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‘Technological innovations will be key to forest resource management in the future’

ML Srivastava
Deputy Director General – Forests
Ministry of Environment & Forests

Forests, being an inherent component of our ecosystem, need a scientific way of management. Geospatial technology will play a major role in conservation, management and monitoring of our valuable resources, says ML Srivastava in an exclusive interview with Geospatial World

Kindly brief us about the mandate and scope of activities of the Ministry of Environment and Forests?
The Ministry of Environment & Forests is the nodal agency in the central government for planning, promoting, coordinating and overseeing environmental, ecological, forestry and wildlife policies and programmes. The Ministry is also the nodal agency for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), South Asia Cooperative Environment Programme (SACEP), International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), and United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). The broad objectives of the Ministry for forestry sector are conservation and survey of flora, fauna, forests and wildlife and afforestation and regeneration of degraded areas.

The main activities with regard to the forest sector include inter alia conservation and survey of natural resources including flora, fauna, forests, wildlife, aquatic bodies and water resources and ecosystems, protection of the environment and forests, including their biodiversity, mitigation and adaptation to climate change through measures that include afforestation, regeneration of degraded areas and adoption of cleaner technologies and promoting sustainable development and better environmental governance while protecting human, plant and animal life, health and welfare.

One of the most critical issues facing forests in India is the alarmingly decreasing land cover. In your view, how can geospatial technology play a role in addressing this issue?
The Forest Survey of India assesses the forest cover of the country on a two-year cycle using satellite data in a wall to wall mapping mode. The main objective is presentation of the information on forest resources of the country at state and district levels and to prepare forest cover maps on 1:50,000 scale. At the country level the forest cover is static (with minor changes) at the level of around 21% of the geographical area for the last three cycles of biennial forest cover assessments as done by the Forest Survey of India using remote sensing and GIS techniques. The decadal change in the forest cover as per the FSI 2007 and 1997 assessments is +3.13 million hectares. However, at the local levels at some places, negative changes have been reported e.g. as per the 2011 assessment, the North East part of the country witnessed 500 sq km of dwindling forest cover as compared to the 2009 assessment. Over all at the country level there is a marginal decrease of 367 km2 of forest cover in the country as compared to the previous assessment of 2009.
Use of geospatial technology is key to objective assessment of changes in the forest cover at local and country levels. Window-based mapping of certain selected areas like eco sensitive zones etc. using high resolution satellite data and mapping on higher scale enables us to assess the forest cover more objectively.

Use of advanced techniques like geospatial technology is becoming essential for accurate and timely spatial database of large areas like forests for effective monitoring and safeguarding forest resources. What are the initiatives by MOEF to promote / mandate use of geospatial technology among the various organizations involved in forest sector in India and also bring in the latest technological advancements?
Forest being an inherent component of our ecosystem needs a scientific way of their management, for which the RS and GIS technology will play a major role in conservation, management and monitoring of our valuable resources. Key geospatial technologies are becoming more evident in our everyday lives. GIS, GPS and remote sensing are the base. Smart maps are able to display, query, and analyse forestry databases, receivers that provide location and navigation, and global to local imagery and tools providing visual context and analysis. As of today, remote sensing and GIS technology have a well established role in forest resource assessment and providing reliable and valuable data on forests to the community. The mapping of forest cover at national level which is a major endeavor by the FSI under MOEF, is nothing but a system of monitoring of country's forest cover using technology.
MoEF is implementing various country-wide schemes involving afforestation programmes like National Afforestation Programme (NAP), Green India Mission (GIM) etc. involving sizeable financial allocation. Profound use of space technology and GIS is factored in the analysis and data preparation processes and even for the purpose of applying course corrections whenever and wherever necessary. With the help of FSI, MoEF is developing a uniform inventory design for information of forest cover, area of plantation, growing stock and related parameters like biodiversity etc. For effective implementation of the monitoring mechanism, certain steps such as geo referencing of the afforestation areas and digitisation of forest boundaries have been taken. The Ministry has asked the states to submit their proposals mentioning the new area for afforestation with due geo referencing. Most of the states are implementing the instructions and the proposals are submitted from the state forest departments, where geo positioning of the new areas for afforestation is indicated.
Another issue which has been taken up by the Ministry with the state forest departments (SFDs) is to digitise the forest boundaries of all the States/UTs in the country. Standard operating procedures have been developed and circulated to all the SFDs. With the availability of digitised forest boundaries of the SFDs, the Ministry will be in a position to identify the changes in forest cover within and outside recorded forest area. The Ministry is willing to help in terms of financial and manpower support from the schemes to the concerned State to expedite digitization of forest boundaries. Even while sanctioning the project under NAP Scheme, the concerned state implementing agency has been advised to ensure that the digitised maps of forestry boundary reconciles with the land records. Even the comprehensive programme to train forestry personnel at cutting edge level in usage of modern equipments such as GPS, PDAs is being worked out to build institutional capacity of the SFDs. This would help to bring more clarity to the role of country’s forest wealth in climate change mitigation and also help to base fiscal transfers on more robust parameters in future. Initiatives by MOEF to promote / mandate use of geospatial technology among the various organisations involved in forest sector are

