MONIKA THAKUR stands next to a Deodar tree on the wooded St Bede’s College campus in Shimla, absorbed in a mobile device. At 22, she could easily pass off as a student. But she’s not. She is a forest guard — and what she is busy with, is not a mobile phone but a GPS device.
Thakur is part of an ambitious project that aims to combat a menace that has ravaged the Himachal capital — the illegal felling of trees.
According to Forest Department officials, there are an estimated 4,00,000 trees within Shimla municipal limits. And until March 15, records show 2,81,780 trees had been accounted for. If the project sticks to schedule, officials say all the trees will be located on GPS by October.
“This will provide real-time GPS data and a scientific record on the forest wealth of Shimla. If anyone damages or cuts a tree on private land, our team can easily check how many were cut through a GPS-enabled mobile phone. They can immediately send an alert about the missing tree and its tag number,” Tarun Kapoor, additional chief secretary, forest and environment, told The Indian Express.
And yet, the project required a push from the High Court to get going. Last October, while hearing a public interest litigation against the illegal felling of trees, the court ordered that each tree must be mapped and implanted with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. It also ordered that Shimla’s forest cover must be mapped through satellite or drones, and an “environmental audit” be conducted of all trees and saplings.
Thakur, who graduated from the government girls’ college in Shimla two years ago, is one of 17 trained guards who set out daily in the state capital with a hand-held GPS device, a tree-measuring instrument called clapper, bark-shaver and paint box.
“Sometimes, we need the presence of the patwari (local revenue official) to be sure about the owners of these trees in case of any boundary disputes. The most important tool is the GPS identifier. Once I stand next to the tree, its location is displayed, and I mark it on the device and make a physical record,” she said.
Flanked by three workers, Thakur also records the health of the tree — “whether it is dead or alive, standing straight, reclining or angled dangerously”. The workers then shave off a bit of the bark and paint a number on it. Back in her office, she feeds the details into an excel sheet for a specially created software to make the data digitally available.
The use of RFID tags, however, is still in a preliminary phase.
“The only other place where these tags were tested was in controlled conditions on a batch of sandalwood trees at Bengaluru’s Institute of Wood Science and Technology, under the Indian Council of Foreset Research,” said Kunal Sathyarthi, member secretary, Himachal Pradesh Council for Science, Technology and Environment (HIMCOSTE), which is providing technical support for the project.
The High Court, meanwhile, has made it clear that it is determined to see the project through. During a hearing on May 1, the court said it expects the enumeration to be completed within six months, and has asked for an update on the other key measure – deploying drones to map the forest cover.
“The idea of using technology — satellite mapping, digitisation of the number of trees with GPS tags and drone survey — is to eliminate the role of officials. Technology will help track each and every sensitive beat of the forest. After Shimla is done, we will try to cover the rest of Himachal Pradesh,” said Deven Khanna, Amicus Curiae appointed by the court.
“It’s not that trees were not felled in the early days of Shimla, especially in mid-1800s. All the houses here were made by felling trees. But the forest was raised once again. Today, Shimla’s forest is the oldest living urban forest of the world but a highly threatened one. It’s high time we put in place a reliable system for real-time tracking. Not a single tree should be allowed to die or go missing anymore,” he said.
However, a pilot project of fixing RFID tags on 100 trees in the United Services Club area has already exposed the challenges involved. Due to the hilly terrain, the RFID reader’s range is limited — each button-shaped sensor costs Rs 2,000, and requires strong WiFi signals. Then there’s a unique problem from an unexpected source — the shiny tags are being yanked out by monkeys.
A solution is also at hand, which is being actively considered: implanting “passive tags” inside trees — each costs only Rs 60, doesn’t need an active WiFi, will have a longer life and most importantly, can’t be removed by monkeys.