Friday, April 17, 2015

18 Village conversations. Decentralized governance and forests in India-V.

This paper emanates basically from a study on the effectiveness of different institutional modes on the protection and sustainable management of forests as a common property resource (CPR). Some of the institutional alternatives available are the panchayat institutions, the state (i.e., the forest departments), community organisations, and the collaborative or participatory approaches developed in some departments (which have been castigated as a violation of the Constitution by the PRI purists), like joint forest management (JFM) in the forest department, and the school monitoring committees in education.
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Community management of CPRs

In the literature on common property resources, various conditions have been suggested by scholars like the Nobel Prize awardee Elinor Ostrom, to explain why some communities are successful in sustainably managing their CPRs, while others fall prey to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and the ‘free-rider syndrome’. Of course Ostrom is well known on the subject, and this is not the place to present a review of that body of work, so it must suffice to just mention here the main understandings.

To institute a set of rules to manage a CPR, that are acceptable and sustainable, the requirements according to Ostrom (1990) are as follows:
1)      define a set of appropriators who are authorized to use the CPR,
2)      relate the rules to the attributes of the CPR and the community,
3)      the rules to be defined at least in part, by local appropriators,
4)      the rules to be monitored by individuals accountable to local appropriators
5)      the rules are “sanctioned using graduated punishments” (in common parlance, I interpret this to mean that serious punishments are not imposed at the first offence, but through a gradually rising series according to the seriousness and frequency).

We may note, parenthetically, that a question may well be raised whether and to what extent any community can actually hold its members responsible for their actions. The above list of specifications still does not explain why some self-interested individuals should not gang up to subvert the “rules”, especially in a fast-changing world where the younger generation may see things totally differently. To follow Ostrom’s line for the present, the following set of variables is presented as capable of explaining the supply of institutions in the sort of situations her case studies cover:

1)      the total number of decision makers,
2)      the number of participants needed to achieve the collective action,
3)      the discount rate in use,
4)      the similarities of interest,
5)      the presence of people with substantial leadership assets.
6)      that they have access to rapid low cost “arenas” to resolve conflicts,
7)      that the rights to devise their own institutions are not challenged by external government agencies, and
8)      that these activities are organised in multiple layers of “nested enterprises”.
Ostrom found that successful experiments in community management have started with small-scale institutions where people learn about one another and build up trust by face-to-face interactions, and then gradually build it up to higher levels and larger groups. That is, institution-building and management learning has to proceed through an “incremental, self-transforming process”, to be successful, when

“... individuals repeatedly communicate and interact with one another in a localized physical setting. Thus, it is possible that they can learn whom to trust, what effects their actions will have on each other and on the CPR, and how to organize themselves to gain benefits and avoid harm. When individuals have lived in such situations for a substantial time and have developed shared norms and patterns of reciprocity, they possess social capital with which they can build institutional arrangements for resolving CPR dilemmas” (Ostrom, 1990, p.183/4).

We may note on the margins that this is precisely what has been given short shrift in the polemical approach to developing local governance through PRIs, which are to be set up all at once, at a fairly high level (district, taluk and ‘village’, the last encompassing many settlements and thousands of persons), with the accompanying problems of trust building which Ostrom pointed out as crucial for natural resource management systems. Again parenthetically, it may be noted that the strength of village forest committees and other “parallel” community-based organisations (CBOs) referred to above, lies precisely in that they deal with small groups of mutually known persons in the hamlet or neighbourhood, enabling constant discussion and negotiation of the rules and their implementation.

Joint Forest Management and communities

Among observers of the CPR scene in India, Saxena (1997) has tried to identify the factors in success and failure of various forms of participatory forest management in different states, some of which are as follows. In the case of Van (=forest) Panchayats  of the UP hills (now Uttarakhand), some of the factors were: leadership quality , availability of funds, distance from road and proximity to the forest; total area and quality of the forest land; whether neighbours also were well-provided for; and single village panchayats fare better than multi-village (Saxena, op. cit., p.65). In self-actuated forest protection groups in Orissa: small communities where people know one another are more successful; upland topography makes the forest patch visible from the settlement, hence more effective; remoteness from market and road; dependence on forests being shared by all families in the village are positive factors; interest taken by the village leadership is crucial.  Saxena sums up by saying (ibid., p.81):

“We can conclude, then, that community control and management can work in three circumstances. First, in villages which are small, homogeneous, remote from markets, and dependent upon produce from the commons. Second, where gains from organisation are high, for both the village elite and the commoners. And third, where a leader is willing to oversee for non-monetary gains”.

In another much larger study, Ravindranath & Sudha (2004) found from their survey of 1421 JFM committees in 6 states a “marked increase in the vegetation density and canopy cover” through plantations, and to a lesser extent, through protection of degraded areas and encouraging natural regeneration. A better relationship between the forest department and the people was reported in all the states, as also women’s empowerment and improved relationship with the local Panchayat (“except in a few where it has led to conflict with regard to benefit sharing and management”). The people recorded their perception of “an increase in the water table in the wells” in West Bengal and Gujarat, as also an increase in the moisture retention capacity of the forest soil, attributed to better canopy and root system, and reduced run-off.

Ravindranath & Sudha drew the following “lessons” from their survey: for success, one has to enlist the participation of all the eligible sections (men and women), get MoUs drawn up and signed, prepare micro-plans, and so on. They  identify the following “issues” to be addressed: JFM orders in the states should keep pace with the more liberal policy pronouncements from the Centre; economic viability is not addressed, and it is “necessary to adopt a demonstrably cost-effective approach to JFM”; the relationship with PRIs needs to be studied (it has been positive in some, like Rajasthan, but has led to problems in others); a “national-level Monitoring and Evaluation” strategy is called for; and the community has to be further empowered.

Saxena, talking about the relationship of Forest Protection Committees (FPCs) with the Panchayats, appears to take a non-committal stand. He quotes Poffenberger and Singh, 1993, that their relationships “need to be sharply defined”, without comment. But he also cites the case of Orissa, where the requirement that the female Naib Sarpanch (Deputy Chief) of the Panchayat will be the head of the FPC, is “not working well and her stewardship is not seen as legitimate by the indigenous FPCs” (Saxena, 1997, p.116). He goes on to say that there is the danger of the small user community losing authority to the much larger panchayat, and that panchayats have had difficulty in managing community woodlots “due to their inherent political nature and often diverse constituencies” (ibid., p.117).

Coming to our own small study on the subject, we looked at three villages located in the Aravalli hills of south Haryana (Mangar, Zeer and Bondshi), three villages in the Western Ghats of Karnataka (Shigehalli, Kalwe, and Sirur-Balgod VFCs in Sirsi Division), and four in the hills near Vellore in Tamilnadu (Thorumalai, Thondam Thulasi, K-Pudur, and Velleri VFCs in Vellore Division).

Mangar bani, Haryana

The Aravalli case study threw up some interesting insights on the way communities are responding to pressures on forest CPRs that are, ostensibly, in their private holdings (not reserved forests under the forest department). With land prices sky-rocketing in the National Capital Region, obviously the communities are under great pressure to allow divestment of the individual holdings, and here we find that the criteria listed by the authors cited above do not seem to be good predictors of CPR integrity or community cohesion. One relatively homogeneous village is on the verge of losing its CPR forest to private land developers who have purchased individuals’ holdings, in spite of its status as a sacred grove; a second village is confidently holding and managing its forests as a common property, in spite of the ethnic (religious) heterogeneity and lack of economic returns; a third community has transferred custody of its CPR to the forest department for a certain period of years.

