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Careful planning for an eco-friendly road network

(Cross-posted from the Hindu Business Line, April 11th 2017.)

India needs its roads. Our road network is essential to the free flow of goods and people across the country and connects rural villages to the rest of the nation. India’s roads, together with the railways, make us one. The question that should be asked, however, is how many roads does India need? It is obvious that there is an upper limit to the area that any nation can allocate to its road network. Aside from the fact that building roads is expensive, the opportunity cost must also be considered; the land given over to building a road can now no longer be used for other purposes. There are other factors to consider as well. Building a road requires contiguous stretches of land, and in a country like India where there is a mixture of public and private property, land acquisition has its own financial and political costs.

Road building also has long-term ramifications, especially on the environment and ecology. Road construction necessitates the altering of ecosystems; mining of construction materials and the clearing of the road’s planned alignment result in the cutting of trees and the disposal of excavated rock and debris.

While ecosystem alteration itself can have persistent impacts, the mere presence of a road also has long-term effects, modifying environmental variables such as the groundwater recharge rate, the local biodiversity, and even the local temperature. They also make previously wild areas more accessible, increasing incidences of poaching and illegal timber felling. And once we factor in traffic movement, the number and severity of impacts only increases. Wild animals using roads are often hit by vehicles, commonly being injured or killed. Over time, entire animal populations may start avoiding roads, restricting their access to food, water, and shelter, and setting them on the path to local extinction.

For all the pros of building roads, there are also clear cons. This is true across the world, but is felt especially hard in India, where we face the unique circumstance of having both a highly dense human population, as well as high densities of biodiversity in specific regions. While people need roads, they are also dependent on ecosystem services such as clean air and clean water, which originate from the same wild areas being damaged by roads.

Twin needs

This should not be an either-or situation. Indians require both roads and intact ecosystems, and hampering the development or function of one for the sake of the other will not benefit the nation. To maximise the benefits of roads and minimise their impacts, far more time and effort should be spent on determining exactly where roads should be built.

A spatial study by Laurance et al (‘A Global Strategy for Road Building’; Nature, 2014) attempts this at the global scale by comparing the potential impacts of roads on the environment against their benefits to agricultural productivity. In India, studies of this sort, taking into account the requirements of the nation, would be extremely valuable, as they enable planners to clearly assess the pros and cons of road construction before any action is taken.

In those cases where it is deemed necessary to construct new roads that may have adverse impacts on the environment, decision-makers must follow the mitigation hierarchy. This is ideally a transparent step-wise process whereby the impacts of any given road on the environment are assessed, and efforts are made to prevent or alleviate them. Identifying those impacts that can be avoided or minimised, and then mitigating or compensating for those that cannot, would go a long way toward preserving ecosystem services, while also allowing for road development.

Unfortunately, since the political imperative is to build more roads faster, agencies responsible for road construction have little time or effort to allocate toward long-term planning. Recent proposals to build roads through formerly inviolate forested areas or prime wildlife habitat are short-sighted and bring to mind the era of big dams, whose construction resulted in disastrous impacts on human communities and the environment which far outweighed the over-hyped benefits these dams were built to provide.

However, politicians believe that the promise of building roads attracts votes, as can be seen from the political discourse at all levels; Members of Legislative Assemblies promise small villages road connections to the nearest towns while Central Government Ministers claim that roads will be constructed at the rate of 40km/day across the entire country. As they also tend to think in the short term, chained to the election cycle as they are, the effectiveness of political advocacy on this matter seems self-limiting.

The task thus falls to India’s civil society, India’s judiciary, and to the development banks that fund road projects, to ensure that the costs and benefits of proposed roads are well thought through before implementation. Those government agencies and private agencies responsible for road construction can help by making proposed road alignments available for public debate and discussion.

Eliciting constructive feedback from the public — including wildlife and environmental experts — at the planning stage will help prevent delays and the resulting escalations in costs due to legal challenges or protests during the actual construction phase. It is only by wisely planning for the future that we will be able to ensure that India has a world-class road network that takes into account the needs of all its citizens.

[ This article was commissioned by the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania and is also available on their blog. ]

Let’s open up the skies for drones

(Cross-posted from the Hindu Business Line, October 19th 2015)

Unmanned aerial vehicles are flying robots that provide some of the benefits of manned flight without its attendant risks and inconveniences. Commonly known as drones, they proved their worth on the battlefield during the 1973 Yom Kippur and 1982 Lebanon wars, after which numerous military forces began implementation of their surveillance and weaponised drone programmes. Today, India is reported to have some 200 Israeli-made drones in service, and is in the process of developing indigenous ones for military use. Civilians, however, are banned from flying drones.

