by CIO Staff

GIS Project Worth the Trouble

Jan 19, 20079 mins
Enterprise Applications

By Sunil Shah

A shoehorn would be conspicuous in the 21st century shoe-rack. Still, the gray footwear accessory in a corner of the Tamil Nadu (TN) Forest Department’s lab is symbolic, given the ease it can add to a process—the task of fitting something to size.

The shoehorn is one symbol. From a macro and technology perspective, the Rs 300-crore [approximately US$68 million] Geographic Information System (GIS) project to help increase forest cover in the state is another. The TN Forest Department does have an eye for detail, and appreciates a tool that can streamline work. And its thoroughness has served the seven-person GIS team well over the past three years, as they’ve pored over thousands of maps and a jungle of information to create the first multi-layered, visual map of forests in Tamil Nadu.

Putting it together was painstaking. The GIS team began by working with data on forest cover from the Forest Survey of India, hard copies of road and topographical maps, field observations from rangers and hard-to-date, hand-drawn forest reserve maps—most of this in unwieldy, inaccurate hard copies. As a final layer, the staff topped the multi-dimensional map with satellite images.

As it relies on a visual approach, GIS is renowned for its ability to monitor change in easy before-and-after pictures. It is especially popular among decision makers who love the quick, transparent and easily-digestible information that GIS offers.

The love isn’t misplaced, particularly because GIS works efficiently over large areas. “The proliferation of GIS is explained by its unique ability to assimilate data from widely divergent sources, to analyze trends over time, and to spatially evaluate impact caused by development. For an experienced analyst, GIS is an extension of one’s own analytical thinking,” says C.K. Sreedharan, principal chief conservator of forests, and the person who has spearheaded the forest department’s GIS project.

But GIS is more than a show-and-tell tool to track change. The TN forest department has used it to identify and prioritize problems quickly, and help find appropriate solutions. Other states—Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala—have attempted GIS implementations to support their afforestation programs, but are yet to produce the sort of results shown in Tamil Nadu.

Under the GIS Microscope

The TN Forest Department is responsible for 22,865 sq. km. of forest land. Its primary functions include preservation of forested areas, improvement of degraded patches, and growing the forest acreage. It’s been a longstanding battle with commercial bodies and village settlements, which rely on the forest for resources and food.

Further, the National Forest Policy of 1988 states that 33 percent of any state must constitute forest cover. In Tamil Nadu, the figure stands at only 17.58 percent—just above half of the target. Of the existing forest cover, only 2,440 sq. km. (1.8 percent) is heavily forested. Pushed by the union planning commission, the forest department here has been making efforts to increase forest and tree cover in the state to 25 percent by 2007 and 33 percent by 2012, mainly by encouraging tree cultivation in and outside reserved forest areas.

However, there are more than 3,000 villages that border on reserved forest areas. The GIS system accurately pinpoints encroachments and the extent of damage that villages inflict. It also delineates areas where degradation is taking place. The GIS not only shows up degradation in stark relief, but, with innovation, it can also be used to improve the department’s chances of targeting locations where afforestation has higher chance of success more quickly.

In the turf war with the villages, the department knows from experience that its best chances lies in the adage, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” So, the department started a program in 1997 called Tamil Nadu Afforestation Project (TAP) that has consistently aimed at sustainability, by embracing and including village folk.

“TAP was conceptualized as a joint forest management-based afforestation project where the focus was more on people’s participation and improving the livelihood of inhabitants in the project villages,” says Sreedhran. This is tough to put into practice, given that the wants of both parties are tugging in diametrically opposite directions: villages want to cut firewood and sell, the department wants to consolidate and grow.

The department has made a number of attempts in the past, such as paying villagers not to cut firewood. More recently, it has begun trying more sustainable approaches, using GIS, which they hope will imbibe a sense of ownership towards the forest among villagers.

One of the initiatives is to allow villagers to “adopt” areas in the forest. At last count, 1,500 villages had been given 250-350 hectares of forest land. In return for fencing and guarding these areas and improving their ecological balance, villagers can sell the produce from the forest. The most significant aspect of this arrangement is that the villagers re-forest degraded patches of land. In 2002-2003, the villagers had notched up 83 lakh person-days of work, according to the department. Some villages have made a few lakhs a year from this initiative. [A lakh is 100,000 rupees, approximately US$2,265.]

