When will the secrets be out?

  • 30/08/1994

WILL the Official Secrets Act determine how efficiently India can utilise and manage its resources? This is the question that the Geographical Information System (GIS), a highly-promising computer software with almost unforeseeable benefits, seems to pose. The GIS softwares, with their mindboggling array of applications, offer arguably the best possibilities in terms of monitoring developments in any field spread over a vast -- or minute -- geographical area.

As our story in the pages of the magazine brings out, the GIS can revolutionise resource distribution, emergency relief and the monitoring of almost any activity where fluctuations are frequent, if not inevitable. As the Down To Earth report shows, the GIS has already found its way into the planning and execution of important plans in developed countries like the US.

India also took the first few steps towards applying of the GIS model in its developmental and relief planning, but now there seems to be a deadlock, of sorts. Unfortunately, this deadlock is not a result of technological bottlenecks. What has stifled the growth of the GIS applications in India -- and what may eventually put paid to its prospects -- are the archaic provisions of the all-encompassing Official Secrets Act. The Act was framed by the British masters of colonial India to prevent official information falling into Indian hands.

However, convenient as the Act was found by the politicians and bureaucrats after Independence, it has grown from strength to strength to the extent that today almost everything in the government files is an official secret. It is this Draconian control that is threatening to abort the future of the GIS.

The GIS database today is welded into the closets of government agencies. While the Survey of India denies common people free access to its cartographic information, agencies like the Ganga Flood Control Commission are equally determined not let anyone know how much water the river discharges in a season. All this is done in the name of national security -- even as outside India, this information is readily available to anyone who cares to punch a few computer buttons. It may suffice to mention that while the water resources authorities have continued to keep a blanket of secrecy around any information about the Ganga, the same can be obtained easily from a non-governmental organisation based in Washington.

Similarly, while Indians do not have access to very detailed maps of coastal areas (in the name of "national security"), a foreign tourist coming to India can easily obtain them from his or her country's embassy and even from some travel agencies. The only losers, therefore, from such superannuated notions of government have been the citizens of India, where reliable information on physical, social and economic geography continues to be available at a premium. It is also because official information is kept in tightly shut closets that often dubious information forms the basis for governmental plans.

Little wonder, then, that most Indian plans are so far removed from the realities they seek to address. The problem gets even more distressing in times of calamities and emergencies when the relief resources are meagre and the speed of their delivery can make all the difference. Anyone who has ever seen the distribution of official relief over large areas devastated by disasters would know how unscientific the whole exercise is.

For instance, when large parts of Latur and Osmanabad districts in Maharashtra were razed by an earthquake last year, it was a common sight to see food and medicine going waste in many villages while their neighbouring villages did not have any relief for days; while too many doctors descended on one village, the next had to wait for days before it got even a paramedic. Similarly, it is common for our relief authorities to be caught unawares when floods hit some part of the country merely because of a lack of rapid monitoring and analysis of the water discharge data. Thus, despite the occurrence of floods being an annual phenomenon in many parts of India, the authorities have little accurate idea of what the likely effect of floods might be before they ravage the land.

It is this kind of guesswork and groping that the GIS promises to make a thing of the past, only if the database that goes into making it is not a product of guesswork, shirking or sheer imagination. The only way accuracy of information can be vouched for is if it is transparently available to the people who have the wherewithal to question its veracity. In the past 50 years, Indian officialdom has shown a tremendous determination not to let this happen. The question is: will it happen now under pressure from technology or will the technology succumb to red tape?

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