “Appeal filed, if any, before any of the Appellate bodies namely the Appellate Authority, the High Court or the Supreme Court shall be dealt with as expeditiously as possible and the endeavor shall be to dispose o the appeal within six months from the date of receipt of the appeal at each stage, viewing the security concerns of India”.

The Enforcement Authority shall have the powers of a civil court for the purposes of Sections 345 and 346 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 and all proceedings before it shall be deemed to be judicial proceedings  within the meaning of Sections 193 and 228 of the IPC. Under Section 20 (1) of the Bill, the Enforcement Authority may, by order, direct a person to take such measures or cease carrying on such activities as specified in the order if those are necessary to ensure compliance with the provisions of this Act, rules or any regulations made thereunder. Section 20 (2) further stipulates that any person who fails to comply with an order under sub-section (1) shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or to a fine not exceeding Rs 1 crore or to both. Enforcement Authority is empowered to compound any contravention under Section 21 (1) but Section 21 (2) adds a rider that nothing in sub-section (1) shall apply to a person who commits the same or similar contravention within a period of one year from the date on which the first contravention, committed by him, was compounded.

The penalties provided for in various Sections in this Bill for different offences are :  Section 12 stipulates that whosoever acquires any geospatial information  of India in contravention of Section 3 shall be punished with a fine ranging from Rs 1 crore to Rs 100 crore and/or imprisonment of upto seven years. Also, Section 13 envisages that whoever disseminates, publishes or distributes any geospatial information of India in contravention of Section 4 shall be punished with a fine ranging from Rs 10 lakh to Rs 100 crore and/or imprisonment of upto seven years.

Further, Section 14 which deals with penalty for use of geospatial information of India outside India explicitly states that whosoever uses any geospatial information of India in contravention of Section 5 shall be punishable with fine ranging from Rs 1 crore to Rs 100 crore and/or imprisonment upto seven years. Section 15 lays down that whoever depicts, disseminates, publishes or distributes any wrong or false topographic information of India including international boundaries in contravention of Section 6 shall be punished with fine from Rs 10 lakh to Rs 100 crore and/or imprisonment upto seven years. Section 16 confers same punishment as that of Section 15 upon a licensee who violates the terms and conditions mentioned and there is suspension or revocation of the licence and/or imprisonment upto seven years.

It is a no brainer that this Bill primarily seeks to make the Centre the sole custodian of geospatial data in India. It also needs no rocket science to conclude that the Bill in its present form needs to be diluted and the huge fine proposed must be reduced as also the jail sentence proposed. It is the small firms who will be the worst affected, for big companies like Google, Microsoft and Uber can survive by getting all their maps vetted out.  But yes, it must be effectively and uniformly implemented because that alone would go a long way in checking the wrong depiction of Indian maps, which lands the government in a soup and sends a wrong message altogether.

A course correction needs to be undertaken in the right earnest and huge penalties proposed must be brought down considerably. Also, the jail term must be reduced to two or three years only and not seven years! Currently, the jail term proposed and the fine proposed are just simply too much which needs to be brought down right now.

This Bill primarily is aimed at someone like Google and other big portals but many millions of innocent who routinely use the geospatial information that is available to everyone freely could end up becoming the unintended targets and this is what must be immediately checked. BK Srivastava, who is a former General Manager of Survey and Cartography of the Airports Authority of India and now an aviation consultant, apprehends: “If the chief provision of the Bill is accepted, acquisition of data through satellites even for innocent purposes like using Google maps in cars may become illegal.” The blanket exemption to government entities that has been granted must be done away with. It is widely being denounced that the Bill seeks to make every person associated with the business offering map service an accessory to a crime in case of any violation whether it is deliberate or not is immaterial.  This too must be addressed very urgently just like all other shortcomings in this Bill which shall very soon become a law. It brooks no further delay anymore. The earlier this is done, the better it shall be in the longer run!

by Sanjeev Sirohi

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