Interview

Interoperability constraints are propelling creation of a national GIS system : Dr. Krishnaswami Kasturirangan, Planning Commission and National Innovation Council, India

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Interoperability constraints are propelling creation of a national GIS system

Dr. Krishnaswami Kasturirangan is a Member of Planning Commission and of the recently constituted National Innovation Council. For over nine years since 2003, Dr. Kasturirangan steered the Indian Space program as Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). He has been conferred with the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan, and the Award of ‘Officer of the Legion d’honneur’ by the President of the French Republic. In an interview with Sheena Joseph and Pratap Vikram Singh of eGov, Dr. Kasturirangan speaks about the country’s progress in science and technology and its application for development at the grassroots level.

We are seeing if the departments of Atomic Energy and Space and DRDO could pool in their knowledge to create solutions that have societal applications

What are the specific initiatives that have been taken under your leadership and how you are guiding and driving the program at the Planning Commission?

Science and technology, environments and forest, climate change and agriculture research are the broader areas that come under the subjects that I am supposed to handle. In science and technology, I am closely associated with space in particular.

We have recently completed mid-plan review of the various projects and programs under the 11th Five-year plan to look at how we have fared and also to identify what are the things we are supposed to do in the remaining two years. The programs under various scientific departments like Department of Science and Technology (DST), CSIR, Department of Biotechnology, Department of Space, Department of Atomic Energy and Ministry of Earth Sciences have been progressing at different levels, based on certain targets that have been set.

DST has also looked into the issues pertaining to water. That is a very important area. The Supreme Court has charged the DST to look at identifying solutions for providing safe drinking water for different locations in the country. This is just an example of what they have been doing.  In space of course, ISRO has been doing major work. There are major milestones in strengthening our communication programs with satellite-based systems. We are also working on navigational satellites, areas of high-power broadcasting systems and also innovative use of microwave frequency for remote sensing. These are some of the advanced technologies but are very well tuned to development at the grassroot level.

Could you elaborate one the role of science and technology in health domain?

In case of health, for example, what we are trying to do is what ISRO did with respect to telemedicine. You don’t have many specialist doctors in rural areas whereas you have doctors in urban areas like Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai, which have super specialty hospitals.

To increase science and technology inputs to industrial growth as well as to deal with the market forces will be a focus area ahead

If you have to transport every patient from rural areas to the city to get specialist medical attention, it will be a huge task and probably impossible. These are the considerations that prompted us to see whether we can install equipments like electro-cardiogram or chest X-rays, blood samplings and monitor everything. You format it and send it via satellite to urban hospitals which have set up these telemedicine centres where specialist doctors will come and sit in front of the monitor and can clearly look at the electro-cardiogram report of the patient from thousands of kilometres away.

So you can see the enormous potential of ICT in the context of healthcare system in the country. Nearly 300,000 patients in the recent past have been treated in this way. Today, more than 300-320 rural hospitals have been connected to 30-40 specialty or super specialty hospitals in urban centres like Pratap Reddy’s Apollo Hospitals, Ramachandra Hospital in Chennai, Mata Anandmayi Hospitals or AIIMS in Delhi and Sanjay Gandhi Post Graduate Institute in Lucknow.

The National Innovation Council has got the task of promoting innovations for grassroot people’s needs. What is it’s roadmap?

What we have decided at the National Innovation Council is to take care of the sets of technologies that have been developed by space and atomic energy departments for their own requirements. Then ultimately we can see if we can map them, and suitably tune and adopt them for applications that could be of interest to social areas. One classic example is of creating small water purifying systems. The membranes normally used for filtering have been developed by atomic energy people.

The adoption of these technologies is still nowhere near what their potential is. National Innovation Council has formed three scientific consortiums. We will bring them together and they will exchange their experiences to build applications for rural or social development or in areas like healthcare and education.  This is a new look that has been developed. But it has not been organised in a manner that is both sustainable and can make an impact. So that is where National Innovation Council’s relationship with other scientific departments is going to make a difference.

Three departments—Atomic Energy, Space and DRDO—have already set up an  HQ that is called Innovation Directorate. Our ultimate mission is to see whether  we can even create an institute where all the three could pool in their knowledge and then try to create solutions that find inroads into societal  applications or health applications.

There have been concerns about the leakages in the PDS system and   about money going into wrong hands. How technology could  help in ensuring food security?

There are multiple layers of the solution for food security. If you look at the productivity of the land, it is 1.7-2 tonnes per hectare which is not anywhere near the global productivity of four tonnes per hectare.

My viewpoint has always been that by improving the productivity to world  standards we can still meet the average food standard in the coming decades.  Our land is highly degraded. So we need to really replenish the land and there  are methods by which we can regain the land. One of the key requirements is to  classify the land, look at the soil and its salinity and alkalinity to create a satellite database.

Then there is the issue of water. Water management is in very poor state. We need to use better systems  of sprinkler irrigation and drip irrigation. So we need to have better ground water charging structures, and then finally use drip irrigation or sprinkler  irrigation that can be optimal. Also, we need to provide the right nutrients, like  sulphur and phosphorous, into the agricultural plants as well as into the soil.

The second part is about storage and transmission. The logistics are extremely  poor. We need to have a good storage, as in the recent years grains produced  have been eaten away by rodents. There is a very poor storage system.

Then  next one is transmission. Here you need to have a good information, tracking  and inspection system. I would say you put GPS receiver, track every vehicle  where it loads into and stops, do periodic checks at some points with respect to  the availability whether the right amounts of grains are really taken in or not.  There are technologies which can be used for locating the position of transport  system at a particular point whether it is taking the right road and whether it is  stopping only at approved points. All that can be programmed. Then of course  is the delivery system. I hope that with UIDAI system method of distribution would become much more transparent and more open in terms of people who  are eligible will get it. And these are all simple solutions. I  have not said anything which is difficult for the country to undertake and implement.

There have been talks about having a nationwide GIS platform that will help in  laying down infrastructure and development. How significant would such a platform be?

It’s a very important area. Over the years, GIS has come to be used for different  applications, w hether it is about getting land use pattern or the current status in  forestry. Spatial data is much better than tabular data, as looking at a picture is  much better than looking at a set of numbers. It is easy to comprehend for  decision support.

There are several layers and dimensions in which GIS becomes applicable, but  they are all related to ensuring that first you organise the database both in the  form of imageries as well as in form of numbers, process them and depict them  in terms of intelligible spatial domain information. Then, if you want to model  it, try to bring in multiple elements of data and try to look at the relationship  between the multiple layers of information, which will ultimately give you a  solution for a particular decision.

For example, whether I can put an oil  refinery in a given location, whether I can put up an urban development sprawl  in a particular area and whether there is enough groundwater or is the slope  right or will the dischargeable water mix up with groundwater and how do I  isolate the two. So we need to have the spatial database and that is where GIS  will come into the picture. It has been practiced by various groups. But it’s been  done in isolation. If you want to look at it from a regional perspective you  need to combine multiple GIS outputs to take a decision.

So we need better  formatting, better standardisation and seamless means of looking at a particular data or information. Today, if I want to look at the land use pattern data of Delhi  with some local adjacent data with Haryana I cannot do it because I need  to bring them to a common forum. So these kinds of constraints are propelling  the creation of a national GIS system and hopefully we will start it under the  Planning Commission. The initial preparatory work is in progress and this will  lead to a project under Planning Commission. This is not to replace the existing activities but to bring in better coordination, better synergy and to standardise  the system so that the country can benefit from the total information that is  available and is to be created.

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