The Historical Importance of India’s Cartography Reforms

The Historical Importance of India’s Cartography ReformsA map of north India.
  • The liberalization of the geospatial sector promises to transform this crucial technological cluster. Its importance is clearer if one appreciates the wider historical context.

Last week, the government of India announced far reaching liberalization of the cartography and geospatial sector. This is a major step towards enhancing indigenous capacity in this crucial sector by allowing private sector greater space to innovate as well as opening it up, with some restrictions, to international players to invest onshore. For hundreds of years, cartography has been at the cutting edge of technological innovation, and its military, geostrategic and commercial importance cannot be emphasized enough. Therefore, in order to understand the significance of the new policy, it is important to know the history of cartography.

The Age of European Rivalry

In the early 16th century, Spain and Portugal had the best maps in the world. They had the best information since they had pioneered voyages to the Americas and the Indian Ocean. Not surprisingly, they guarded this information jealously and all maps were a state secret. Returning captains were expected to share the details of new discoveries only with designated officials although a lot of information soon seeped out due to espionage and bribery.

By the1530s, however, Dutch and Flemish merchants had collected enough information that their maps had begun to surpass those of the Iberians. The Dutch had a private sector-led approach to cartography that allowed talented mapmakers like Gerardus Mercator to make rapid innovations. Some of these innovations, such as the Mercator projection, are used to this day.

The technology soon crossed the Channel to England. A Flemish cartographer Jodocus Hondius set up shop in London in the 1580s and dramatically upgraded the capabilities of the English. The Dutch and English had a free-wheeling attitude to mapmaking – they collected information from their own voyages (such as those of Francis Drake), from privateers and pirates, and shamelessly stole it from their rivals. The result was that they soon had the best maps in the world. This was a key reason that they were able to outcompete Spain and Portuguese.

The Dutch and English East India Companies would invest heavily in mapmaking in the next few centuries. Indeed, both these companies and their governments extended a lot of support to innovations in the sector. For instance, in 1714, the British Parliament offered 20,000 pounds (GBP 3 million in today’s money) to anyone who could build a clock that worked accurately at sea; a pendulum clock was obviously useless on a swaying ship. Note that the urgent need for such a clock as driven by cartographic considerations – the accurate placement of longitudes. The prize was eventually won by John Harrison who invented the balance-wheel and revolutionized time-keeping; a spin-off from mapmaking.

The East India Company

A key reason that Britain ultimately beat its rivals and colonized India (and much of the world) was that its cartographic capabilities soon surpassed everyone else. By the 1760s, military surveyors like James Rennell of the East India Company (EIC) began to create some of first properly surveyed maps of India. The Survey of India was established by 1767 to institutionalize the effort. This was no idle investment by the EIC as it was critical that it maintained a lead over the French and the Marathas. The Marathas were the only Indians that built some cartographic capability but they never quite caught up with the British. This gap was a critical factor that eventually allowed the EIC to subdue the only Indian power capable of beating it.

Led by William Lambton and then George Everest, the Survey of India would systematically map out India in the nineteenth century. The Great Trigonometrical Survey of India was considered one of the greatest scientific achievements of the period. It not only mapped out the EIC’s colonial possessions but, for the first time, worked out the exact curvature of the Earth.

As this stage, the British converted the mapping of India into a monopoly of the Survey of India. This should not surprising as the colonial power would not have wanted either its European rivals or the locals to have free access to information. In contrast, note that the sector continued to remain open back in Britain.

Post Independence India

One of the ironies of independent India is that the colonial monopoly of the Survey of India was continued. Even as satellite and digital technologies revolutionized the geospatial sector around the world, indigenous capabilities stagnated. To be fair, some capacity was retained and even enhanced, but by the turn of this century it was clear that Survey of India would not be able to keep up with the explosion of innovation.

The real problem was not so much the Survey of India itself but the restrictions on private participation. Thus, when a team led by Lalitesh Katragadda created Google Maps in India, they were technically illegal. The viral spread of Google Maps, therefore, would remain a legal grey area till the sector was finally liberalized last week.

As we have seen, the cartography and geospatial sector has been of critical economic and geostrategic importance for centuries. The technological cluster has applications ranging from urban governance and defense to transportation and ecommerce. By opening it up to private innovation and investment, the government hopes that India will be able to create cutting-edge capabilities that can compete with the best in the world.

(The author is Principal Economic Adviser, Government of India. The opinions are strictly personal).


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