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Expert Interviews

Ujjwal Pradhan Discusses the Role of Technology to Enhance Forest Management and Conservation in India

Headshot of Ujjwal Pradhan

Dr. Ujjwal Pradhan is the Tetra Tech Chief of Party for the Forest-PLUS 3.0 joint program of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), Government of India.

Dr. Pradhan has more than 35 years of experience leading programs and research in Asia focusing on natural resources management and the environment.

Before joining Forest-Plus 3.0, he held a succession of senior posts, including Chief of Party for Forest-PLUS 2.0: forest for water and prosperity; Chief of Party for a Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) project in Indonesia; Regional Director of the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) Southeast Asia and China Program; and Program Officer at the Ford Foundation’s regional India and Indonesia offices. Dr. Pradhan holds a doctorate in development sociology from Cornell University and has authored and edited several books and articles on natural resources management and the environment.

This interview with Dr. Pradhan originally appeared in Climate Change Business Journal (CCBJ) as recognition of Tetra Tech’s CCBJ Business Achievement Award for Climate Change Adaptation & Resilience for implementing the Forest-PLUS 2.0 project in India.


Congratulations on implementing the Forest-PLUS 2.0 project in India and for developing the new Van system to support forest management. What is causing deforestation across India, and what are some unique characteristics of Indian forest ecosystems that have to be considered when designing a forest management system?

Deforestation in India has many drivers, including unsustainable farming practices, illegal logging, infrastructure development, and fuelwood dependency. India lost 668,400 hectares of forests between 2015 and 2020 according to a global study report that was released in March 2023. In the past 15 years, over 300,000 hectares of forest land have been diverted across states and union territories for infrastructure and industrial projects.

One of the main drivers of deforestation in India is agricultural expansion to meet the food needs of the growing population. This increase in demand for agricultural commodities leads to the conversion of forests into farmland. Another significant cause of degradation is illegal logging, which is still rampant despite laws that prohibit the cutting of trees without permits due to high demand for timber. Large-scale mining to extract minerals like iron ore, bauxite, and coal is also a significant contributor to deforestation in India as these mines are in the forest areas, leading to the destruction of forests and loss of biodiversity. India’s growing population and rapid urbanization are also having a significant negative impact as forest areas are converted into human settlements and infrastructure.

In India, there are 16 different types of forests, ranging from tropical evergreen forests to dry alpine scrub. This diversity poses significant challenges to develop a system that can be used across the country in different forest types to collect inventory data. Recognizing this, the Van system (Van meaning forest in Hindi) was developed as a modular system that can be set up for any state/forest division by uploading the geo- spatial layers and the species list.

Indian forest ecosystems are also characterized by a heavy human dependence on forests and significant biotic influence. The Van system has forms that collect ecosystem services data, village information, and household data. Our approach includes ensuring that forms are available in local languages and include the local names of plants and animals. We continue to expand the Van system to include the unique and important characteristics of India’s forest ecosystems, such as biodiversity hotspots, mangrove forests, sacred groves, agroforestry systems, and threatened species.


How recently were states in India required to develop and submit forest management plans? Do you expect your system to be deployed in more than the current six of the 28 Indian states?

Forest management regulations in India have been in place since the mid-1800s. However, early thinking favored the protection of commercially viable species, eliminating the less valuable and those interfering with the growth of the former—thus creating imbalanced forest ecosystems. In time, the “Preparation of Forest Working-Plans in India,” developed by W. E. D’Arcy, sought to help manage the comprehensive set of factors for consideration in forest management plans and transformed the process. Today, plans are governed through the National Working Plan Code 2023 by India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEFCC). They require all forest divisions in the country to develop these plans through forest inventory data collection and analysis. Currently, the Van system is used in six states; in the next three years we are working to expand to at least 15 total states.


Is data all entered manually based on boots-on-the-ground data collection, or does the system integrate drone or satellite data or automated functions for collecting data on an ongoing basis?

Van mobile app collects all data entered as primary data from the field using various field data collection forms provided in the National Working Plan Code 2023. The Van System currently has a simple structure: forms for data collection on the app and calculation of growing stock and some indices on the web portal. At present, the Van system does not integrate drone or satellite data or any automated functions.

Through the recently awarded Forest-PLUS 3.0 contract, we will identify additional functions for the Van system and expand its scope to make it a monitoring tool through regular collection of data. To achieve this, we will work closely with the MoEFCC as well as the State Forest Departments, based on their requirements, need, and the technical feasibility.


How is India doing in generating forest carbon credits either for a domestic program or internationally?

The “Down To Earth” report states that India has 1,451 projects registered or under various stages of consideration at different carbon registries. Carbon credits issued to Indian entities are worth 11 percent of India’s annual greenhouse gas emissions in 2021. Indian entities have already earned about $652 million from carbon credits used to offset emissions. The Green Credits Programme, launched by MoEFCC in October 2023, is an effort to create a market-based incentive for different kinds of environment-positive actions including water conservation and afforestation, not just for carbon emission reductions.


Where did you grow up, and what’s the most compelling evidence of climate change that you have witnessed in your lifetime?

I grew up in Nepal, and we often experienced weather extremes like flash flooding and landslides caused by torrential monsoon rains. The Terai and even Kathmandu Valley have been subject to more frequent floods in the last decade. Here in India, we’ve witnessed similar challenges, for example, increased sea level rise in Odisha over the years. In hill states such as Himanchal Pradesh, there is a higher incidence of increasing flash floods, landslides, and shifts in growing patterns, such as apple trees bearing fruit only in a higher altitude than before.

These changes underscore the critical importance of programs such as Forest-PLUS to operationalize commitments to improving forest management and increasing forest cover through eco-restoration, particularly in areas vulnerable to extreme climate change impacts.

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