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Pakistanis lost without maps

November 21, 2012

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The Ministry of Defence is about to declare mapping illegal in Pakistan. The federal cabinet, Pakistan’s foremost civilian authority, is willingly giving up a civic task to agencies that report to Pakistan’s Armed Forces.

The proposed Land Surveying and Mapping Bill 2012 will entrust all mapping responsibilities in Pakistan to the Survey of Pakistan (SoP), which supposedly reports to the Ministry of Defence (MoD), but effectively takes its orders and cues from the General Head Quarters. Consider that the Surveyor General of Pakistan is often a serving or retired General, who leads the organisation that is not open to scrutiny by the civilian authorities.

The proposed Bill will require all government or private agencies involved in surveying and mapping to register themselves with the SoP. Failing to do so will result in one-year imprisonment and a fine of up to one million rupees. The Bill further threatens imprisonment and fines up to five million rupees to office bearers of firms who do not comply with the directives of the SoP. The Bill will restrict mapping responsibilities to the SoP in the public sector, thus eroding decades of development work in geo-spatial analytics by several provincial government and municipal authorities.

The Bill enables the SoP to ask the Police to register a criminal case against an individual firm or a person who is found developing maps independent of the SoP. Furthermore, the SoP will recover funds received by anyone found developing geo-spatial solutions without the SoP’s blessings. For instance, if the Higher Education Commission awards a grant to a professor at a university to do research using geo-spatial data, and if the professor fails to register his research plan with the SoP, the University would have to give up funds to SoP while the professor could be jailed and fined. Even the Federal Bureau of Revenue cannot keep the funds it recovers from defaulters.

The provisions of the proposed Bill constitute a serious threat to civil liberties, intellectual freedom, freedom of expression, and pursuit of knowledge in Pakistan. The Bill, as it stands today, will curb operational freedom of several federal and provincial agencies, and will handicap all municipal governments in their ability to deliver services to their constituents. The Bill will also restrict several international humanitarian agencies from providing relief to millions of internally displaced Pakistanis who have been effectively abandoned by the State. And lastly, the Bill will force internal and external donors to channel all funds for mapping and spatial data production to the SoP, further extending the Armed Forces unwelcome control over civic matters and resources. If civilian rule in Pakistan is to flourish, this law must not be enacted.

Theater of the Absurd

According to the BBC, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf chaired a meeting of the federal cabinet on November 14 in which the Ministry of Defence (MoD) expressed its concerns about the quality of maps being produced by various departments of the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies in Pakistan. Furthermore, the MoD expressed reservations about mapping of sensitive areas in Pakistan. The MoD highlighted the need for legislation to act against such agencies.

BBC further revealed that in an earlier meeting on January 11, 2012, the federal cabinet instructed Ministries of Defence, Interior, and Petroleum to consult on the same matter and propose a framework. The three ministries decided that instead of entrusting the civilian controlled Geological Survey of Pakistan the task to set standards for mapping, all mapping services were made the exclusive domain of the military-controlled Survey of Pakistan. This stands out as a unique example of civilians willingly handing over control of civic matters to the armed forces.

There is more to this madness. BBC further revealed that Dr. Zafar Qadir, Chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), had asked Pakistan’s intelligence agencies to take note of the activities of a relief agency Information Management and Mine Action Programs (iMMAP), which according to the learned Chairman, was operating illegally in Pakistan. Dr. Qadir asked the authorities to act against iMMAP and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) whom he accused of threatening the security of Pakistan by undertaking mapping.

Nothing could be more absurd than accusing the United Nations, its sister organisations, and other international relief agencies of compromising Pakistan’s security. These relief organisations have funded NDMA and other government agencies to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. The development community in Pakistan is intimately aware of the financial support provided by the UN and other multinational and bilateral donors who have helped finance the relief efforts after the devastating earthquake in 2005 or the floods in 2010 and later. Why then is the Chairman NDMA asking the intelligence authorities to act against the very donors who have provided food, shelter, and relief to millions of Pakistanis in their hour of need.

Dr. Zafar Qadir is a learned man who holds a doctorate in development studies from Texas Christian University in Louisiana. His doctoral dissertation focused on providing education in remote areas in Balochistan where his own NGO continues to operate. Dr. Qadir, while attending a conference on humanitarian education and training in Geneva in October 2011 mentioned that he was there to learn about how governments receiving humanitarian aid can link up with the donor agencies. How did Dr. Qadir jump from learning to link aid agencies with governments to asking intelligence agencies in Pakistan to act against the UN?

As for iMMAP, which according to BBC irked Dr. Qadir, Pakistan’s flood relief efforts would not be as effective without the timely maps iMMAP generates to reflect the updated status of floods in Pakistan. Helping with the flood relief is certainly no reason to have intelligence operatives intimidate and pre-empt relief experts from doing their jobs.