Drones are not just used for military purposes; they have also been used by civilians around the world for a diverse set of non-conflict use cases. These include assisting aid agencies during humanitarian crises, helping farmers with their fields, providing a new perspective to journalists, letting conservationists rapidly monitor wildlife and conduct anti-poaching patrols, as well as simple recreational activity; flying a drone can be a lot of fun.

Drones, thus, have commercial value; they provide a much cheaper alternative to manned flight, and enable applications that were impossible earlier. Unfortunately, most new technologies come with their own dangers, and drones are no exception. They can occasionally crash. This matters most when the drone being flown is large and heavy, as a crash can damage property and harm people. Drones also occupy airspace that is used by manned aircraft, and an in-air collision or even a near-miss, could be disastrous. These are dangers that could occur unintentionally. However, there is also the fear that drones could be used to intentionally cause harm.

For these reasons, the relevant regulatory bodies of some countries have limited the public use of drones until these concerns can be addressed. In India, the Directorate General for Civil Aviation (DGCA) completely banned their use by civilians as of October 7, 2014. However, the authorities in other countries haven’t gone as far; in the US, the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) allows the civilian use of drones with caveats, while their commercial use is licensed. While the various countries of the European Union (EU) currently have multiple regulations covering drone flights, the European Aviation Safety Agency intends to create common drone regulations, with the intention of permitting commercial operations across the EU starting in 2016.

The regulatory authorities of these countries have understood that drones are here to stay, and that their use can be extremely beneficial to the economy. A report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a non-profit trade organisation that works on “advancing the unmanned systems community and promoting unmanned systems”, states that by 2025, the commercial drone industry will have created over 100,000 jobs in the US alone, with an economic impact of $82 billion. Drones can also contribute to the export market. For example, in Japan, where commercial drones have been licensed since the 1980s, Yamaha Corp has been producing drones for aerial spraying for agricultural purposes which are now exported to the US, South Korea, and Australia, generating $41 million in revenue for Yamaha in 2013-14. That’s small change compared to the current global market leader’s expected sales for 2015. SZ DJI Technology Co Ltd of Shenzen, China, was only founded in 2006, but by 2015, they controlled 70 per cent of the global commercial drone market and a higher percentage of the consumer drone market, for an estimated revenue of $1 billion.

These countries and companies have addressed the inherent dangers of drone technology by looking at technology- and policy-based solutions. The FAA and the UK’s Civil Aviation Agency (CAA) prohibit the flying of drones within five km of an airport or other notified locations, and drone manufacturers like DJI and Yamaha could enforce these rules by incorporating them into the drone’s control software. This means that a drone will be inoperable within these restricted zones. Outside these zones, drone misuse can be treated as a criminal offence. In the US, two individuals were recently arrested for two separate drone-related incidents: in one, the operator’s drone crashed into a row of seats at a stadium during a tennis match and in the other, the operator flew his drone near a police helicopter.

In India, the DGCA’s October 2014 public notification states that due to safety and security issues, and because the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) hasn’t issued its standards and recommended practices (SARPs) for drones yet, civilian drone use is banned until further notice. One year later, there are still no regulations available from the DGCA; the ICAO expects to issue its initial SARPs by 2018, with the overall process taking up to 2025 or beyond. Meanwhile, the loss to India’s economy, and the threat to its national security, will be enormous. Today, it is still possible to import, buy, build or fly small drones in India, despite the DGCA’s ban. This means that drone-users in India currently exist in an illicit and unregulated economy, which is far more of a threat to the nation than regulated drone use could ever become.

Finally, flying drones safely in India will require research and development to understand how they can be best used in India’s unique landscape. Such R&D occurs best in a market-oriented environment, which will not happen unless civilian drone use is permitted. Building profitable companies around drone use can be complicated when the core business model is illegal.

Like civil aviation regulators in other countries, the DGCA should take a pro-active role in permitting civilian use of drones, whether for commercial use or otherwise. Creating a one-window licensing scheme at the DGCA, where drone users only have to apply for permission from the ministries of defence and home affairs in special circumstances, would be a useful first step. Setting up a drone go/no-go spatial database would allow the DGCA to discriminate between these use cases and could also be mandatorily encoded into drone systems by their manufacturers. The DGCA should also discriminate between drones based on their size and weight; the smaller and lighter the drone, the less risk it poses. This should be recognised while regulating drones.

Whether it is to assist fishermen with finding shoals off the Indian coastline or conducting rapid anti-poaching patrols in protected areas across the country, mapping refugee settlements in Assam and Bengal for better aid provision or assessing the quality of national highways, drones can transform the way we conduct operations in India. Thus, a blanket ban on civilian drones in India is more of a hindrance to development than a solution to a problem. Drones are here to stay and the sooner India’s civilians are allowed to use them, the faster we can put them to work.

