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India’s new rules for map data betray its small farmers

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Geospatial data regulations are part of a bigger picture. These are the latest in a series of reforms …land reforms, offers agricultural laws, changes to the forest law, New drone regulations and land digitization schemes—which are all positioned as beneficial to individuals, but which facilitate the entry of private companies into these sectors.

Over the past decade or so, successive governments have pledged prosperity through “digital governance” in order to force more and more Indians to give up their data – personal and otherwise – ostensibly for their own good. Diagrams like Aadhaar, a unique biometric identifier; AgriStack, a collection of technologies and digital databases on farmers and agriculture; the Health ID; and others have resulted in massive digital databases. Although specialized for different things, when these databases are interconnected, they form a powerful digital superstructure — with creep scope, no Data protection laws, and summary regulations on the use and access to this data. With geospatial data now available, there is no clarity on how it could be integrated or correlated with other existing databases.

So while these companies can extract land data and use it to earn money, the marginalized people who live in these areas and earn their living from the land are pushed further out to the peripheries. The more the private sector advances in indigenous lands and in the lands of small farmers, the more the control of the former over the land and its resources increases. This is happening, for example, in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, where the government’s plan to lease inland waterways to private companies risk livelihood local fishermen.

Another example of how it goes, explains Srikanth L. of the cashless consumer collective in a tweet thread, comes from the Survey of Villages and Mapping with Improvised Technology in Village Areas (Svamitva), which aims to map plots of land in rural and inhabited areas using drones.

Svamitva grants anyone who currently lives in a particular rural area an official title to their property, which would serve, Singh writes, as collateral for the loans. (Land ownership in India can be complicated due to the systems created during colonial rule, as well as legal loopholes and poor administrative record keeping.) Srikanth, however, is skeptical. “That doesn’t mean it can’t happen,” Srikanth says. “It will happen, but not for everyone, maybe for early adopters.” Indeed, rural borrowers tend to be outside the formal banking system, sometimes even oblivious to the exemptions and credit programs to which they might be eligible, and largely dependent on informal credit.

Yet while the promised guarantee system is unlikely to work, Svamitva could become the umbrella under which the drone surveillance infrastructure is put in place. The Indian government is on the verge of funds a network of continuously operating reference stations (CORS) – a kind of “highway” for drones to fly autonomously and survey – to support Svamitva. Srikanth believes the Svamitva program is using the “handy fruit” of surveying residential rural land to venture into drone technology. Surveying residential land is “a little less political than, say, searching for farmland,” he says, and when technologies such as drone deliveries, imagery and photography become possible, the CORS ends up being a key infrastructure that the state has invested in. in.

That these geospatial data regulations are accompanied by recent corporatization and privatization in mining, defense manufacturing, Civil Aviation, space exploration, and more is probably not a coincidence. Private companies will be lining up to provide the back-end technologies. For geospatial data collection as well, someone will need to provide the back-end technology: operate the drones, map the data, issue property maps, etc.



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