A more detailed account of these three cases is presented in a paper in the EPW (Dilip Kumar, 2013) (posted at The long version is contained in a monograph (Dilip Kumar, 2014) at  However, whatever be the character of the community that has contributed to the vigour and resilience of their forest conservation activities, the one common thread running through these examples has been the success in fashioning what Ostrom terms a “nested” system of institutions, by collaborating with the state authorities (mainly the forest departments, but also including others like the police and development departments, and not excluding the panchayat bodies). In the final analysis, we have to acknowledge that it is the mutually supporting roles of the state forest department and the community organisations that has made the programme successful, in both the biophysical and the societal, senses. The other factors, which can form a self-extending list as more and more exigencies are accommodated, do not seem to be good explanators: the least successful community happens to be the most homogeneous, with a high spiritual value for its forest, but it seems to be powerless before the market forces due to soaring land values.

This is not the occasion to delve deeper into the CPR or forest question, as we are mainly engaged with exploring the relations of communities with PRIs, the forest case providing a context illustrative of the general situation. Of the questions we asked in our village discussions, the one of interest here is the relationship of communities and state line departments with the panchayati raj institutions. The response from our ten sample villages is summarized below.

Community organisations vis-à-vis PRIs and state departments

We now consider our learnings regarding the interrelations between the community-based activities organised by the line departments and PRI systems. Firstly, in the communities we visited, in all the three states, it was made patently clear that as far as the village communities are concerned, they find no contradiction at all in the parallel functioning of different types of institutions. In their view, panchayat  bodies (PRIs) have their place, and community-based organizations (CBOs) like village forest committees or school committees, also have their own place (the villagers are particularly happy with the school monitoring committees under the aegis of the education department; as they put it, previously parents wouldn’t remember even which class the children were in, now they are closely involved in both planning and implementation). Again and again, in the face of repeated probing, the message came out clearly that PRIs alone are not sufficient to meet all their institutional needs, and there is a place for additional institutions closer to ground-level, for example specialised institutions to manage specific activities like JFM or education or energy or toilets or agricultural inputs or savings and loans. The villagers themselves do not see these as rival systems, and they recognise that they all represent the same community and work together. They do not see any rivalry between the JFM committee and the PRI, for example. There were no signs of hostility or jealousy from the panchayat representatives either. Every village community we spoke with recognised that it is difficult to impose sanctions (fines etc.) on one’s own neighbours, hence an outside agency like the forest department is needed to implement the rules and regulations. So uniform were these reactions, across the states, that we decided there was no point in visiting yet other villages in other states (as originally planned): they almost seemed to be following a written script, so repetitive were their reactions!

This is an eminently sensible approach, and moreover in consonance with the hoary traditions and the history of the village set-up in India, which worked through a set of sub-committees that seem to have had the requisite flexibility to accommodate diverse interest groups and alignments for different contexts, as we saw from Radhakumud Mookerji’s account of the traditional concepts and the epigraphical record (op. cit.). In effect, it appears that any such antagonisms are more in the minds of the ‘civil society’ champions of one or the other system, and not in the community.

With regard to the role of the panchayats and the issue of jurisdiction under the Panchayati Raj Acts, it was made clear by every community we talked with that, while they do not have any great expectations of the panchayat system, they do appreciate the PRIs for what they are, another rung in the state political apparatus.  Interestingly, Bondshi panchayat, which has entrusted its CPR forest to the state forest department, has for some reasons decided not to take a paisa from the government, and manages on its own income (mainly the rent for land leased to para-military forces and interest from land sold to the Haryana Police). Indeed, they actually find it easier to work with the personnel in the line departments (as stated in one of the Sirsi villages, they would previously hardly be aware of the identity of the forest guard, but now he or she is like a member of the village community. Of course, since these field staff are recruited from the local population, they may actually be related to them in some cases, either by blood or by marriage!). In effect, the gram or village panchayats are already farther away from the community in the individual hamlet or settlement than the local functionary like the forest guard, or school teacher.

They are now well aware that, in the ultimate analysis, the panchayat is not of much relevance in protecting their CPRs, and in fact only an umbrella legislation like the Forest Act or the Forest Conservation Act (in the case of private forest) will come to their aid. This was obvious in the Mangar bani (sacred forest) case in Haryana state, where the only feasible strategy now is to appeal to the higher courts to institute protective action under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. In Zeer village, they say clearly that it is the forest staff who are actually protecting the forest from illicit fellings, and without them there would have been considerable removals and conflicts with others, such as the people from across the state border who might make incursions. Similar considerations obtain in many other sectors of immediate interest to the people in smaller population centres and hamlets.

Turning specifically to the status of the JFM committee vis-à-vis PRI in the village self-governance system, it was apparent that the villagers do not themselves see the JFM committees as alien or inimical to the goal of village self-governance, or indeed (as already stated) to the Panchayat framework. They feel that it should be a simple matter to position the JFM and other such committees as sub-committees of the Gram Panchayat, and what is required (if at all necessary) is to recognize this de-facto position by inserting a line in the PRI acts. But this will be more to satisfy the juridical experts and sticklers for so-called constitutional propriety, because as far as the people are concerned, it is sufficient that the JFM committee is recognized in the Forest Act and has clear powers under that Act to take measures to protect the forest.

Equally, they value the relative autonomy of their hamlet-level organisations, and are emphatic that these should not be placed under the PRIs, which work at a different level on different criteria or values. The JFM committee meets and discusses plans and budgets and other matters in an open, transparent manner where all members are like a family. In other words, the oft-repeated contention that no community-based organisations should be supported outside the PRI system is completely unwarranted and not reflected in the wishes of the people themselves (the muted demand for institutions which Mathew bemoaned). One lady member of the village forest committee, who also happened to be the vice-president of the village panchayat, echoed the general sentiment when she said that nothing would get done if the VFC were put under the panchayat. There was a repeated apprehension that matters would get ‘politicised’ in the relatively partisan environment of the PRIs, hence things of common interest should be outside the purview of the panchayat system, which however has its own, different, interest for the villagers.

This is also eminently understandable in the framework given by Ostrom of the advantage to the community of having the option of calling on other institutions or structures in society. We see the difficulty that a small community will have in imposing a rule-based control and sanctions framework on its own members, and hence an outside agent is required, which has the authority of the law and government behind it. Further, it is clear that the panchayat system by itself cannot make the hitherto neglected and powerless village community autonomous or self-governing if the system is imposed suddenly from above, indeed until the people have had experience of working in smaller, face-to-face groups, as Ostrom has suggested. The village forest committees and other special interest committees, the self-help groups, and so on seek to do precisely this preparatory trust-forming and capacity-building activity.

It is apparent that the committee-based approach is also sensible if we look at Ostrom’s prescriptions on nesting of the institutions at successive levels, and putting them under an overarching framework of the law of the land and working with law enforcing authorities and courts. The very hostile reaction of our PRI theoreticians to state-sponsored institutions is actually based on a faulty appreciation of these processes at the grass-roots, but if we do accept Ostrom’s insights (based as they are on observation of a wide gamut of situations), the JFM approach would look as though it has been designed on the basis of the Ostrom framework, which the forest departments have arrived at mainly through their own common sense and field experience.

