Maharashtra’s forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar conceptualised and initiated a mega tree plantation drive across the state and broke a few records while doing so. The first programme was started in 2016 with the aim of planting 2 crore saplings but it ended up planting 2.82 crore trees instead. For 2017, they set a target of 4 crore (achieved 5.43 crores) then 13 crore for 2018 (achieved 15.88 cores) and 33 crore for 2019, consistently beating the targets in all three years. This remarkable feat of a government not just achieving the targets but surpassing them did not go unnoticed. The Limca Book of World records recognised this feat by the government of Maharashtra.

So how did they do it? For one, it was a mass movement achieved through a massive campaign that focussed and inspired the top leadership that brought together the people at large, NGOs, schools, colleges, corporates and religious leaders together to achieve these targets. To back these efforts, an innovative, state-of-the-art technology platform was deployed. This model can be emulated by not just other states but by other departments as well.

Need for information and communication technology for forest management

Forests are vast natural resources with wildlife scattered in a huge geographically spread area that are not just remote but away from any sort of technological access. However, this should not and has not stopped the Maharashtra government from making the best use of the technology available to lessen the pressure on forests which experience human-made stress from all sides.

Our National Forest Policy 1988 and the Maharashtra State Policy 2008 both lay down a minimum requirement of 33% of the land to be under forest cover. Earlier attempts have failed and there was a need to pump in the fresh set of initiatives and energy backed by equipment and technology if at all the state was serious in achieving the overall goal set by them.

Using technology to connect volunteers

The government created a website platform and named it “Green Army” with an aim to involve citizens and organizations into this plantation drive. Till now, about 60,07,147 volunteers have joined in and the aim is to take this number to 10 million. The website gives a list of nurseries from where volunteers can get saplings. It provides for a platform to share ideas and government has issued certificates, T-shirts, etc. as well through it which motivates and encourages the volunteers. Various tasks can then be coordinated and persons can be mobilized via the right use of technology and mobiles. Further a “Hello Forest — 1926 Call Centre" was set up to give information to the volunteers regarding tree plantation and its protection, forest, wildlife, biodiversity and environment. As per official data, around 50,000 people have availed the information from this call centre on various subjects.

Using technology to track tree plantation

Now that manpower has been taken care of, the next logical step is saplings and their survival. Planting a sapling is one thing and ensuring its survival is another. So, to make sure that the volunteers or the Green Army that was formed are serious about not just planting but ensuring its survival a mobile application (app) My Plant was developed. The name gives a sense of ownership to the person who uses it. Like the name goes, this app is designed to note the name of the person, Number of people who took part in the plantation, site where they did it along with actual photographs of the saplings. Using this app, people and organisations can feed data about the saplings they have planted with the forest department, which would help it in creating a database of trees.

Using technology to track tree survival and health

The forest department has developed a robust IT system to keep maximum information in the public domain and bring in transparency in the entire process of tree plantation. Accordingly, the data about sites selected for plantation with latitude-longitude, nursery management, pits dug, monitoring of plantation at every one hour at the time of actual plantation, and protection maintenance of trees planted etc. is uploaded on the digital platform of the forest department.

Transparency being the key to building trust and accountability, the government of Maharashtra, under the aegis of the forest minister decided to keep the entire tree plantation data open and publicly accessible. The Data is of every tree planted can be accessed district wise, agency wise or even location wise. There is Maharashtra GIS Service or geographic information service. On a real-time basis, multitude level of information can be accessed from this site.

One can at the click of a button track forest tree cover, real-time plantation information along with GPS coordinates and full information of the address, date and type of species that were planted. All the state government departments have been instructed to upload relevant information of land bank, nursery creations, number of pits dug, Harit Sena (Green Army) registration, funds availability, innovative schemes, survival of 2 and 4 crore plantations, etc. On this portal. Results? The survival rate of plantation in forest areas is astounding 85% and a marvellous 75% in non-forest areas.

All these efforts coupled with strong and decisive leadership led by the forest minister, forest department and citizen volunteers backed by a capable technological platform is bearing results. The target achievement sheet bears its testimony.

As a direct result of the plantation initiatives in Maharashtra the following changes have occurred in the state as documented in the "Status Report on Forest for 2017" at an all-India level, published by "Forest Survey of India" in February 2018:

1. Tree cover on the non-forest area has increased by 273 sq km Maharashtra is the leading State.

2. The mangrove cover has increased by 82 sq km Maharashtra is also leading in this sector.

3. Water bodies in forest area have gone up by 432 sq km Maharashtra is also having a higher rank.

4. Increase in the bamboo plantation area by 4,462 sq km Maharashtra is also having a higher rank in the country.

Managing forests is a complex and vast task with various categories of stakeholders. Maharashtra being a geographically vast state, the complexity only increases. For this, a large workforce that would manage a technological platform which would be stable, robust and reliable was indeed needed. The right mix of motivation, enthusiasm via inspiring leadership of forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar needed hard physical infrastructure as a backing. The tech initiatives were designed for the same.

Today, 180 IFS officers, 333 SFS officers, 936 forest rangers, 2,792 foresters, 8,505 forest guards and 10,843 other employees and 60 lakh volunteers are connected across Maharashtra with 11 territorial forest circles, 4 wildlife territorial circles, 48 territorial divisions, 14 wildlife territorial divisions, 5 independent territorial subdivisions, 393 territorial forest ranges, 1,540 rounds and 5,688 beats in what is now a green army.

The views expressed by the columnist are his own, which may not wholly or partially reflect the editorial position of MyNation