National Forest Information System (NFIS):
Its main objective is to provide ready access to the most current, consistent and reliable forest resources information on spatial and non-spatial data base on forest cover and forest types and other forestry layers of the country. This will be available on Web-enabled interactive GIS support system. This will help in planning, implementation and real time monitoring of different schemes. It will act as an effective administrative tool for transparency aiding in socially inclusive and responsive public service.
The Decision Support System (a subset of NFIS), under preparatory stage presently, will provide information of forest cover, forest type and biodiversity richness of recorded forests of the country. It will also provide information about the protected areas including corridors for all the states of the country. All the information shall be accessible through FSI geoportal. The DSS is being developed with an objective of making informed decisions by the planners and policy makers with a profound GIS-based scientific input.

National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI):
National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) for India is an initiative undertaken by Department of Science and Technology (DST), Govt. of India. NSDI aims at encouraging collection, aggregation and distribution of spatial data on different themes on a common defined set of standards and formats by different mapping agencies in India. This endeavour is aimed at creating a portal from which users may directly access and buy all kinds of spatial data generated by Indian mapping agencies. FSI is the nodal agency for the forestry sector and has created spatial layers as per the requirements of NSDI in order to develop a national spatial knowledge repository and as a preparatory domain for the National GIS. FSI is chair for the Interoperability Working Group under NSDI.
Near Real time monitoring of forest fires:
The national near real time forest fire system is organised in a manner where Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) Data reception and processing is done at NRSC to identify fire locations using its ‘Direct Read Out’ facility at Shadnagar. Identified fire locations (fire hot spots) are sent to the FSI within 90 minutes. The UTM/ WGS84 projection system is followed in the processing chain. Value addition to the fire alerts is done by the FSI to identify fires in forest areas, add grid wise attributes, prepare map based products etc. Fire locations are pixel centres of MODIS 1 km pixel. Forest fire alerts from active fire locations are being generated as KML file which is Google compatible format and sent to the registered end users within 2 hrs of satellite overpass. Alerts are sent to registered users via Emails and SMS. Both the institutions NRSC (ISRO) and the FSI under the MOEF are working together for providing timely fire alerts and strengthen the national forest fire management.

Near Real Time Monitoring of the Eco-sensitive zones:
As per the initiative of the MoEF, FSI proposes to carry out near real time monitoring of the eco sensitive zones. This includes monitoring of the identified eco sensitive zones using IRS AWiFS data (temporal resolution-5 days, radiometric resolution-12 Bit Quantisation and medium spatial resolution-56 m).