We have to recognize that the Gram Panchayat itself is a fairly distant institution, and not equivalent to a small group at the doorsteps of the villagers. In other words, it is quite clear that the Village or Gram Panchayat is itself nothing but a replication of the state structures, except that the central role is transferred from the career bureaucrat (petty though he may be), to the part-time people’s representative. It should be considered as the last level of the state apparatus, rather than the highest level of the village community. It appears a bit over-optimistic to expect this new institution to carry out the same functions as the erstwhile government structure, without adopting the same (bureaucratic) procedures and falling prey to the same set of constraints.

Indeed the PRIs will not be fully functional unless they develop their own administrative and technical cadres, as repeatedly emphasised by writers on the subject (including the central minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, 2002; see also his interview in The Hindu newspaper, 22 May 2013, “Put Gram Sabhas in charge of all social sector schemes”). Now it is very doubtful whether a viable system of recruitment, training, supervision and so on can be set up for each discipline (sector) in each Gram Sabha, separately. Professionals, like doctors or engineers or agricultural specialists (or foresters), would not like to be placed under the taluk or village bodies, but would always owe allegiance to a higher professional body that can set standards, provide the framework for career enhancement and mobility, adjudicate in disputes, and advocate their interests in the media and the polity in general. The village body is unlikely to attract any professional if they do not guarantee this functional independence and appeal to a higher calling. If nothing else, no Gram Sabha will be able to bear the expenses of such a force of specialists. Therefore, it may well be a pipe-dream (to borrow the expression of despair from the PRI protagonists) to expect that the PRIs will ever be fully staffed, and they will probably always have to manage with officials on deputation or on consultation basis from the respective line departments. The smart thing would be to develop the capacity of the communities to make use of such outside expertise for the specific and limited purposes required, rather than try to replicate the full bureaucratic and executive set-up of the Central Secretariat in each district and panchayat in the search for the holy grail of village self-governance or autarchy.

The implication of this is that subject-matter committees, which are equivalent to sub-committees of the GP, are quite essential in the line departments, if actual work has to be carried out at the ward, settlement, or hamlet level. Even Saxena, who is usually a staunch protagonist of people’s empowerment, concedes (1994, p.117) that:

“There is also some concern that if JFM groups were absorbed by the village panchayat, vested interests might exert control over decision making. Since small user communities may comprise less powerful groups, they may lose authority to the elite if management becomes a direct adjunct of the panchayat. …On the whole, the relationship of local forest management groups to panchayats needs to be clarified. Simply subsuming them as part of the panchayat would almost certainly threaten their effectiveness.”

Apparently, the people themselves are quite comfortable with the somewhat hazy or ambiguous status of sectoral committees like the JFM committees or school committees in relation to the village panchayat setup. It is the outside experts who are so exercised about the legal and constitutional niceties of the setup, to the point of injured outrage and affront at almost a personal level, as illustrated by some of the writings quoted previously. If our sample of villages is anything to go by, it is actually a complete non-issue in real life. It appears that both the political, vote-based, and the apolitical, consensus-based, approaches can, and do, co-exist in our villages, just as at the level of the Constitution of India, we have both the elected legislature and the appointed but statutory executive and the independent judiciary. All these types of institutions are required for the system to function in a self-correcting manner, and that is applicable at the state level as at the village level.

Despite its home-grown or common-sense approach and background, it appears that many things in the JFM programmes have been done correctly. In trying to get a feel of the role of JFM vis-à-vis PRIs in meeting the material needs of the villagers, and in improving living standards and incomes, many of the communities actually spoke very warmly of the constructive work done by the forest department. It appears that government officials at the executive level are not merely specialists, but have experience in getting a lot of general things done, for their own programmes and for the communities. Indeed, once the watershed development work gives results in better availability of water, the dependence on the forest or common property resource seems to have naturally gone down in our sample villages. For example, across the states, we were told that the free grazing of scrub cattle has come down drastically over the 25 to 30 years of the JFM programmes, fuelwood removals have also been consciously reduced, there have been far fewer forest fires over this period, and the jungle has grown back. (But the downside is that the population of pigs, deer and monkeys has grown to alarming levels, and the farmers are wondering how to continue their agriculture between the animal depredations and the diversion of farm labour to NREGA, the employment guarantee programme).The JFM programmes seem to have been able to capitalise on this improvement in the economic condition of the villages, by providing for training and other support for alternative  non-forestry activities to further reduce the pressure on the forests. This is a win-win situation for those concerned.

On the whole, it would be a misconstruing of the aims and intentions of decentralized governance or PRI if we were to say that no other institutions have a right to exist. To the people on the ground, there is little difference between PRI sub-committees and other community-based or sector-driven subject committees; both are sponsored by the state and supported by larger state organisations and departments. JFM committees can easily be accommodated in the PRI structure as a sub-committee, but the message is also quite clear that communities value the relative autonomy and freedom of working a little outside the formal PRI structures. The villagers commonly say that there is “too much politics” in the panchayats, too much public posturing and so on. For instance, if the elected President of the panchayat feels that a ward or a hamlet has not voted for them, it gets left out of the panchayat programmes.

It is evident that the PRIs are better at larger programmes and engineering works like roads, water supply, and other infrastructure. The villagers repeatedly explained that small things that are of interest to the local group or community, like a shed, a threshing floor, a meeting place, training for livelihood and self employment, solar lights and water heaters, and especially the savings and loan groups, do not figure in the stereotyped plans of the district panchayats, but are doable in the smaller line department committees like the VFC.

In fact local self-government was supposed to be ‘little government’, more informal, less bureaucratic, and run by part-time officials from among the ordinary people (as in small-town USA), but in our country, PRIs have now been fashioned after the state legislatures and district collectorates (even to the extent of calling for a mini-Vidhan Soudha and a Chief Secretary in each panchayat centre), and thus brought all the ills of ‘big government’ to the lowest level of governance. The people therefore feel all the more need for small organisations and institutions of their own, such as the self help groups (SHGs), school committees, and, let us admit, the village forest committees (VFCs). Indeed the VFCs and JFM are a good model of real grass-roots democracy in small communities much below the level of the PRIs, which after all stop at the panchayat level, covering many villages and settlements (wards, majras) and thousands of people. This means that PRIs are much like government structures, and cannot be a firm ground for developing effective community institutions based on face-to-face interactions and personal relations and confidence-building. It will therefore be good if the Panchayat system gives recognition to these committees even if they are not formally under the PRIs.   Joint Forest Management is a unique and probably unprecedented example of a specific line department (one with a strong ethos and sense of mission), reaching out and sharing executive power with the communities at the ground level, which has very important and significant lessons for PRIs and governance in general.

