Clear Case of Overkill

Published 2013-07-05 03:40:24

“NO public or private organisation, private firm or individual, national or international, shall undertake any geospatial data collection, production or analysis work and surveying and mapping activities unless they are registered with the Survey of Pakistan for such purpose as may be prescribed.

“The qualifications of staff and suitability for such work shall also be certified by Survey of Pakistan in the prescribed manner.” And “Before registration, the Survey of Pakistan shall obtain clearance of such firms, organisations and individuals from concerned agencies as it may deem appropriate.”

“Concerned agencies” here is a nice touch.

On May 20, the president promulgated an ordinance for the constitution and regulation of the Survey of Pakistan. The bill was to be taken up by the National Assembly on March 11, 13 and 14 but the house could not do so due to the paucity of time, after which its tenure was completed on March 17. Prior to this, the cabinet had okayed the bill, which was moved by the then minister for defence, Syed Naveed Qamar.

Certainly, there was a need to reconstitute the Survey of Pakistan and modernise it. The quality of its work needs improvement and it needs to get much better at using modern techniques for imaging and creating/maintaining digitised data/maps. But the ordinance does much more than this: it is an attempt — by agencies, it seems — to control the production and analysis of all sorts of data. It is a case of overkill.

If you have a smart phone with a GPS tracker that records the path you take as you drive, you are breaking the law if you are not registered with the Survey of Pakistan, according to this ordinance. If a police officer makes a sketch of a crime incident, he is in violation. If you are using Google Crowd-sourced maps to map your neighbourhood, you are violating the law. If you have taken a photograph of Badshahi Masjid and uploaded it on Flickr, you might be in violation if your camera tags the geo-coordinates.

There are valid security concerns with mapping and digitisation: we do not want knowledge of our defence and other strategic assets to be on maps that go into the hands of unauthorised personnel. This concern is not unique to Pakistan. All countries have similar security concerns and all of them have laws ensuring that breaches of security do not occur. But they have not created draconian laws to achieve the purpose — you do not use a sledgehammer to do the work for which the tools of a jeweller should suffice.

When I do household surveys, and especially in cases where I am trying to collect longitudinal or panel data, I want to map the surveyed households through GPS so that I can locate them again a few years later when I want to revisit these households. The ordinance has made this illegal (it allows students/ researchers to do limited mapping but only students/researchers of public-sector institutions).

I have to now register myself with the Survey of Pakistan and get its permission and the permission of agencies before I can carry out any surveys. And they will also ensure I have the qualifications to do this work. If this is not a sledgehammer, I don’t know what is.

Have you tried to get a no-objection certificate, a permission letter and/or a licence? It’s worse than having your teeth extracted. Will the Survey of Pakistan work any differently? More importantly, what will this sledgehammer approach achieve? Will it address security concerns? All it will achieve is making life difficult for researchers and citizens and some of the industry that wants to make profits through digitising information on and about Pakistan.

The ordinance goes on to make any copying illegal too. Consider the broad language used here: “Except as provided under this act, any act of copying, digitising or printing any geographic map or photograph or satellite imagery shall be prohibited” — the sledgehammer again.

The penalties for violating the law are severe. “An individual who engages in geospatial data production, analysis and surveying and mapping activities in violation of the provisions of this act shall be liable to be imprisoned for a term which may extend up to one year and a fine of up to one million rupees.”

In the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake and again after the 2010 floods, we were involved in initiatives that mapped the areas where the devastation had occurred through satellite imagery and later, using GPS coordinates. We tried to organise the monitoring of the rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts. If such a situation were to arise now, we would have to run the risk of being declared criminals to do such work.

We want to map all primary and secondary schools in each district. This could, with other information, allow us to see where we need more schools and where we need to rationalise the ones that are present; it could help us identify clusters and design training, etc, based on clusters. But all of this will now require us to get a certificate from the Survey of Pakistan.

The government has added Article 19(a) in the Constitution to give citizens basic rights over information. Yet it has also imposed this ordinance. The two are not compatible. Security concerns should be addressed, but these concerns should not be allowed to become a blanket cover for laws/ordinances in broad strokes. We have seen this many times, around the world. Rights advocates should be vigilant against such moves by the government/establishment and the security agencies.

As is typical of this sort of legislation, there were no consultations with stakeholders before the ordinance was promulgated. One hopes that as this ordinance lapses, the new government will do a thorough rewriting of the law before it brings it back to parliament for approval.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, Friday 5th July, 2013


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