‘Hell hath no fury like Mother Nature scorned’ is a saying most often used when we are faced by raging forest fires, ravaging floods and destructive cyclones and typhoons. Environmentalists have been advocating for long now about protecting our ecology, conserving nature and using natural resources more judiciously. The Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) works in this area across India and they have designed a tool called Composite Land Assessment and Restoration Tool – CLART which brings all publicly available information onto a mobile device to enable local people to plan the management of their resources and ecology.
Jagdeesh Rao, CEO, FES speaks to Networked India about this tool which is a finalist at the Vodafone Mobile for Good Awards. He speaks about the crucial role technology has to play in nature conservation and about the importance of sharing information so as to enable people living in communion with nature to be determinants rather than beneficiaries in using MNREGA funds for reforestation, water harvesting and much more.
Networked India (NI): Give us a little background about FES – Foundation for Ecological Security, when it was founded and its scope of work.
Jagdeesh Rao (JR): Foundation for Ecological Security, works around nature, nature conservation, forests, lakes as well natural resource management like livestock, agriculture which are strongly dependent on forests and water bodies and we do it through village people as these are the only people whose actual future depends on these resources. For us it might be butterflies and tigers but for them it is the dependence for the next season’s crops, or water for their livestock or water for their women. So that’s the crux of our work, working on nature conservation, natural resource management through the active involvement of village people. That’s the body of our work.
NI: The Composite Land Assessment and Restoration Tool CLART is aimed at empowering rural communities in conserving their ecology. What technology does it encompass and how was it conceived?
JR: We see some serious gaps in government spending. Considerable resources, for example in 2015 about Rs. 40,000 crores or $6 million was spent through MNREGA. So about 40,000 crores is spent every year and about 70-80% of this employment guarantee funds is spent around soil, water, natural resources. This is a wonderful thing. Now the gap is that it is not planned properly or judiciously. What I mean is every landscape of India is looked at as a blueprint approach. Different activities are performed in different ecological systems. Different locations will have different types of rainfall, different temperatures, different longitudes and latitudes and importantly they also have different geological situations. We need to have a kind of differentiated approach for each of these geographies. We need to see where groundwater can be revived, forests can be improved. In different situations you need a different way of working.
So we tried to see what are the different types of funds being utilised and we realised many of the activities are being injudiciously implemented on the ground. As a result of which public money is being wasted or their impact is causing greater damage to the ecosystem. In that situation we have developed this Composite Land Assessment and Restoration Tool which is an application which is available on tablets and mobile phones of village level people and this fundamentally fixes two three issues.
NI: How does CLART help the rural community on the ground?
JR: It tells you where is the water flow and where it should be harvested and where it should be allowed to percolate down to the ground level. Unfortunately most of the government people do not use this information though we have wonderful ISRO, NRSC and other data sets available which tell you what kind of land we have, what is the slope, what is the aspect, the geology, where is the groundwater available, where it is not, are there any geological formations in the earth’s surface which do not allow water harvesting. These are publicly available data, but somehow is not a part of planning.
So we bridged this critical gap by putting scientific information which is available in the public domain onto this tablet or mobile device wherein village people who are illiterate, semi-literate can easily identify where within their village should they plan for water harvesting above the ground as well as below the ground. These plans can influence Rural Employment Guarantee Act to spend the money in a judicious manner in those locations.
Another small dimension of it is in landscapes. You can’t plant any tree anywhere and expect it to grow. CLART, in the coming months will also address the issue of which kind of species should be planted at say 2000 m, what should be planted in which kind of soil, what is the net change in forest cover, what should happen in order to improve the hydrology. Also in order to improve water, the best action we can think of is in improving vegetation like forest cover, plants, etc which allow the water to percolate slowly. So this is what the tool provides and it is available in colour coded information which village people can plan and use it on the go.
NI: What are the main gains for rural communities in using the CLART Tools?
JR: CLART democratises knowledge for people who are really on the ground; why should only scientists and NGOs have this information. In terms of gains, water availability, forest restoration are the backbone of rural economy. For us electricity, roads are the infrastructure whereas for villagers their soil, water, forests are their infrastructure and makes a strong contribution to their economic situation. In addition to that, the tool automatically develops the design and it also gives a budget of how much of labour is required, how much of money is required. The gain is people become actors rather than just beneficiaries and recipients. They are the ones who are deciding and determining what they want.