Our interactions in all these villages clearly brought out that there is no expressed antagonism between the two institutions in the field, nor do the people in the communities look upon government staff as strangers or criminals. They see both sector-based and panchayat-driven activities and institutions as ultimately subservient to the overall framework of the ‘law of the land’, which draws authority from the national Constitution and the specific laws passed under it. Unfortunately the predilection seen among intellectuals and activists commonly today is to debunk all state agencies, and elevate an undefined ‘people’ as a new final arbiter. This is difficult to follow in practice, however, and I am sure that none of us actually likes to or has to deal with this last tier of governance in real life. Even the various PRI experts have set up their centres in the country’s capital cities, and if one goes by the information on their websites, most of their funding is drawn from the very central ministries that they hold up as examples of the top-down approach they profess to abjure, or from international agencies. Even Members of Parliament and the State Assemblies, who champion so fiercely the cause of PRIs, do not take kindly to the suggestion that the special discretionary fund placed at their disposal for good works in their constituencies should be subsumed in the panchayat budget. In other words, the message is to do as they say, and not as they do. This is a typical characteristic of human psychology, which gives the lie to their one-dimensional polemics.
One may ask, if the people on the ground don’t much care about the Panchayats, the state governments are positively antagonistic to them, even the elected representatives are chary of giving them too much space, the government bureaucrats are indifferent, and even private operators like the NGOs and social workers find them less than friendly, why are PRIs so universally urged on us? A possible answer may lie in the tussle for power between the central and state governments, and it may be interesting to test the hypothesis that advocacy for PRIs will dip when the same parties hold substantial power at both levels. The reason why intellectuals have this two-headed approach seems to be that funding and recognition from research funds and international agencies is contingent on pushing this ‘neo-liberal’ agenda, as a glance at the websites of those organisations and foundations will readily show. This may be nothing but a continuation of the colonial strategy of gaining ascendancy by vilifying the other and displacing it as an act of moral superiority and piety, which the colonialists practiced in the course of subjugating us and other oriental cultures (Said, 1995). Intellectuals fall easy prey to this type of campaign, as they become over-sensitive to the faults in their own culture, while becoming enamoured of the foreign one, probably because they have neither the resources nor the platform to subject the ‘other’ (culture and society) to the same level of intense scrutiny and analysis. They also have to emulate faithfully the ruling trends in the western world, if they are to gain acceptance and admittance to the international world of the intellectuals and all its fruits and rewards. In other words, the familiar ‘asymmetry’ (a favourite term in economics) in information, power and influence, that characterised the colonial and neo-colonial relations, persists in this matter of sociological analysis to this day.

An intriguing, and exciting, possibility is that the VFCs and other community-based, small organisations may actually be essential as a training ground for the larger democratic polity. Democracy is achieved not by the vote alone, but by the functioning of diverse groups and associations in small communities across the land, as recognised in the mother of liberal democracies, the USA: “Tocqueville argued that what made the American nation democratic was the vitality of direct participation in small and local associations. Face-to-face democracy was the foundation – not a substitute – for representative institutions, federalism, and national democracy” (Pitkin and Shumer, 1982). It is in these associations that the citizens learn and practice democratic functioning, and the strength of the national community rests on this broad foundation, on the roots, so to say:

“Community grows out of participation and at the same time makes participation possible; civic activity educates individuals how to think publicly as citizens even as citizenship informs civic activity with the required sense of publicness and justice”. (Barber, 1984)

Especially in the case of CPRs like forest, it is abundantly clear that there has to be some nesting of institutions and structures in larger and higher “enterprises”, or arrangements, so that there is some framework to refer to outside the narrow village communities. If PRI protagonists have been lamenting that acceptance has not been achieved even after so many decades (and huge channelling of funds to 2,50,000 gram panchayats and constitutional amendments and elections), obviously they should look into the basic tenets of their model and try to align it with ground reality and people’s aspirations in a less authoritarian, less top-down manner. Perhaps they can even learn from the JFM model, instead of reviling it as anti-democratic and anti-constitutional, for the forest department has achieved a silent revolution of sorts, with over 1,18,000 committees covering some 23 million hectares of state forest (leaving aside the private forest and CPR resources), with little in the way of extra resources or constitutional backing, comparing very favourably with the PRIs themselves.

A final comment may be interposed here from Francis Fukuyama, a leading contemporary commentator on state and government. Writing about “Decentralization and Discretion”, Fukuyama (2005, pp.91 et seq.) recognizes that there has been a large push since the 1980s to decentralize political authority to state and local government, for the same (dare I add, ostensible) reasons that firms and organizations have resorted to flatter, leaner structures: decision making is “closer to local sources of information, and therefore inherently more responsive to local conditions”, it is quicker, and can introduce competition and innovation if there are a large number of such units (in our JFM case, in this spirit, we can think of different communities adopting different approaches and undertaking different enterprises). These considerations “have led some observers to suggest that there is a long-term secular trend leading inevitably to higher degrees of decentralization and flatness in organizational structure”, but Fukuyama is sceptical about this, because (p.95 et seq.)

“…there are offsetting drawbacks to decentralized organizations that will never be susceptible to technical solutions. Decentralized organizations often generate high internal transaction costs and can be slower and less decisive than centralized ones... The most important drawback of decentralization concerns risk…”

Further (ibid., p.97):

“... Delegation of authority to state and local government means almost inevitably there will be greater variance in government performance… some subordinate units will fall below a minimum threshold of tolerability... In more mundane fashion, the delegation of authority to state and local government in developing countries often means the empowerment of local elites or patronage networks that allows them to keep control over their own affairs, safe from external scrutiny. One of the chief reasons for recentralizing political authority is to ensure minimum standards of noncorrupt behaviour in public administration…” (Fukuyama, 2005, p.97).

The main consideration in putting forests under the central government’s control through the Indian Forest Act in colonial times, and now the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 in independent India, is precisely this concern about their long-term integrity, an application of the ‘precautionary principle’ that has been recognised by our apex court as one of the bed-rocks of environmental governance. This referers to the famous Godavarman case on forest management and conservation in the Supreme Court of India, which brings to mind the parable of the six blind men trying to describe an elephant and getting it all wrong. The real moral of the story, however, is that when you are faced with such a huge enigma, instinct should make you run, not blunder around trying to guess: an elementary application of the precautionary principle!

Environmental conservation is something like the proverbial elephant in the dark: there may never be clear-cut answers to all our questions. There is no formula to achieve an optimal balance in delegation versus centralization, or development versus conservation, in organizations as in government. Hence scholars should not become spuriously puritanical in their prescriptions, lest they end up like the Soviet-style Marxists in the by-lanes of history. Marx is famously quoted as having said that the philosophers have only interpreted the world, but that the point is, however, to change it. We know what the consequences have been of this interventionist, egotistical approach.

Arm-chair idealists of my generation may still be fondly waiting for the state to wither away (starting with the forest department, according to Lele, 2014), and it is some of those sentiments that seem to have coloured the intellectual’s prescriptions for withdrawing the line departments from the field and handing over everything to ‘the people’. However, the only thing that has withered away in these hundred years of the Marxist millennium is the revolutionary Soviet state itself, whereas the Chinese communist state is going on as strong as ever, even as the world looks on in wonder and approbation. If the modern Indian state apparatus moves out of the countryside, and remains limited to the government enclaves in a few metropolitan areas, what will move in is not the people’s self-organised committees, but some other external power to fill the vacuum. It is in this context that there is a case for a more sympathetic look at the joint governance model developed by the forest department in the form of the JFM committees, and similar joint community based organisations (CBOs) in education, health, culture, grass-roots savings and loan groups, and other sectors.

The moral of the story, as I understand it, is that we should let a number of different alternatives co-exist, as neither are the communities so fragile and ignorant, nor are government and state organisations so unmitigatedly evil or useless, as our neo-liberals would make out, because if that had been the case, our country would not have been a fraction as prosperous and well-managed (in relative terms) as we are today. In the eyes of the people, of the communities, the one does not take away from the other. From fullness, fullness comes, and fullness ever remains, as realized by our Vedic seers many millennia in the past (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, 5.1.1, see S.Radhakrishnan, 1953, ed. 1994, p.289).

We need a more balanced view than presented in contemporary polemical writing, on the relationships between PRIs and other community organisations. Not all persons in government are evil, and all outside it angels, nor by switching roles will we attain the promised nirvana. This is like blaming the mirror for the deformities in our visage; the state of the polity is a true reflection of what we are as a society, and this reality cannot be wished away. Both good and bad co-exist in all human beings, and the challenge in governance is to keep the show going with all these constraints, in other words to get good, if not great, things achieved by ordinary people. This, the communities I visited have demonstrated and shared generously, and I acknowledge and applaud them.