In the context of such initiatives, the GIS project has contributed immensely toward making informed choices quickly. For instance, it has facilitated the choosing of villages for the initiative and the quantum of land to be allotted to them. This also entails surveying to determine the most appropriate piece of forest, in terms of distance from a village and forest cover.

A few years ago, there was no telling how long a survey could take. Villagers, accompanied by rangers using a chain-and-compass method to gauge distance, took time to organize and supply the results. “The time saved on a simple survey is as much as 90 percent. Also, I need 40 percent to 50 percent less manpower (with the use of GIS),” says Sreedharan.

Part of the TAP mission is also to create harmony between the needs of villagers and that of the forest, including water. Using GIS, forest department officials can, for example, slash the time taken to find a location for a bund, a small dam to create a pool. S.A Raju, assistant conservator of forests, says that with GIS, the forest ranger can, for instance, locate a 30-degree slope, one kilometer from a village, in an area where you don’t need to cut trees to build a bund. If such a choice doesn’t exist, GIS can provide the next best option.

The long-term benefits of GIS-enabled watersheds cannot be ignored, says Sreedharan. Although they seem like soft benefits for the public, the water projects can potentially better the living standards in villages by pushing up the water table. The link between higher water tables, better harvests and more readily-available grazing land are direct. And these financially benefit the village folk. “Once these assets are created, their benefits last a long time,” says Sreedharan.

For the ROI-mongers, the Forest Survey of India has found an increase of 1,161 sq. km. of forest cover in Tamil Nadu between the 2001 and 2003. However, this increase, cautions the department, can be a mix of both real changes and interpretational changes. “With remote sensing technology, interpretational corrections are part of the methodology. These corrections keep reducing in subsequent assessments with increasing ‘ground-truthing,’ and real changes are depicted only after some years,” says Sreedharan.

Keeping It In-House

Putting the GIS system together was painful. Officials recall how it took three years of tedious work to create the 1:50,000 scale map, accurate down to the beat, the smallest unit in the forest department’s administration. The GIS system needed at least six layers of maps to be useful, says S.A Raju.

To put the layers together, the outline of each physical feature, such as roads and administrative boundaries, on each map for each of the six layers had to be made into vectors to ensure that they were no longer images but coordinates. The maps then needed to be placed accurately on top of each other. Whenever a map’s inaccuracy required cross-checking with forest rangers on the ground, the process would hold up a layer, creating a domino effect of delay on an entire section of the map.

Yet, none of the work was outsourced. The forest department’s GIS project is among the few successful e-governance projects that haven’t been outsourced.

Within e-governance, it’s hard to resist the temptation to outsource. With high failure rates—up to 85 percent—most heads of departments with scant IT background feel more comfortable among experts. But, outsourcing costs. Worse, with the check to the outsourcers, many government agencies fork over the hands-on experience and in-depth knowledge needed to run large, complex projects. The TN Forest Department teamed up with the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) in Hyderabad to set up its Geomatics Centre in Chennai. However, the department’s decision not to outsource meant that it had to train its own staff—all 9,000 of them—spread over 12 circles and 26 divisions.

“The question of outsourcing arises only when you do not have the desired skills available in the organization. In our case, the collaboration helped both organizations,” says Sreedharan. The department collaborated with the NRSA to build skills, and created a separate department to ensure that training was a constant, self-sufficient process. “Training is a continuous process. We have 12 circles. The bottom three rungs of each circle (rangers, foresters, forest guards) are trained (at the Chennai headquarters) over four days, every 12 weeks. We’ve already trained between 800 and 900 field officers,” says Raju.

Their work with the NRSA has also introduced computerization at the lowest administrative level, the establishment of radio frequency links and the use of GPS. A large chunk of the project cost has gone into buying satellite images, say Sreedharan. Depending on what the department is studying, new satellite images are bought. Satellite data used to monitor fire, for instance, is bought annually although data to analyze changes in vegetation is bought every five to 10 years, he says.

Moving forward, the GIS team is looking at how the system can be used for administrative purposes. By linking information to each section, the department might be able to mark the progress of forest officers and, more importantly, projects. “It is true that GIS can definitely help and facilitate the development if monitoring protocols. Non-spatial attributes can be linked to geographic features where project work is undertaken. We are trying to develop monitoring protocols through Web-based GIS,” says Sreedharan.

Much like the grey shoehorn in the department lab, then, the GIS is there to be used. It’s only a question of how it can be applied for an array of purposes. Who says perfectionism doesn’t pay off?

This article originally appeared in CIO India.