NI: What is the kind of response you have got from the various villages and communities FES has worked with?
JR: The biggest thing is self-esteem in people. They are able to show the government officials how they are planning. The district collector of Ciballapur district in Karnataka, she saw this and she made all the government officials go to the tool and they are implementing it all over the district now.
The CLART tool checks corruption. With the tool you know if something is going to cost Rs.5 or 6 lakh but if some other estimate suggests 10 or 20 lakhs, you know that is corruption. So you are fixing leakages.
Tell us a bit yourself as well as the brains behind CLART.
JR: I began my professional life in 1986, working with rural communities in the semi-arid tracts of the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The foundation works with culturally diverse communities in varied ecological settings across the country to assist them secure, conserve and govern their natural surroundings, Commons in particular. As the CEO from 2001, I have handled critical functions in strategic visioning and building a learning team of practitioners at FES. Issues that interest me include conservation of forests and water in a landscape, semi-arid and dryland ecosystems, decentralized governance of natural resources, the political economy of common pool resources and bioregional planning with spatial technology.
Chiranjit Guha, a trained Applied Geologist from IIT Roorkee, has always been interested in trying to demystify science and technology to benefit rural communities and enabling informed decision making for all developmental projects through simple tools and knowledge sharing. He is presently working on the India Observatory which aims to democratize knowledge and improve planning processes at village and block level. Composite landscape Assessment & Restoration Tool (CLART) is one of the tools developed to enable better soil and water conservation measures and make better use of public resources being spent on such measures.
NI: What in your opinion is the wider role of technology in conserving nature, our natural resources and empowering communities to do so?
JR: Our basic aim of bringing this tool to the Vodafone Awards is the showcase the role and value of technology in nature conservation. CLART is one tool that we developed in the larger program called India Observatory. This is basically a spatial and temporal platform all available on public domain using open source technology and using big data from satellite imagery as well as data available in all the scientific bodies like Zoological Survey of India, Wildlife Institute of India, Botanical Survey of India and bringing all this to public use. With nature conservation and technology’s role in it, we are just beginning to scratch the surface with it. We have built a platform which can bring socio-economic data, biodiversity data and ecological data all on one platform. We can fix issues like where is the likelihood of fire. We can predict where it is most likely depending upon temperature data picked up by sensors and satellites.
Also in nature conservation we have issues called invasive disease. There are certain plant species called Lantana which are like weed and which are not good for the forests. However, when the forests are poorly managed this species spreads like wildfire, they are all over the forests. They inhibit the local grasses and shrubs from coming up. So we can check where it is likely this type of invasive species is going to spread. More importantly, we are working with the forest department in order to manage working plans. We are bringing rich, scientific, public data, big data, to this forest management plan so that foresters can make informed decisions on what is the batch of forest that needs to be repaired or restored. This type of technology is very useful.
We have also developed something called Indianbiodiversity.org where we have brought in all public information on birds, mammals and flora. We are revolutionising information change and helping students and researchers to access information in biodiversity. So technology has a pathbreaking role in revolutionising use of scientific and public information to bring about change at a local level.
NI: What role can the government play in assisting non-profits like FES and other organisations towards this end?
JR: In Karnataka, the Cikkaballapur government has agreed. National Remote Sensing Centre set up by ISRO in Hyderabad wants to put the algorithm we developed on their platform so that it is available all over the country for all village people. One of the things that governments really need to act is on sharing data. All public information collected by Water Board, Forest Department, should be up on public domain. If they align programs like MNREGA or forest management or any such programs for natural resources it would be bringing science and technology into practice.
NI: FES is a finalist at the Vodafone Mobile for Good Awards for the innovative CLART tool and could win. How much of an impact will this have on the work FES is doing?
JR: I think we have a huge potential for making technology work for nature conservation. Technology has been a fix for a variety of things. There are several startups all over on health related issues, sanitation and education but somehow nature becomes marginalised. So our goal and the very reason we applied is bridging nature conservation, natural resource management, also reach technology people and business leaders that they can bring in technology to reduce government’s wasteful expenditure. All this information if available to all citizens from technology world, business world can be used for nation building. Being recognised by the technology world automatically opens doors for us to reach say software people, for us to talk to other technology groups into developing certain algorithms, brings app and other technology to this domain and transfer it to village people. So we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.