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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

17 Parallel community organisations and the panchayat. Decentralized governance and forests in India-IV.

Perhaps the most vitriolic disapproval on the part of panchayati raj institution (PRI) ‘fundamentalists’ is reserved for the proliferation of ‘parallel bodies’ that work in the line departments and not under the PRIs. Many departments and externally-aided projects have spawned such committees and ‘special purpose vehicles’. For instance, Mathew (2000, p.16), feels that central ministries and state line departments by-pass the panchayati raj institutions through the creation of registered societies. If at all the sectoral line departments allocate funds to the gram panchayats, they do so as “tied grants”. Schemes mentioned as culprits in this regard include the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA), Watershed Development Programme, Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMC), District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), the Janmabhoomi programme in Andhra Pradesh “which has come as a big blow to the panchayats”, and according to a study by the NIRD Hyderabad “has sidetracked the Panchayati Raj institutions and other local bodies by maintaining parallel systems of administration by according more importance to MLAs and other politicians”; the “District Government” setup in Madhya Pradesh consisting of the minister, collector, MLAs, MPs, ZP representatives, which makes the collector de facto the chief executive of the district, under the guise of setting up the District Planning Committee under the Panchayat Act. Similarly, the author finds the MPLAD Scheme, whereby each MP gets a discretionary fund to be spent on public works through the District Collector, “an ‘assault’ on the letter and spirit of the 73rd Constitution Amendment”, inasmuch as the list of 23 items of work that can be taken up with these funds, are from the 29 subjects earmarked for the Panchayats under the 11th Schedule. Now states are providing similar funds to their MLAs, and “dangerously enough, several municipalities have started similar schemes for Councillors…This is a dangerous portent and also a deplorable inroad into the domain of local bodies” (Mathew, op. cit., p.18).

This position is expanded forcefully by Chandrashekhar (2011), who cites studies to show that these agencies are nothing but a ploy to continue the hegemony of the official departments: according to her, there is “a certain amount of deception” in this sort of decentralisation in parallel fora, and as these parallel bodies “are expected to move centre-stage and be mainstreamed”, they will in time displace both the PRIs and the very line departments that have given birth to them, something that “does not augur well for a country like India which is characterized by wide disparities and inequalities” (Chandrashekhar, 2011, p.196). The author feels that such modes of participation are geared to immediate benefits, and in the example of a watershed project, terms it a “lackadaisical form of participation”, or a “utilitarian” approach which is unable to “capture the imagination of the people” (in contrast to the Gandhian mode, which is based on sacrifice by the leader and is able to inspire the people to great effort). Similar observations apply to most of the other departments and the societies and community-based organisations (CBOs) set up by them. Chandrashekhar is emphatic that all activities in the 29 subjects earmarked for PRIs should be brought before only the elected bodies, and not any alternative formation such as the Gram Sabha (general assembly), which is only a ploy to circumvent the elected bodies. This point about parallel bodies has been made by many observers.

Ground experience of panchayati raj

Coming back to the experience of establishing the rule of panchayati raj institutions (PRI) so far, we sense a certain inadequacy in reviews like the ones by the Institute of Social Sciences (Mathew, op. cit.), since they do not seem to tell us much about what actually has transpired in the working out on the ground of the PRI legislation, such as an objective analysis of how many of the panchayats could be considered to be working well, how many poorly, and how many are middling (as has been done in the searching studies and periodic assessments of the Village Forest Committees in the country, which will be discussed a little later). An interesting portrayal of the ground reality is given in Gopalappa’s paper in the conference proceedings “The Role of Panchayats and Bureaucracy in Rural Development” (Joseph, 2007), reflecting his interview-based study in three dissimilar districts of Karnataka, namely Mandya, Gulbarga and Dakshina Kannada (South Canara).

In Mandya in southern Karnataka, Gopalappa’ found that the elected members “by and large are ignorant, illiterate and poor”, and the panchayat is dominated by the secretary (a full-time official). Where the president is well off, his decisions are final, and if he is “non-corrupt”, good work is done. If the members are also “strong”, matters end up in court and development suffers (i.e. there are disputes and disputations). In northern Karnataka, the author found that “neither the elected representatives nor the officials take much interest”, and the dominant members take control. Caste and other factors are influential.  In Gulbarga district (relatively more backward and dry), there are “extreme cases … where the entire GP is controlled by a single family”. This is the case even of an all-woman panchayat cited by him. In this “extreme situation”, the officials are neglected and behave like “obedient servants” of the dominant family.

In Dakshina Kannada (a prosperous and forward coastal district in the southwest), things were better, and “the members, office bearers and the officials work collectively for the overall development of the community”, and often put in their own money into the development works.  Even here, though, the SC and ST members “do not have any say in the panchayat matters as most of them are casual labourers” (even after becoming members of the GP). In one instance, “The woman president of the ST category is controlled by a dominant member belong (sic.) to Vokkaliga community”, as she works as a labourer in his gardens. Except for this, Gopalappa found that PRIs in the Dakshina Kannada district are doing better compared to the other two, and their panchayat members have “service motive rather than profit motive”, while it is the opposite in Mandya and Gulbarga districts.

In going through reports of the ground reality in the context  of the pessimistic assessment of prominent PRI protagonists (quoted earlier), one aspect that causes concern is the assumption that somehow when it comes to the panchayat institutions, people will take them as their own, and bring to bear the level of “skill, honesty and will” that are so woefully lacking in other spheres, until the State itself can comfortably “wither away” (S.K. Dey, from the Asoka Mehta report on Panchayati Raj, 1977). This anticipation, which seems to echo one of the most ardent (though unrealistic) aspirations of Marxist ideology, creates such a powerful picture of an idyllic state of human affairs, that it can be employed as a cover-all for all sorts of impractical ideas. Most factual accounts from the field would, no doubt, corroborate Gopalappa’s findings about the persistence of unequal and feudal relations among the castes and sections of rural society. In reality, it is puzzling why anyone should believe that out of the feudal and casteist ground, an egalitarian and benign structure should automatically arise like a phoenix from the ashes.

A ground-level view of what panchayats are in reality (which everyone is aware of, but no one wants to comment on because PRIs are something of a holy grail in India today), is afforded by another George, Abraham S. in his book “India Untouched”, 2004. Let me quote just a couple of passages out of many pages on this subject (p.145-6):

“Of all the corrupt practices, the biggest obstacle our foundation faces in its daily work with the rural communities is having to deal with Panchayat officials and some of the village thugs. They work in unison, with Panchayat governance offering the cover for their attempts to extract money from us on some pretext or the other. In the name of self governance and delegation of power to local officials, the government has created a monster bureaucracy of unimaginable proportions throughout rural India – layers of officials with powers to do little other than carry out extortion, take bribes, misuse funds, and dish out favours.”

A little later, he explains that

“even well-meaning government officials are unwilling to stop the activities of troublemakers for fear that they might  write false petitions to politicians…For NGOs like us, courts may be our only protection,  but there is no assurance of a prompt remedy. The system is so badly broken that only a good government with some courage can fix it. In the meantime, the way to help the poor is to “help” the rich first.”

An underlying contradiction seems to persist in the attitude toward elected representatives. For example, Mathew in his support for indirect elections “in consonance with the cabinet system of government”, does not seem to find any irony in this formulation, which may seem to an uncharitable observer to be taking away with the other hand what it gives with the one hand. Again, in rejecting the idea of giving elected MPs and MLAs  a presence in the panchayats, he fails to see any irony in his mistrust of elected representatives at a higher level and reposing of the same faith in equally or less directly representative members at the local level.

