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To Build Rural Resilience, India Needs a Village-Level Spatial Database

To Build Rural Resilience, India Needs a Village-Level Spatial Database

A satellite view of settlements along the southern bank of Pulicat lake, Tamil Nadu. Image: Google Earth

Rural resilience by definition is the capacity of rural areas to simultaneously balance ecologic, economic, and social-cultural systems, and cope with their vulnerabilities in the face of continuously changing extraneous circumstances.

These systems are entangled and interactions among them are increasing in intensity and scale. Vulnerability in one sector automatically affects the other sectors and exposes rural areas to greater risks and uncertainties as we are witnessing now. Close on the heels of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, the world is on the brink of another challenge on account of drought.

NASA-led research has indicated that Earth’s energy imbalance approximately doubled during the 14 years from 2005 to 2019. The planet is warming. The UN Special Report on Drought 2021 highlighted the impending challenges that the world is going to encounter on account of drought. The first installment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report cautioned about the incremental intensity of climatic hazards causing aggravated flood, drought and coastal inundation.

Also read: What Does the IPCC’s Landmark Climate Report Say About India?

Our natural resource endowments will be further stressed and that will negatively impact our economic well-being. Building rural resilience is a planning imperative in the face of these challenges and growing social-ecological vulnerabilities, the manifestation of which will vary spatially according to the local environmental conditions. It is necessary to construct a spatial and measurable knowledge database spelling out resource endowments, environmental conditions, infrastructure and dimensions of vulnerabilities at the level of local territorial systems. And then design resilient rural management plans.

Localism, spatial planning and resilience are being stressed across the world to cope with continuous changes, along with the social, economic, political and environmental contexts in which they operate. The emphasis is on harmonious development – in which people are able to make the most of the inherent features of their territories, transforming diversity into an asset. Policymakers and experts are focusing on place-based specificities, coming out of formal procedures, and spatial development of a particular locality in an informal way. Functional plans are now decentralised, locally focused, flexible, stress on locally chosen targets for state spending and participatory.

The importance of local-level mapping is well-understood. As early as in the 1930s, the UK completed a land utilisation survey using ordnance survey maps and involving high school teachers and students as volunteers. Digital versions of these maps are now available. The exercise was repeated during the 1960s.

In 1990 and 1996, the country made further attempts to complete the map for the entire country based on satellite data. Inspired by the UK’s experiments, there were certain initiatives in India at the academic level, but they didn’t make much progress.

Realising the importance of micro-level data for decision making, recently, during the last decade, the US Environmental Protection Agency compiled a nationwide geographic data resource (a ‘smart location database’) to characterise the built-environment and destination accessibility at the neighbourhood scale. The database contains more than 90 variables under 10 topics: administrative, area, demographics, employment, density, land-use diversity, design, transit service, destination accessibility and regional summaries.

Also read: The New Geospatial Data Guidelines Are Revolutionary – but Can Also Do More

Village-level spatial database

India needs a village-level spatial database. According to the 2011 Census, 69% of the total population of the country lived in 138 million households across 5.97 lakh inhabited villages. Nearly half the rural population resides in 1.15 lakh villages with a population size class of 2,000-10,000. Apart from demographic data, other relevant information is hardly available for these villages, and there is virtually little spatial data on land use, water structure and environmental conditions, although cadastral maps are available for almost all villages.

The Digital India Land Records Modernisation Programme primarily aims to computerise rights records, and is important. But in addition, a complete map database should be developed. Space technology has advanced considerably. India has launched the Cartosat satellites to regularly collect data at sub-metre resolution. Village level mapping in cadastral scale is possible using these remote-sensing data products. Additional tools like GPS and GIS should help determine the precise location of features, including households, and assimilate all data.

While the basic data on land, water and local assets can be mapped with the help of local high-school teachers and students, NSS volunteers and local NGOs (after proper training), assimilating the data and preparing action plans could be developed at a higher level, involving professionals both for individual villages and clusters. The present practice of centralised planning and management, considering villages as mere recipients, should be reversed. Village-level databases and plans may be aggregated at different hierarchical levels, like watersheds, blocks, districts, etc.

A start in Kerala

Kerala introduced the ‘Panchayat Resource Mapping’ programme involving science and technology personnel and volunteers in 1991 on an experimental basis. Subsequently, it emerged as a major action research programme covering all panchayats in the state. This exercise generated mapped data on the nature of the land, land-use showing both agricultural and non-agricultural use, all types of water structures (rivers, streams, lakes, springs, ponds and selected wells), asset-roads, communication, educational and healthcare systems, and environmental appraisal at the panchayat level. Some of these maps are now being digitised.

Also read: How GIS Helped Kenya Respond Better to COVID-19

The Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti, a voluntary organisation, introduced this programme in selected blocks – one each in Bihar, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal – as a prelude to executing projects for drinking water mission under the Government of India in 1994. But this mapping exercise in these states was limited to the concerned blocks only, and it couldn’t turn into state-level initiatives as it had in Kerala. Kerala’s advantage is the government’s interest, the institutionalisation of the programme, involvement of dedicated institutes and public participation.

The task is challenging given the type of diversity and the sociopolitical scenario prevailing in the country. However, it is essential to build resilient villages and panchayats, and undertake spatial planning, precision management, and information-based local level decision-making in the face of India’s future challenges.

Srikumar Chattopadhyay is a retired scientist, Centre for Earth Science Studies and a national fellow, Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation, both in Thiruvananthapuram.

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