Regardless of what NDMA believes, the fact remains that if relief efforts were left to the civil and military authorities in Pakistan, more misery would have befallen on the millions of those affected by floods and earthquakes. Remember that when the relief goods started to arrive by air after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, the air traffic control in Islamabad, which is controlled by agencies that fall under the Ministry of Defence, was not capable of even managing the incoming flights. If it were not for the dedicated air traffic control experts of DHL, who managed the Islamabad Airport’s airside and logistics operations, the flights carrying relief goods would not have been able to even land in Islamabad. With such dependency on foreign help and expertise, NDMA or any other government authority is in no position to deny help, let alone make matters worse for them to operate within Pakistan.

Mapping of sensitive areas is a red herring

MoD’s concerns about mapping of Pakistan’s sensitive areas are ill-founded. The Satellite imagery has made available detailed topographic maps and images of every square inch of Pakistan. Universities in the West have access to Petabytes of high-resolution imagery data covering Pakistan’s every nook and cranny. Even the Satellite image of Osama Bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad is available for all to see on the Internet. ESRI provides free access to high-resolution satellite images of the entire country, including Rawalpindi Cantonment. Google has made available detailed street network maps of Pakistani cities, including Karachi.

There is nothing left in Pakistan that has not been mapped or for which the high-resolution Satellite imagery is not available. From coastal areas to cantonments, all lay bare on the internet for all to see. It appears that the SoP and other federal agencies were sleeping when the digital revolution in spatial data generation took place. These agencies have nothing to offer to the people or other state authorities that rely on maps and geo-referenced data. The MoD and other departments should reconsider the raison d'etre of the Bill that is likely to curb civil liberties without having any impact on improving security of Pakistan.

Maps are instrumental in development strategies

Maps and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have emerged as indispensable tools in human development strategies. From managing relief efforts in flood affected areas to planning water supply, sanitation, transportation and housing facilities, GIS-based maps have become the quintessential tool for urban and economic planners. This is the reason why development banks, municipal governments, and institutes of higher learning use maps to collect and disseminate data on human development and the environment.

In most developed economies the governments collect and make such data available for free to practitioners and academics so that the maps and other geo-referenced data could be used in development studies. Statistics Canada, the agency responsible for Census and other socio economic surveys, provides geo-spatial data to universities and other agencies of the government. The same is true in the United States where the government provides census and other geo-spatial data for free. There are no laws whatsoever in the US and Canada that prevent individuals from generating their own maps. Also, individuals are not required to register with the government before they are allowed to generate maps and geo-spatial data. In fact, GIS software, such as Maptitude and MapInfo, are bundled with gigabytes of free geospatial data including street networks and administrative boundaries. Other firms, such as DMTI, specialise in providing all sorts of GIS data without any intervention from the governments.

I know this because since 1994 I have generated thousands of GIS-based maps for my research using data from Canada, the United States and Europe. I have giga-bytes of Census data and detailed street networks, census tract and block-face maps for the US, Canada, and the UK. At McGill University, I ran a research group called MILUTE that produced several studies using GIS-based maps, spatial data, and spatial econometrics.

I even generated Census geography for Rawalpindi and produced maps showing various indicators of human development. In fact, in 2005 I worked with the UN Population Fund to develop a GIS lab at the Population Census Organisation (PCO) in Islamabad. I visited Pakistan in December 2005 and ran a two-week training workshop for the employees of Federal Bureau of Statistics. The purpose of establishing the GIS lab was to equip the PCO with the ability to digitise census geography. Later at LUMS in Lahore, major advances were made in developing a detailed GIS database for Pakistan going all the way to the village (mauzah) level. The Urban Unit in Lahore is also at the forefront of developing GIS maps for urban areas in Punjab.

Using GIS and related technologies LUMS-based computer scientist, Dr. Umar Saif, has been able to check the spread of dengue fever in Lahore. At the same time, the utility of such technologies is not lost on the Supreme Court’s judges. While hearing a case of encroachment of government land, Justice Amir Hani Muslim ordered the authorities to use Google maps to determine what land has been encroached over the years. “In this age of Global Positioning System (GPS), government officials are still submitting old manual maps of Karachi,” the honourable judge remarked.

If the proposed Bill is passed and I refuse to register myself with the MoD, I could be imprisoned for one year and be fined one million rupees. The same would happen to the academics at LUMS and other universities or administrators in provincial and municipal departments. The Bill is so poorly construed that if you were to draw a map by hand, you could be imprisoned and/or fined.

The road to economic development and prosperity is difficult to navigate without maps. Making it harder to generate maps will hurt efforts to fight disease, illiteracy and poverty in Pakistan. If the government cannot readily provide maps, it should at least not penalise those who can.

 


Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at murtaza.haider@ryerson.ca

 


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