Some of the most commonly cited issues in the implementation of panchayati raj are the infrequency of elections (which was addressed by setting up independent State Election Commissions), the limited amount of funds available to the lower levels (requiring the establishment of separate State Finance Commissions), the lack of independent staff and official cadres loyal to the PRI system (rather than to the state governments), and the role of money and nepotism in elections (which makes it difficult for honest and well-meaning persons to enter into the fray). While these analyses are unobjectionable, and their prescriptions are well-meant in a generalised way, it is ironical that the very system which is expected to take the country forward is unable to manage itself, and we ultimately have to fall back upon the old pattern of a centralised and distant executive in the form of an Election Commission and a Finance Commission to keep the system ticking.

In other words, it appears that in critical situations, the decentralised pattern does not deliver as effectively as the professionalized but distant and unattached institutions (the State Commissions). Once again, the irony in passing judgement against the latter is lost on the social-political reformer, for instance that “the systems of government-elected politicians, professional bureaucrats and the variegated apparatus built around them, has failed…” (Mishra, 2004, quoted by Joseph, 2007, p.xxvi), while at the same time depending on just such a system to establish the new order, and even asking for a similar set-up in order to strengthen and make operational the district and village panchayats.

In reality, of course, neither are people’s organisations (and lately, civil society organisations and private sector corporations) so uniformly virtuous as made out in recent popular writings, and destined to prevail over all else, nor are all our other, state-run institutions so uniformly bad as to be doomed to extinction (and of course, vice-versa). Any realistic system of decentralisation would have to take into account all the foibles and weaknesses of human nature as individuals and as members of groups, and provide for training, vigilance, and other preventives, palliatives and correctives, rather than falling back upon a black-and-white view of society as consisting of the people in government being uniformly bad, and the persons outside government as universally virtuous.

Nor can we justifiably see panchayati raj as a stepping stone to a state-less society: what we should be expecting, in fact, is the reverse, the conversion of panchayats into organs of the larger state, an importation of all the aspects, good and bad, of large organisations and bureaucracies down to the village panchayat level. But we accept the negative aspects as a justifiable risk in the hope that the people at the receiving end may come to have a greater say on how things are run, and a greater control over their own lives. We will not be able to escape or circumvent the obligation to work on the details of our systems, such as they are, to make them more rational, more responsive and responsible, and less arbitrary, less dishonest and self-serving, and we may as well start with the politician-bureaucrat combine at the state and district levels, and carry over the better values and systems into the lower tier panchayat set-up.

Institutions of 'little government'

While PRI purists insist that the PRIs are the only legitimate body that should operate in the districts, others, like the line departments of the state governments and the public sector or quasi-statal corporations and boards, are continually being entrusted responsibilities to implement various schemes and programmes, apart from maintaining the basic law and order in the countryside and safeguarding the physical integrity of the resource. This is especially true of the forest department, which is the primary custodian  of some 25% of the land area of the country, much of it remote from centres of population and rich in biodiversity, timber, minerals and of course land and water resources.

It is all the more intriguing, therefore, that PRI protagonists are still dreaming of a structureless polity, while operating through the central government and especially its centres of top-down power to impose their model. Similarly, ‘social environmentalists’ also think that the only hope for conserving the environment and natural resources (like forests, common lands, water resources) is through the autarchic village republics, which will be imposed by fiat from the centre. There is a close parallel in this ambivalence between grass-roots empowerment and imposition from above of environmental values of their choosing, and the ambiguity in Gandhian thought on the relative merits of grass-roots, bottom-up democracy and top-down, centralised national governance structures. Perhaps the only thing that we can say about these dichotomies is that they are more in the mind (of the polemicist) rather than out there among the general public, and that the essence of the democratic idea (which the people who vote in elections doubtless understand) is not so much that it is an ideal system, to be run by ideal humans, but that it is amenable to constant course correction and modification as influenced by personages and experiences. As Fukuyama (2011, p.188) says, “The experiences of China and India suggest then that a better form of freedom emerges when there is a strong state and a strong society, two centres of power that are better able to balance and offset each other over time”. 

Everybody loves a good draught, as observed by Sainath (1996), and perhaps the same is the case with local self-governance, or ‘little government’, whose importance in the US system has been described and analysed at length, for instance in the volume of readings edited by Erwin C. Buell and William E.Brigman (1968), The Grass Roots. Readings in State and Local Government. In introducing their chapter on Local Government, the editors comment (p.393) that:

“Faith in local government is an outgrowth of the frontier concept of democracy. The frontier, or Jacksonian, concept of democracy contained many values that still have vitality. The belief that small, local government is better than distant, big government still possesses propaganda value. Direct election of nearly all decision makers is preferred to any form of indirect selection on the assumption that officeholders will be more responsible and honest if directly elected. ...most Americans probably believe that rural government is more effective, efficient, and honest than its urban counterpart.”

However, that is only the ideal; the reality is a little different, according to Roscoe C. Martin, who “challenges these stereotypes of local government” in his paper “The Physiology of Little Government” in the volume (op. cit., pp.395-400). Martin contends that “even in the rural areas where grass roots concepts should be most viable they are invalid. The government closest to the people is not necessarily the best government: it may be the most biased, inefficient, and corrupt government” (ibid., p.393). In Martin’s words (p.399):

“Little government, being personal, intimate, and informal, is supposed by some to be free of politics. In simple truth, no concept concerning local government has less merit… politics is found wherever people debate issues of public import. Grass-roots politics frequently involves little of public policy; on the contrary, it may be largely of a personal character, and it may indeed be cast in terms of personal loyalty … The smaller the unit or area is, the closer the government is to the grass roots, the less meaningful is the distinction between politics, government, and administration. ...Grass-roots government is therefore pre-eminently the domain of the generalist, big government that of the specialist… The differentiations in process common in big government are hardly known at the grass roots.”

This pattern is expected to obtain in the Indian scenario too, as in any other country, and it is well that we are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of either alternative, and indeed of any others, so that our expectations are tempered to match the potentialities, and we are not left with the sense of almost obligatory disappointment with the pace of progress and public support of ‘little’ government that characterizes the writing of many PRI protagonists.  

In the next section, we will hear some views of actual villagers in three states of the Indian union.


Chandrashekhar, Lalita. 2011. Undermining Local Democracy. Parallel Governance in Contemporary South India. Routledge.
Fukuyama, Francis. 2011. The Origins of Political Order. Profile Books Ltd, London.
George, Abraham S. 2004. India Untouched: the Forgotten Face of Rural Poverty. East West Books (Madras) Pvt. Ltd., Chennai.
Gopalappa, D.V. 2007. The role of panchayats and bureaucracy in rural development. In Joseph (2007, ed.).
Government of India. 1977. Asoka Mehta Committee Report on Panchayat Raj Institutions 1977-78. New Delhi.
Joseph, T.M. (Editor). 2007. Local Governance in India. Ideas, Challenges and Strategies. Papers presented at the National Workshop on Decentralised Democracy and Planning, Thodapuzha, 19 December 2003. Published by Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi-110059.
Martin, Roscoe C. 1968. The Physiology of Little Government. pp.395-400 in the volume by Buell, Erwin C. and William E.Brigman (eds.). The Grass Roots. Readings in State and Local Government. Scott, Foresman and Company, Glenview, Illinois.
Mathew, George (General Editor). 2000. Status of Panchayati Raj in the States of India 2000. Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. Published by Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi-110059.
Mehta, Asoka. 1977. Asoka Mehta Committee Report on Panchayati Raj Institutions. Government of India, New Delhi.