Forest Boundary Consolidation and Monitoring changes therein:
FSI, pursuing the directive from the MoEF, subsequent to the directive from the Supreme Court of Indias, has taken initiatives to enable the SFDs to digitise the forest boundary in the states/UTs in the country. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) have been developed and circulated to the SFDs. Process for procurement of high precision DGPS instruments has been initiated. A comprehensive programme to train forestry personnel at cutting edge level in usage of GPS, PDAs is being worked out to build institutional capacity of SFDs.
Integrated Information System for Monitoring of CSS:
MoEF is implementing various country-wide afforestation programmes/schemes like NAP, GIM etc. involving sizeable financial allocation. In view of the huge financial investment and criticality of the endeavor in terms of ecology, climate change and rural livelihood support, it is prudent to monitor the trees on the ground for the sake of financial accountability and even for the purpose of applying course correction whenever and wherever necessary. This exercise shall generate a wealth of spatial and non-spatial data for the entire country.
Monitoring of Incremental Carbon Stock of Indian Forests:
Enhancement of carbon stock in forests is one of the outcomes of most of afforestation schemes. As per the requirement of REDD+, the country must have information on carbon stock in Indian forests on a periodic basis at regional and national levels. Efforts are afoot to harmonise our field inventory work with that of working plan officers in field, so as to produce reliable results at local / regional and national levels. Through this endeavor, FSI would seek to fulfill the country commitments in international forum on climate change.

MOEF is involved in a project called Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (Campa Monitoring). Kindly tell us more about it. How is geospatial information /technology being used in it?
Many development and industrial projects such as erection of dams, mining, and construction of industries or roads require diversion of forest land. Any project proponent, government or private must apply for forest clearance from MoEF, before using land for non forestry purposes. This proposal is to be submitted through the concerned forest department of the state government. Compensation for the diverted forest land is also to be decided by the ministry. Supreme Court has ordered setting up the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) as National Advisory Council under the chairmanship of the Union Minister of Environment & Forests for monitoring, technical assistance and evaluation of compensatory afforestation activities. Supreme Court has authorized the National CAMPA advisory council to utilize upto 5% of the amount released to the State CAMPA every year for monitoring and evaluation and for implementation of the various schemes by it.
In addition, an integrated Concurrent Campa Monitoring & Evaluation System (i-CCMES), rechristened as e-Greenwatch, which will be an integrated and online system and will be completely transparent, reliable and accountable, has been initiated by the Ministry. It will also present the data in real time and must be accessible to all stakeholders and public at large. It will allow for monitoring, evaluation, social and ecological audits by independent organizations, researchers and the public per se. e-Greenwatch extensively relates to online monitoring of various afforestation and other works being carried out using CAMPA funds. It involves design and development of a web-based workflow applications and integrated information system which shall enable automating various functions and activities related to monitoring and bringing transparency in the use of CAMPA funds and various works sanctioned in the Annual Plan of Operations (State CAMPA) approved by the State authorities. It shall also facilitate the optimal use of available ICT technologies for the institutionalization of monitoring mechanism to monitor and evaluate project being undertaken by the State CAMPA. An important component of this project is satellite based monitoring of the afforestation/plantation works, wherein, after a period of around three years (this period is higher in the hilly regions) the plant is identifiable in the high resolution satellite imagery.
With a complete policy framework in place, the forestry wing of Ministry of Environment and Forests is also vigorously pursuing the application of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in various aspects of working.

MOEF will also be launching ‘Green India Mission’ soon which is poised to have a significant geospatial component. Can you elaborate on it?
The National Mission for a Green India is one of the eight Missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC). The Mission, GIM, recognises that climate change phenomena will seriously affect and alter the distribution, type and quality of natural resources of the country and the associated livelihoods of the people. GIM acknowledges the influences that the forestry sector has on environmental amelioration through climate mitigation, food security, water security, biodiversity conservation and livelihood security of forest dependent communities.
GIM puts the “greening” in the context of climate change adaptation and mitigation, meant to enhance ecosystem services like carbon sequestration and storage (in forests and other ecosystems), hydrological services and biodiversity; along with provisioning services like fuel, fodder, small timber and NTFPs.
Identification of the candidate landscapes for treatment is an important aspect of the programme. Profuse use of the geospatial technology is factored in identification of landscapes. Use of various geospatial layers is implicit to cull out the required areas/ landscapes for treatment. Forest cover map (wall to wall map of the entire country), vulnerability to climate change layer (an output of the Indian Institute of Sciences team), forest degradation layer (biodiversity characterisation layer of the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing) and other legacy datasets are being used for this. The Mission Monitoring Framework entails intensive use of remote sensing and GIS. Further, extensive use of geospatial technology will be made in monitoring of the works undertaken under GIM.

Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation+ (REDD+) is a significant initiative from the UN in the forest sector in developing countries, which also has a significant geospatial component as geospatial technology is used to monitor carbon emissions. How is the preparedness of India in joining this initiative?
The UN-REDD Program is the United Nations Collaborative Program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries. "REDD+" goes beyond deforestation and forest degradation, and includes the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks. It focuses on developing sustainable national approaches that promote equitable outcomes and ensure that countries use reliable methodologies to assess emission reductions. Using ICTs in this context is as below:
• Both projects experiment with smart phones/PDAs with preloaded software for data collection on biomass from sample plots and boundary demarcation using global positioning system (GPS) functions. These projects are training local communities to update data and use simple interfaces on the devices to convert the data into carbon estimates.
• Geospatial (GIS) approach for reference level ascertainment which uses key variables to represent current land use change patterns, and predict future patterns
• Development and testing of scalable MRV (measurement, reporting and verification) methods based on current IPCC guidelines using remote sensing satellite data and geospatial technologies
• Carbon mapping in the context of REDD+ involves intensive use of geospatial technology.

What are the future application areas for geospatial technology in the forest sector that you foresee? What are the requisites for escalating the use of geospatial technology in forest management in India?
Extensive use of geospatial technology in the forest sector in the country is already being done. Instruments like GPS have replaced the conventional methods of surveying which were time taking and cumbersome. These instruments, besides being easy to use, can provide result with acceptable degree of accuracy. Many of the SFDs in the country have also started using GPS or are in the transition mode. The GPS can be also be used to map areas, habitats, points of interest, wildlife sightings and movements, patrolling routes, mapping and monitoring of plantation, and other field related activities. The information thus gathered can also be uploaded via the internet on a real time basis so the dissemination of field related information occurs in a short time span and helps in managerial decision making at the highest level.
Remote sensing is a powerful monitoring technique which can be used for monitoring our natural resources on a time series basis. This technology is being used by the FSI and the SFDs to monitor the forest cover of the country. It has myriad applications including monitoring of plantations, illegal encroachments, disaster management etc. With technological advancements, the imagery resolution has increased while the price has decreased, making the technology more affordable and accessible to the field managers and policy makers.
GIS can help us in focused and timely management interventions in an informed manner leading to greater efficiency in emergent situations. These technological innovations shall be the key to the management of all our forestry resources in the coming future.
Prospective use of the geospatial technology in the domain of natural resources management entails the following components
• Remote sensing analysis and use of satellite data for land cover assessment and habitat maps or measure of environmental variation, such as primary productivity
• Collect GIS data in the field using statistical sampling and use of GPS and DGPS for forest boundary demarcation for identification of the recorded forest areas
• Design and perform analysis using GIS data and spatial analysis techniques
• Conduct a basic land cover change assessment using satellite imagery
• Link species presence/absence or abundance data to other spatial data in a GIS platform
• Compare existing techniques for modeling species habitat, niche selection, and distribution
• Apply GIS-generated analyses to conservation planning
These technological innovations shall be the key to the management of all our forestry resources in the coming future. Geospatial technology has a big role to play in the coming years in the forestry sector. With the advancements in technology the technological limitations are now being overcome and newer applications are operationalized. Use of microwave remote sensing, lidar, hyperspectral remote sensing are the areas with high potential in the forestry sector with more accurate, with wide coverage overcoming the limitations of perpetual cloud cover, shadow etc. and adding new dimensions like species identification, more accurate biomass mapping, are not far.