Geospatial Technologies for resilient India – 2021 and beyond

December 31, 2020 3:12 PM

As world's fifth-largest economy by nominal GDP and third-largest by purchasing power parity (PPP), after a momentary slowdown, India is on the track of revival and is looking at historical opportunities to fuel its economic growth.

GIS frameworkIt was digital infrastructure and technology that came to the rescue of the world and geospatial technologies played a major role in dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Agendra Kumar, 

As news on coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) started trickling in December 2019, little did the rest of the world realize how vulnerable it was and how it will change the order in 2020. As world’s fifth-largest economy by nominal GDP and third-largest by purchasing power parity (PPP), after a momentary slowdown, India is on the track of revival and is looking at historical opportunities to fuel its economic growth. As we limp back to normalcy and take a stride towards resurgence, India story will be defined by its ability to strike the right balance between economic, social, and environmental priorities by embracing inclusiveness, sustainability, and resilience. And this cannot happen without exploring and understanding interconnections and interdependences between economic, social, and environmental ecosystems spatially and temporally.

2020 once again reiterated the significance of resilience and adaptability of nation and its communities. It highlighted the need for exploring and understanding the interconnections, contextualize location, and analyse the interdependencies spatially and temporally through “The Science of Where”. The need for “Preparing Strategically, Responding Rapidly and Recovering Methodically” to minimize the impact of disruptions and build a higher degree adaptability to bounce back. The governments and enterprises who were “geo-aware” and were already capitalizing on geospatial technologies, were more resilient than others. They could mitigate, plan, and bounce back to address the challenges posed by pandemic very quickly, and for others, it took a while.

Looking back

It was digital infrastructure and technology that came to the rescue of the world and geospatial technologies played a major role in dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Once maps and spatial dashboards started telling stories, panic, and uncertainty around the mysterious and rapid rise of cases settled down, and focus shifted to addressing the challenges, responding to the situation on the ground, and providing relief operations. It was not just the governments, enterprises, and civil societies, but common citizens too were glued to eye-catching, intuitive map-based solutions on the web, mobile, and social media alike. Not sure how many would have realized that it was geospatial that was nurturing their curiosity, calming their anxiety, and supporting in their decisions.

As the situation unfolded and uncertainties arose, long term goals and strategies for once took a back seat, and businesses focussed on short term strategies and sustainability. Alternate ways of working emerged which are likely to define the future of the workplace. Limited mobility and social distancing unleashed the power of “virtual” saving time, costs and improving efficiencies. The geospatial industry innovatively addressed complex challenges of remote operations setting a new normal and paving way for better operational efficiencies in times to come.

geospatial infrastructure

Apart from traditional sectors like governments, defence, public safety, infrastructure, urban development, and private enterprises that continued to leverage geospatial infrastructure, here are some notable highlights in 2020:

Climate Change and Disaster Management – Call it the impact of climate change or otherwise, cyclones and unseasonal incessant rains hit the Indian subcontinent creating havoc to food production, infrastructure, and livelihoods. GIS technologies continued to play a major role in bringing together multi-disciplinary subjects to enhance situational awareness and provide actionable intelligence for decision support in mitigating, preparing and responding to natural disasters.

Earth Observation Capabilities – India continued with its tradition of successful Earth Observation satellite launches in 2020 by injecting EOS-01 (formerly RISAT-2BR2) into its intended orbit. With the unique advantages that Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data provides, this will be a big boost for forestry, agricultural and disaster management applications in times to come.

Education – While educational institutions continued to build geospatial capabilities to augment teaching and research in geospatial technologies, All-India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) approved the inclusion of “Geospatial Science and Technology” as a subject in the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) and the National Eligibility Test (NET). An important step in mainstreaming geospatial in higher education.

Governance – ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan’ a major reform focussed on making the country and its citizens independent and self-reliant was launched in 2020. “Atmanirbharta (Self-reliance) is about resilience, leveraging internal strengths to anticipate future trends, prepare, manage and mitigate the disruptions effectively and efficiently and geospatial technologies have a major role to play in the success of these initiatives.