Sainath, P. 1996.  Everybody Loves a Good Drought. Penguin Books, New Delhi.

Monday, April 13, 2015

16 Village bodies in the historical record. Decentralized governance and forests in India-III.

As a counter-balance to the pessimistic or nostalgic accounts of the Indian village in, respectively, the colonial or nationalistic writings, what is probably a more realistic picture of the Indian polity of those times is given in Radhakumud Mookerji’s scholarly study, Local Government in Ancient India (revised edition, 1920). The overall purport of the author is that there has been an essential unity in the institutional culture from north to south in India, along with a great deal of “spontaneity and significance of specific variations”, as seen from the literary and epigraphic evidence, law-books and inscriptions, from the 1st century onwards (Mookerji, op. cit., p.xii-xiii).  

The nature and activity of the vaunted village “republics” emerge from the epigraphic record with a sense of immediate reality in Mookerji’s study. Firstly, their number: for instance, the Tanjore records under Rajaraja I Chola (985-1013) testify to the existence of no less than 190 village assemblies, where the entire inhabitants assembled to conduct affairs: “The system must have been in operation in thousands of other villages whose names and exact number await discovery…” (Mookerji, op. cit., p.306). The Uttaramallur inscriptions closely corroborate Megasthenes’ description of six boards of five members each, looking after subjects like tanks and irrigation, gardens, public works, treasury, justice, general supervision, and so on, and showing the essential uniformity of the North and the South of the sub-continent (it is noteworthy that modern Panchayats also provide for a similar number of sub-committees).

Next, their variety: it is clear from the records “that they are not uniformly composed and constituted, but present a variety of types”. Just as there were diverse types of state tried in India (not just one theocratic or autocratic type), “…similarly, even in the smaller sphere of local government, there has been a considerable diversity of political growth” (Mookerji, ibid., p.308). He cites different types of institutions available to the community, for instance those based on caste, those based on special interest, or those based on the locality or jurisdiction. One can discern the existence, and vigorous activity, of diverse organisations or associations for the traders, the guilds, the religious orders and schools, and so on. Some of the names mentioned are the sabha (the governing body of Brahmins of a village), the mahasabha; the sangha already referred to by Panini (first century BC?), used “in a generic sense to indicate all deliberate local associations other than the central government”, of various types depending on the community of Dharma or ends (Mookerji, p.314); the kula, the “closest corporation”, based on kinship; the sreni (craft or merchant guild), the vrata, (based on martial pursuits); the matha or religious order; the territory-based puga, a federation of all sectional or communal assemblies or association of men in a common pursuit. At a yet higher level was the gana, or “political government of the popular type”. Each of these bodies “is invested with executive and judicial functions and other powers of government within the limits of its prescribed jurisdiction”. Many of these terms were used commonly in the north and the south, pointing to the cultural unity of the sub-continent as a whole (for meaning of terms, see Mookerji, p.32/3, 314).

Further, there is a distinct impression of the active combination of these ground-level structures into higher level arrangements: “The individual village is not a world unto itself, but is viewed as part of a larger whole. There is thus a widening of the sphere of interests and public service.” The Mahasabha, for example, was “a development on some lines out of the Sabha”; similarly, the general assembly of the Urar is “carried to the next stages of development in the Nattar or District Assembly and the yet larger assembly of Nadu or Division”. We even have references to even larger and higher assemblies, such as “the great assembly of twelve Nadus… nay, of seventy-nine Nadus covering an area as vast as a province” (Mookerji, op.cit., p.311).

Thus the actual nature of the ancient Indian polity was not exactly one of isolated villages mouldering under a neglectful sovereign, but on the contrary a picture presents itself of a bustling, vigorous civilisation with many levels of organisation and a rich tapestry of activities and pursuits, within the region and across the seas as well, such as is portrayed in a recent study (Pollock, 2006) on the wider world (the cosmopolis) of Sanskrit culture in South and Southeast Asia that shows that it was, by the standards of any times, a sophisticated, urbane, cosmopolitan affair. Mookerji argues that this “luxuriant growth” of local variations gives the lie to those who state that there was no political institution between the village and the central government, or that there could not be a federation of different communities and castes. “On the other hand, …it is the very growth of these numerous, multi-form, intermediate assemblies between the state and the individual which can most effectively help on the evolution of Indian political life”. Again, “This pluralism of the group, as an intermediate body between the state and the individual units, has been the most characteristic feature of Indian polity” (Mookerji, p.317); and quoting M.P.Follet, “…politics cannot be founded on representative or electoral methods but must rest on vital modes of association” (what we could call civil society in today’s parlance).

According to Mookerji (op. cit., p.xxiii),

“Briefly stated, the Indian theory favours neither anarchy nor the unqualified pluralism of discrete and isolated groups without reference to any nexus or solidarity as provided by the State, by Dharma, or otherwise… Nor, again, are the local bodies of ancient India the products of decentralization operating in the sphere of a central unitary State…The Indian polity … was, therefore, in its final development, neither pluralistic nor monistic in its trend and type, but a balanced synthesis of three distinct and co-existing elements, the State with its jurisdiction as represented by the Danda, the individual on the Road to Freedom (Mukti), and the various intermediary groups, functional, local or voluntary, connecting these two poles by means of their own dharma, their special Codes, and Customaries.”

In the light of the historical record, therefore, it appears that the flat, centre-less model is not validated by appealing to the hoary past, whatever else may be its justifications. Neither the centre, nor the peripheral village, can be considered as dispensable, nor can either be the final arbiter. The present-day panchayati raj institutions (PRIs), therefore, correspond neither to Gandhi’s vision of a hierarchy-free, anarchic, structure, nor do they hearken back to the bustling and multi-hued complex of interest-based, caste-based, and locality-based organisations that would justify the characterisation of the Indian polity as a ‘congeries of village republics’.

In the next section, another issue in the PRIs will be discussed: the validity and role of sub-PRI bodies or the so-called community based organizations (CBOs).


Mookerji, Radhakumud. 1918, 1920. Local Government in Ancient India. Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged, 1920. Reprinted 1989, Low Price Publications, Delhi-110052.
Pollock, Sheldon. 2006. The Language of the Gods in the World of Men. Sanskrit, Culture, and  Power in Premodern India. University of California Press, Berkeley. Published in India 2007 by Permanent Black, first paperback printing 2009.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

15 The ‘village republics’. Decentralized governance and forests in India-II.

The promise of village resurgence: Gandhiji’s vision

The vision of panchayati raj was invoked by our national leaders and thinkers as a revival of a glorious past, in which, as per the usual story, each village had its own panchayat, or committee of five wise men (pancha), to govern itself. Each village essentially arranged its own activities, its own defence from outside forces, and its own economy, with very little interference from the centre or from other polities.

