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.