Planning with software

Print edition : October 13, 2001

A software package to promote the application of spatial data technologies in village-level planning, adopted in West Bengal's Bankura district, meets with some success.

A BROKEN road links the Teghori village with the adjoining settlements in Bankura district of West Bengal. The road, which passes the hutments of the few thousand inhabitants of Teghori, leads to the one-room office of a local non-governmental organisation. Here one finds the spatial resource profile of the village on digitised maps. The maps are made using the Geo-Referenced Area Management (GRAM++) software package, which enables storage and analysis of spatial data on a personal computer. Evolved from experience gained in the Natural Resources Data Management System (NRDMS) Project of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), GRAM++ has been developed to promote the application of spatial data technologies to problems of resource management at the panchayat level.

GRAM++ has been developed as a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)-assisted initiative to use Geographic Information System-based technologies for local-level planning. GIS is a software package developed to handle large quantities of spatial and attribute data. It aims to integrate data for natural resource assessment, rural and urban planning, image analysis of remotely sensed data, watershed management and impact assessment studies.

At Teghori village, a pond dug with the aid of the Geographic Information System.-

In the 22 blocks of Bankura district, the GRAM-GIS expertise has been in use since November 1996 in areas such as water conservation, energy management, land use planning and infrastructure development.

Said Asit Pal, member, Teghori panchayat: "With the results of the date analysis we know where to dig a pond, what the level of underground water is, and what crops to grow during the year. At the panchayat office we take a collective decision on how to use the data from the computer in planning for the future."

GRAM++ has been tested and demonstrated in the two pilot districts - Kolar in Karnataka and Bankura - covered under the project. The two districts have different geological terrain and hydro-meteorological characteristics. The project does not assume that there is a single method to address local contingencies and development needs. Nor does it envisage that guidelines have been produced by the pilot projects that can be applied throughout the country. Rather, it wants the responses from Bankura and Kolar to be used by district committees, villages and community groups to formulate their own approaches to rural development.

In Bankura the GRAM-GIS programme has succeeded in its primary objective, that of developing spatial data management tools. For instance, in Teghori a well and a pond were dug using GIS technology to identify recharge zones and water table levels respectively.

"The digging of the well has benefited 500 to 600 plots," said Sumit Roy, member of the School of Fundamental Research, an NGO. However, one of the questionable features of the programme is the time involved in identifying the areas of action. For instance, in Teghori it took one year to identify the spot to dig a pond. During this period, the project managers spent a considerable amount of time collecting and scrutinising data on the water table and the recharge zones. The time-consuming process, some experts say, is the drawback of the programme.

Said Dr. Debapriya Dutta, Principal Scientific Adviser, Ministry of Science and Technology: "The software programme itself is not time-consuming. We would, however, like to strengthen our data-capturing facilities. Technology would not be sufficient to cut time but 'motivating' the people who collect data is the keyword here."

Indeed, efficient implementation of GRAM++ depends on prudent data collection. Hence considerable time and monetary resources are channelled towards the collection of data. The Bankura project generated its data from national agencies, including the Survey of India, the National Atlas and Thematic Mapping Organisation (NATMO), Kolkata, and the Census of India. Other national institutions such as the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning (NBSSLUP) and the India Meteorological Department also assisted. The gaps in data were filled with statistics provided by local NGOs.

The strength of the programme lies in identifying the missing elements in the data, which means there is no repetition of tasks and data are collected only for areas where they will be used for planning.

The data are collected in analog form and then converted into digital maps. The GRAM++ software is designed to digitise maps of any size. Its vector to raster conversion facility enables the analysis of geographic data in a raster environment. The attribute link of the programme helps in linking the digitised map to various associated data, the terrain module helps generate digital terrain modules that can cater to different applications, including topographic analysis, mineral targeting, environmental monitoring and geochemical mapping. Besides, it can support more than 40 functions for spatial analysis and modelling in the raster mode. The output module of the programme makes it possible to get hard copies on dot matrix colour printers or inkjet printers.

However, even when it is certain that the programme is capable of bringing forth results that would make planning easier, its success depends on motivating end-users and creating a scientific temper. For GRAM to become beneficial the project managers should transfer the technology to the line departments involved in planning, which include the District Chief Planning Office and Block Development Office, which will in turn convince the panchayat members about the need to use the sophisticated technology.

This, however, remains a problem area. Jolly Chaudhuri, Block Development Officer, Bankura-II, says: "Where the members of the panchayat would like to concentrate on getting through their basic requirements, like two meals a day throughout the year, it would be difficult to motivate them to use digitised maps to plan for the future. We can suggest that they keep the programme under consideration. We can facilitate the programme but we cannot force the members to give it top priority. "

The programme's success thus depends on aggressive marketing. Ashok Gupta, Principal Secretary, Department of Development and Planning, agrees: "The State government is working on the idea of setting up kiosks at village fairs and knowledge villages that would contain the information on the programme and motivate users."

Whether the GRAM++ software is orientated to getting precise results is also not clear. Do the line departments need digitised maps of the local terrain to know where to dig a single well that would at best benefit the adjoining plots (usually measuring less than a bigha) and not the whole district? The technical officials involved in the project say yes.

Dutta said: "Only with precise results will planning be exact." However, the need to develop a less sophisticated and more user-friendly programme cannot be ruled out.

The inhabitants of Teghori look forward to a better life, as the district adopts GRAM++ software technology for effective development.-

It also remains to be seen if the GRAM++ programme will be able to promote sustainable rural development. In Bankura district, the software has been effectively used to estimate the Human Development Index (HDI), the life expectancy, the rate of adult literacy and real gross domestic product (GDP). However, it is obvious that it would take more time to translate some of these statistical data into reality. For instance, in Teghori there are 250 below poverty line (BPL) families, which have largely remained outside the ambit of the project. Thus even when the software rightly emphasises on micro-level planning, it cannot ensure instant results.

If some of these lacunae are rectified, that would strengthen the programme. A very difficult task before the State governments is motivating the gram panchayats to make use of available scientific tools in planning. For this, it would have to work towards removing the reluctance of the planning machinery to adopt new technologies.

West Bengal seems to have braced itself for this challenge. This is obvious from its two decisions - to implement the GIS programme in 13 more districts and to start the Natural Resources Data Management System in Jalpaiguri district in July 2001.

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