The intranet site of the Madhya Pradesh forest department is extraordinarily detailed. One headline discusses “3 cases of poaching in East Baihar block of North Balaghat tehsil”. Further probing on the forest offence management system (FOMS) leads to a thicket of data. In all three cases, spotted deer were killed; 45kg of meat, 15 nails, four horns and two teeth were recovered.
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The fire alert messaging system (FAMS), also on the intranet, dispassionately tells of a forest fire on 4 June: “Range: Rajendragram; Beat: Khursi, Latitude: 22 degrees 49 minutes and 4.8 seconds, Longitude: 81 degrees 34 minutes 37.21 seconds.”
It’s not the degree of detail expected of an Indian forest department. But, says Anil Oberoi of the state forest department, “it was what was required if the forests and wildlife...were to be properly managed”—and it is what he has tried to make available over the last few years. FOMS and FAMS are pioneering information technology (IT) applications, part of a suite of at least a dozen that the department now uses to collate information.
The constant gardener: Anil Oberoi of the Madhya Pradesh forest deparment. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Oberoi thought of such applications when he was a young district forest officer in the early 1990s. At the time, he says, the communication systems were so bad that they got either no or incorrect information. “It made making informed decisions impossible.”
As he moved up the ranks, the problem got worse, until one day he realized that the department’s senior members made “no contribution to the department apart from framing policy”. He thus decided to put to use things he had learnt while on deputation to the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education.
In 2002, Oberoi created his first application: a wildlife management system (WMS), shown to the government in 2004, but allowed to be implemented only in 2006. That’s when Oberoi’s program took off: Money was sanctioned, staff hired and the laborious process of training field officers began.
Oberoi’s applications now cover every aspect of the state’s forest resources. FOMS lists forest crimes, details of their perpetrators and of action taken. FAMS tracks forest fires. The forest dwellers management system is a “live” census of residents; the forest financial management system tracks the money spent on different projects; and WMS lists patrol routes and sightings for all wildlife areas in the state. Oberoi rattles off some impressive statistics. “Today, 800 range offices in Madhya Pradesh have Internet connectivity,” he says, and 6,000 mobile phones and 900 personal digital assistant, or PDA, devices have been distributed to forest guards, allowing them to enter information quickly and easily into the system.
His pet application is the fire alert system. The forest department receives satellite imagery from the University of Maryland and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or Nasa, in the US. Thermal sensors on satellites detect fires by scanning the earth for abnormal increases in temperature.
For its part, the forest department has mapped the beats of forest camps and guards. Once a fire is pinpointed, the system sends out SMS and email alerts to guards in the area, giving them the fire’s exact location. The guards track down the fire and relay real-time information to the system through their devices enabled with global positioning systems.
According to Oberoi, the system has been very successful, reducing damage by fire by 5% in 2007-08, and halving man days spent combating fires. The system also helped cut funds spent on firefighting, from Rs12 crore in 2006 to Rs7.56 crore in 2008.
Not everyone is convinced about the efficacy of these applications. Sarath C.R., a Madhya Pradesh-based conservationist, thinks they’ve had little real impact on the ground. “In many areas, there are no mobile signals,” he says. “Most of the forest guards I’ve met don’t seem to know to use the system.”
The systems have, however, caught the eye of the Union government. Oberoi is now a member of a group created by the environment ministry to evaluate and implement IT solutions in forest departments across the country. Sam Pitroda, adviser to the Prime Minister on public information infrastructure and innovations, was present at that group’s first meeting. Oberoi’s applications, he says, “are a good way of getting a handle of data, and should in the long term be scaled nationwide”.
For Oberoi, it has been a rough journey. “There have been times,” he says, “when government lethargy and departmental bickering made me want to abandon this project.” But for now, at least, he says he’s staying.