Monday, July 26, 2004

Veerappan and the high-tech sensors

Yesterday, the Times of India reported a plan to deploy thousands of sensors in the MM Hills area in an attempt to track down the whereabouts of the forest brigand, Veerappan. These sensors apparently detect motion of any sort and pass on the information to a central processing body and then one could evaluate the data to determine if and where Veerappan operates nowadays. Since I have some knowledge of this area, and the problems that lie within, I can’t resist throwing out a few opinions. This is the most harebrained of schemes that I have ever encountered in the plan to catch Veerappan. I wrote about another aspect of it here, but this one takes the cake. Even though the plan seems to have the backing of a bonafide scientist from the Indian Institute of Science, I think that this exercise is doomed to fail. I think that these people behind the scheme visualize MM Hills and adjoining area as a smooth playing field with little or no distractions. The terrain is quite inhospitable, as evidenced by the failure of the Special Task Force in nabbing Veerappan. Even if the sensors pick up any data, it would be simply deluged by information. There are always people moving about, and animals and especially elephants, who couldn’t care less what this shiny bit of technology is for. When Ullas Karanth of the WCS pioneered the use of camera trapping in Nagarahole National Park, he wanted to spot tigers, but also got an unbelievable amount of everything else, including humans, despite the fact that the level of protection in Nagarahole is several degrees higher than MM Hills, which is a mere Reserve Forest. Secondly, people who walk through the forest always notice something new and shiny and pick it up and maybe even sell it. A huge number of sensors would be lost this way. I remember when we were doing a study in the adjoining BR Hills, we lost a huge number of metal tags that we had affixed to trees to mark our experimental plots. We finally had to switch to paint marking the trees, but sometimes, even this would be chopped out of the bark. Considering all these factors, I would think that a new market would instantly develop for these sensors.

I was relating all this to a friend, and he in turn told me a story that was related to him by an Afghan taxi driver in Dubai. My friend and the taxi driver were generally chatting about the state of Afghanistan today, and how difficult it must have been for the Afghans, when the driver told him of what they used to do during both the Soviet as well as the American invasion. Apparently a group of them would form and but a whole bunch of candles. Then they would decide to go to a remote area and set fire to the place. the group would contain several 'informers' who would then tell the Soviets or the Americans that there was large terrorist hideout in that area. Soon the jets would arrive and bomb the hell out of the place and depart, leaving behind enough valuable metal shrapnel to sell on the market. I found this story most reminiscent of what would happen in India. I have even heard cases of people breaking the large concrete dustbins in order to get at the metal inside, in order to sell it. In such an environment the sensors would disappear faster than they can be put in.

No, the road to Veerappan lies in another way: a superior human intelligence service, that also collates information from everywhere.