[ This article was commissioned by the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania and is also available on their blog. ]

Mapping for the Protection of India's Environment and Forests

(Cross-posted from the Hindu Business Line, December 6th 2011)

Technology magnifies human intent and capacity.” — Dr Kentaro Toyama

Knowledge of the spatial nature of one's surroundings is essential for resource use, environmental management, allocation of land rights and diplomatic relations with other communities.Today, India is in transition; there are numerous independent agents with differing aims and objectives attempting to access the nation's natural resources. The increased workload on environmental regulatory agencies has led to a profusion of procedures that curtail economic growth and governmental transparency.

In particular, the protection of India's environment and forests requires the processing of large amounts of geographic information as well as numerous levels of bureaucratic approval. Integrating a decision support system with a Geographic Information System (GIS) — which integrates different datasets and provides users with the ability to compare features across spatial datasets with different origins — could improve environmental regulation in India.

Traditionally, geographic information was collected by teams of field surveyors, and recorded in physical media in the form of maps. Land-cover data regarding tree cover and agricultural lands, physical features such as mountains and rivers, or even virtual data such as the location and extent of borders and boundaries qualify as geographic information.

Surveying, the science of determining the location of points on the earth's surface, and cartography, the complementary science of creating maps with this information, are ancient fields of study. Teams of surveyors would spend years determining land ownership boundaries and physical features, and highly trained cartographers would record the geographic information of entire communities in the form of detailed maps.

India has a long historical tradition of collecting and recording geographic information. One of the first and largest land surveys was conducted by Sher Shah in the sixteenth century for the purpose of land revenue estimation. Mughal emperor Aurangzeb duplicated this task in the late seventeenth century and the British Empire continued this exercise, using a system of written records and field maps to establish control over the land it acquired.

Role of satellites

This exercise of information collection and analysis required trained manpower to process this data, making the method inaccessible to a wider audience. However, this has changed with the invention of satellite-based remote sensing in the last century, which is now an essential tool in the collection of geographic information.

Remote sensing, the study of objects from a distance using both passive and active electromagnetic radiation, has automated the surveying method and reduced the time taken to collect this data. Increased computational power and advanced software development have enabled the creation of easily deployable GIS.

There are numerous agencies in India today, both governmental and private, that work on the various applications of remote sensing data. Chief among these applications is the study of the environment for purposes of management, conservation and protection. The Forest Survey of India produces forest cover maps of the country, and other agencies prepare or commission maps of their themes of interest.

Geographic information and environmental protection are inextricably interlinked. The identification and delineation of borders that restrict or permit access to areas, or of boundaries that define ecological extent or wildlife movement, are critical to environmental management. Controlling and containing the environmental impact of human activity requires this information to be easily accessible to environmental regulatory agencies such as the Indian Union Ministry for Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the various State Forest Departments.

Decisions taken by these agencies affect the lives and livelihoods of millions of Indians everyday. Data is obtained from various sources and used to make these crucial decisions; however, these datasets are disaggregated and difficult to visualise in their existing form. There is a strong case to be made for the digitisation of India's environmental information; in a recent judgment, the Supreme Court of India has explicitly recognised this need.

Geospatial System

Ideally, the spatial data from an application for environmental or forest clearance would be rapidly entered into the GIS; this could then be compared with other datasets such as forest cover, wildlife habitat, groundwater and distance from protected areas. Since the data from all applications will be contained within the same GIS, the cumulative environmental impact on a specific region will be rapidly estimated. This GIS could be used as a Geospatial Decision Support System (GDSS) to help regulatory agencies make transparent decisions.

Without this GDSS, government agencies will not have access to the best available tools required to enforce the laws of the land. For example, the Goa State Assembly's Public Accounts Committee recently used freely available satellite imagery from Google Earth to identify a case of illegal mining. An efficient GIS will be able to automatically flag such flagrant violations.

Europe's MOLAND project

The MOLAND (Monitoring Land Use/Cover Dynamics) system maintained by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre is one example of a functional GDSS, and was initiated in 1998. The US Forest Service also uses GDSSs for various purposes; its most recent tool, the November 9, 2011 Forests to Faucets project, “identifies areas that supply surface drinking water, have consumer demand for this water, and are facing significant development threats.”

Creating this GDSS will be a technical and technological challenge, and could be developed by private agencies, such as Google or Paladin, that have proven expertise in the design and production of such enterprise-level software. Indian government agencies such as the National Information Centre (NIC), the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) and the various state Space Applications Centres (SAC) may also be able to play leading roles in this process.

An alternative production process is through the development of open-source software; an example of this process is the US-Russian government ‘code-a-thon' held in September 2011, where teams of programmers competed to create information systems for better governance. The technologies required to create a comprehensive environmental GDSS exist; implementing them will magnify the capacity and intent of environment regulatory authorities in India.

[ This article was commissioned by the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania and is also available on their blog. ]