Healthcare – Healthcare sector witnessed an exponential rise in the usage of geospatial tools and dashboards to deal with the pandemic. It started with monitoring of the COVID-19 situation and rapidly expanded to contact tracing, containment zones, disinfections, migrant support, and so on. “National Digital Health Mission” was launched in 2020 aimed at creating the digital infrastructure for healthcare and geospatial technologies will continue to play a critical role in its success.

Land and Forest Resource Management – While the use of GIS technologies continued for planning and urban development at various levels of governance, the Survey of Villages and Mapping with Improvised Technology in Village Areas (SVAMITVA) scheme, launched in 2020, aims at the creation of survey infrastructure, GIS maps and accurate land records for rural planning. This is a revolutionary step to transform rural India. Forest departments continued to leverage on remote sensing and GIS technologies to map the forest cover and carbon stock assessment to strengthen much needed conservation and restoration efforts across the country.

Social Sector – Adoption of geospatial technologies and tools by the social sector to address complex societal problems including education, livelihood, financial inclusion, environment, ecology, natural resource management, etc. was encouraging in 2020. With a critical role played by them in India’s efforts towards meeting UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), their adoption of geospatial technologies is a very positive step.

Water Resource Management – Ministry of Jal Shakti and state governments launched initiatives for integrated water resource management aimed at strengthening the nation’s water security. Geospatial technologies were key components of these initiatives. With a focus on Urban water management, many water utilities continued to adopt and strengthen their GIS capabilities to efficiently manage and maintain their networks to improve operational efficiencies.

2021 and Beyond

Geospatial infrastructure is now widely acknowledged and accepted as a critical component for sectoral development and economic growth. With enhanced awareness and affordable access, governments and enterprises today rely on location-based information more than ever to support strategic priorities, making decisions, and monitoring outcomes. Undoubtedly, geospatial technologies are expected to play a critical role in the road to recovery and India’s march towards a US$ 5 trillion economy. In addition to a continued focus on the above sectors, below are some areas that are expected to stand out in years to come:

GIS for Nation’s Resilience – As we are yet to recover from the impact of the pandemic, we cannot ignore that the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the United Nations (UN) have projected big environmental and economic risks for the world ahead, including India. Geospatial technologies offer a unique advantage in fostering an integrated-systems-based approach and intuitive understanding of what is going on at all scales – locally, regionally and globally, which are critical to a nation’s resilience. Be it economic (Energy, Infrastructure, Agriculture), Social (Urban, Rural, Health, Transportation, Public Safety), or Environmental (Climate) components, GIS empowers all the stakeholders equally with data insights and tools.

Healthcare and COVID-19 Immunization – The scare of pandemic is far from over and the need for strengthening public health systems continues to be a priority. While these challenges continue to be around, positive news on vaccines is possibly showing light at the end of the tunnel. With a 1.3 billion population to be administered with vaccine shots, that needs controlled conditions for handling, it is a supply chain and logistical nightmare. Context of location and time will be the essence in the success of this massive immunization program. Yet again GIS technologies can play a significant role in helping governments to plan, operate, and manage the vaccine distribution and administration.

Geospatial Infrastructure – While advanced geospatial technologies are uniquely positioned to play a pivotal role in India’s growth story, for the real benefits of productivity, efficiency, transparency, and monitoring to reach citizens and customers, geospatial infrastructure holds the key. Each one of the geospatial infrastructure components namely institutional, knowledge, technology, human and last mile – has a vital role to play and there is an urgent need for strengthening the same in a harmonized manner to address challenges of the future.

India as a leader in geospatial technology – As a rapidly growing economy, complex socio-economic-environmental challenges faced by India also offer plentiful domestic opportunities to exploit and harness “The Science of Where” to solve these problems and lead the way in the global community. Blessed with a large skilled and highly adaptable IT workforce, who have already proven their mettle on the global stage and a vibrant start-up community supported by industry-academia partnerships, India is well poised to become a leader in spearheading the design and development of knowledge based geo-enabled decision support capabilities for the world.

(The author is President of Esri India. Views expressed are personal.)

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