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Thursday, January 19, 2006

A great new atlas of India is now available

Maps in India are generally terrible. There are two problems: Bad underlying survey data, and bad presentation in converting the map database into maps.

In my opinion, for many years, the best alternative was the Lonely Planet Atlas. For some mysterious reason, this was not available in India. But if you could get it, it was high quality cartographic display, on top of low quality underlying maps data. Which is a polite way of saying that the map is remarkably often flat wrong. The LP Atlas seems to have been done in 1995 and nothing has come up after that. The LP website doesn't have it.

A great new alternative has recently sprung up: the Eicher Atlas of India. It is just Rs.370 or so and worth getting. It combines top quality cartographic display with the same flawed underlying data. On the front cover is proudly flaunted a map of the Bombay region - which is a top quality map - but I could spot atleast two mistakes in it. But it's a huge step forward compared with everything else out there.

Maps are a nice problem which help in thinking about the separation between public goods and private goods. The public good is the creation of a map database by running around the country with theodolites and GPS handsets. Once this database is created and released into the public domain, it is a perfect public good (non-rival, non-excludable). After that, the State has no business to be in the map business. The State shouldn't print maps or interfere in what citizens do with maps.

In India, we do wrong on both counts:

  • The Survey of India produces terrible maps data - riddled with mistakes, and hopelessly out of touch with the fast-changing bridges and roads. To add insult to injury, the tax-funded databases produced by the Survey of India are not released with no strings attached into the public domain.
  • The State tries to produce maps, and tries to prevent citizens from having all kinds of maps.

It's a classic Indian public policy mess of not doing the public goods that matter properly, and adding insult to injury by meddling with what free agents in the country do.

I faintly recall a Central Asian city - in Azerbaijan? - where I have heard that there are no street signs, since the Russians wanted to make life difficult for an invasion (when it came). The invaders would be doing fine with GPS, and all the Russians acheived was terrible inconvenience. Update: Naveen Mandava has a pointer to a Rand Corporation study about the security issues of release of geospatial data.

We are like that. For a long time, the State prevented those nifty GPS-based route finding computers from being embedded in cars. I believe some of these legal impediments have been solved, so that these things are now available (Rs.60,000 was the price I heard for an in-car one-city setup). Does someone know more about this?

But the proscriptions against citizens accessing 1:250,000 or 1:50,000 topo sheets remain. Every terrorist wannabe or military type can buy these maps outside India; the only benefit of the license-permit raj is to prevent citizens from leading better lives based on maps.


  1. You got it. I was in US recently and when i asked the hotel receptionist a taxi to take me to a certain place, she went to the net, printed the route map and gave it to me. How i wish this was available in India. In South Africa, i could buy a GPS set for 8000 Rs or so but did not because the maps are not just available in India. What a shame. May be they should privatise the great "Survey of India"

  2. I think of maps as being about the mobility of strangers. You landup at a new place, and armed with a map, you are comfortable and confident finding your way around. The lack of maps generates greater friction for people to move around. Since I've never been to Vijaywada, I am more circumspect about going there. This reduces competition - local inefficiencies are less likely to get quickly arbitraged away.

  3. Hi Ajay

    I have a Garmin eMap and i use it for what is termed as recreational purposes. Yes, it does not have the detailing that you would get in the US, nor the ability to speak to you as you drive. Though there are folks who've created mapping software that should help, somewhat.

    Now, even without that software, my eMap gives me most of the main highways, airports and towns in India. Mine was bought in SE Asia so the regional data is pretty good.

    The fact is that as a device which allows you to pinpoint where exactly you are on earth (give or take 25 metres), even as you are moving, its fascinating to use.
    You can even use it on an aircraft, though some airlines specifically prohibit it.

    And now a small plug. I recently touched upon the subject of maps but from a slightly different angle..

  4. there is some car navigation system for sure ...i remeber it seeing on NDTV ..some sardarji was explaining it ...i dont recall any further ...will post it shud i see it again ...

  5. Govindraj, let me understand clearly: You bought a Garmin eMap and are using it in India? It is useful even with the rudimentary map that they supply? That is fascinating! How much does it cost? Are there other devices like it?

    I looked up the URL you pasted in and that's exactly how I feel. :-) But I distinctly recall that the first in-car navigation systems are now sold in India. Does someone know more?

  6. Hi Ajay

    It works quite well. Like I said i find it fascinating for its sheer technological capability.

    The mapping is decent. You can drive from Bombay to Pune and find Karjat, Lonavala etc showing up. Or Malad, Santacruz airport etc on the western side. The one I got should cost between Rs 11K to 13 K in Singapore.

    You may get some Garmin models at Heera Panna. At least I saw a simpler one called eTrex (i think) a year or so ago. You would pay roughly 30% more here than Singapore Sim Lim Square.

    Will be happy to show it as and when our paths cross next !

    But yes, there are people who are working or have worked on mapping software for cities like Bombay. I haven't seen it or looked out for it. I guess in Bombay one is too used to stopping at paanwala and asking !

    You can reach me at

  7. Hi Ajay; As per GPS Navigation is concern we have a solution for you.
    We are leading GPS solution providers in India. Now you can have the navigation software and city map for less than Re.2K, this will work well on both PC/Laptop as well as PDA with widows OS. Please visit for more details about us and also visit for free trial version. We are official distributors and value added service providers for MapKing in India. Maps are available with us at well below the list price in Indian Rupees. As of now we have 5 city maps i.e., Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad.
    Srinivas Datta,

  8. damn, I was thinking or purchasing a garmin 60 csx but now I think I will postpone it. I have a Forerunner 201 and gives me the coordinates...guess will do with it...btw Mr. Srinivas Datta would your s/w run in garmin 60 csx?
    Ajay I am looking for back country topography, do you have any cues on that front. I saw a lot of free online stuff, like from
    would this run on a gps device...?
    Thanks from your help.

  9. 1:250.000 scale topo maps of India are available at:

    These provide incredible detail,
    Peter Van Geit


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