It is generally recognised that village self-governance was a basic tenet of the Gandhian framework. Since village self-governance is also a basic idea of the panchayati raj system, it is natural to think (erroneously) that all that has been done is to give effect to Gandhiji’s thought on the best form of governance for India. An important part of it was bound up with Gandhi’s economic philosophy, in which he saw an inseparable link between the modes of production and the power relationships in society: only if communities produce for their own needs, and not for external markets, will a state develop that is not based on violence and force. As stated by Ganguli (1973) in his scholarly book Gandhi’s Social Philosophy, “Federalism, decentralisation, primacy of people’s initiative and autonomy in local communities – interdependent, and not entirely self-contained – are apparently the main ideas that follow from his logic of an ideal social structure”. The relationship of a village community with other villages, and to the larger world, would be elaborated through a free federation of groups in “ever-widening, but never-ascending circles” (Ganguli, op. cit., p.164).  The relationship of villages and other levels in the polity would not be hierarchical or pyramidal, but instead could be thought of as a number of “concentric circles” forming finally an “oceanic circle”, all at the same hierarchical level. Ganguli then goes on to wonder at the practical implications of this type of structure in the modern world.

We can discern here the germ of a contradiction, since it appears that Indian society had developed traditionally on the basis of hierarchical position and caste affiliation, rather than allegiance to the local community, whereas western thinking encouraged one to view all men (and latterly, women) as equal, and democracy as a fundamental right of all people. In other words, the autonomy that today’s believers advocate is only a relative one, circumscribed by their other ideals of a just society, a completely egalitarian, even communistic set-up with everyone working together to a common ideal. We obviously do not see the existing villages as anywhere near that ideal. The autonomous village council, therefore, would not have the power to create what would amount to unequal social hierarchies, or allocate property in (to our mind) unjust ways, or discriminate against persons based on race, caste, gender or any other such criterion.

This concept of Gandhiji’s may be characterised as basically an “ordered anarchy”, with familial links to other utopian or idealist philosophers like Tolstoy or the American romantic environmentalists Thoreau and Emerson (Ganguli, op.cit., p.171). Implicit in this is a picture of a saner and kinder world order: if all people limited their wants and refrained from coveting additional power and wealth, communities also would be non-accumulating and self-regulating, and in turn states would become non-acquisitive and non-aggressive. Gandhiji, being suspicious of the effects of state power and bureaucracies on society and communities, was not apparently a votary of the modern organised welfare state; he may not even have been sure about the merits of Western models of democracy, preferring instead to entrust leadership to a set of wise people: “True democracy is not inconsistent with a few persons representing the spirit, the hope and the aspirations of those whom they claim to represent… Bulk is not the true test of democracy” (Gandhi, quoted in Ganguli, ibid.). There seems to be an underlying ambiguity, therefore, in Gandhiji’s concept of the people’s role in democracy, and perhaps this reinforced the ideal of entrusting the village community to the committee of wise persons, the panchayat, from which the system of panchayati raj gets its appellation.

However, there were also dissenting voices, however muted, that saw the emancipation of our people from poverty and the dead hand of caste and religion, only in the development of modern productive relationships and market mechanisms and institutions.  The institutional structure that has actually developed, then, looks like an uneasy compromise between these different and disparate streams of thought, and the PRIs as actually realised are a far cry from what Gandhi envisaged (without in any way implying that Gandhiji’s was the only way, or even indeed a feasible option in the real world). So one comment we may safely make about our present-day PRIs is that they are NOT a realisation of Gandhiji’s esentially anarchic polity of self-sufficient village republics in an hierarchy-free network.

It is interesting that among the prominent and important actors at that time, it was a champion of social justice and equality of opportunity like Ambedkar who had differences with this approach. Unlike the Gandhians who had a basic distrust of bureaucracy and the State, Ambedkar in fact stressed the features of the Draft Constitution that provided for such strong, independent, institutions in the triune polity of the Indian republic: an independent judiciary, a strong civil bureaucracy to service the executive, and of course the parliament of elected representatives. A strong centre was an essential counterbalance to the states in taking forward the affairs of the country:

“The Draft Constitution has sought to forge means and methods whereby India will have Federation and at the same time will have uniformity in all the basic matters which are essential to maintain the unity of the country. The means adopted by the Draft Constitution are three: (1) a single judiciary, (2) uniformity in fundamental laws, civil and criminal, and (3) a common All-India Civil Service to man important posts.” (Ambedkar, in Rodrigues’ OUP edition, 2002, p.482)


“…there can be no doubt that the standard of administration depends upon the calibre of the Civil Servants who are appointed to these strategic posts. Fortunately for us we have inherited from the past (a) system of administration which is common to the whole of the country and we know what are these strategic posts. The Constitution provides that without depriving the States of their right to form their own Civil Services there shall be an All India Service recruited on an All-India basis with common qualifications, with uniform scale of pay and the members of which alone could be appointed to these strategic posts throughout the Union.” (ibid., p.483)

Instead of trusting the ‘village republics’ to provide protection to minorities and depressed classes, it would be the State, backed by constitutional guarantees and Directive Principles, that would do so. A lot of detail was prescribed because:

“Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic. In these circumstances it is wiser not to trust the Legislature to prescribe forms of administration. This is the justification for incorporating them in the Constitution” (Ambedkar, op. cit., p.485)

India of the village republics: an imagined past?

As described above, a recurring motif in writings on India’s tryst with panchayati raj is a picture of India being essentially made up of innumerable little ‘village republics’, which is almost a part of the national psyche today. Ronald Inden, the eponymously named author of the book Imagining India, points out that so pervasive – and persuasive -- was the image of the self-governing Indian village, that every author had to repeat it, so much so that “It is one of the pillars of these imperial constructs of India” (Inden, 2000, p.132). A favourite formulation, which seems to have become an almost obligatory catch-phrase in our post-colonial era as well, is that India constituted a “congeries of republics”, a phrase we see used by Colonel Mark Wilks (1820, p.121), reporting on the state of south India:

“The conqueror, or usurper, directly or through his agents, addresses himself as sovereign or representative of the sovereign to the head of the township; its officers, its boundaries, and the whole frame of its interior management remain unalterably the same; and it is of importance to remember that every state in India is a congeries of these little republics.” (italics added).

According to Inden, most of these are capsule representations that can be traced back to the statement of a prestigious servant of the East India Company, Sir Charles Metcalfe (1785-1846), who became Resident at Delhi at the age of 27, and went on to act as Governor-General for two years (Mason, 1985). His description of a ‘village republic’ first appeared in a British parliamentary inquiry of 1810.

“Not surprisingly, Mill, Utilitarian advocate of political economy, began this tradition, first reproducing the passage in his discussion of revenue, the category under which most accounts of villages were classed in nineteenth-century discourse … Elphinstone included it in his would-be replacement for Mill’s History in 1841, the first part of which was updated by E.B.Cowell, H.H.Wilson’s student, early in this century... And it has appeared in varying renditions countless times since. Even Marx, relying on the writings of two on-the-spot commentators, Colonel Mark Wilks (1760?-1831), Company servant in Madras from 1782 to 1801, and Sir George Campbell (1824-92), who held high posts in India between 1842 and 1874, produced a text on the Indian village in Das Kapital.(Inden, op. cit.)

As a prominent world thinker who may have been unduly impressed by Metcalfe’s somewhat grandiloquent characterisation of the idealised Indian village, Karl Marx’s attention turned to India during the 1850s, amidst the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ and transfer of control to the British government. According to Draper (1977), Marx quoted the 1812 report of a House of Commons committee (the Metcalfe report, that is) three times in reference to the societal pattern in India, and interpolated the comment: “Every village is, and appears to always to have been, in fact a separate community or republic” (Marx, quoted in Draper, op. cit., p.527). But Marx’s judgement was not really flattering: Marx (with Engels) thought that Indian society had no history at all, apart from the successive intruders “who founded their empires on the passive basis of the unresisting and unchanging society”; he declared of the Indian village community, “rotting in the teeth of time”, that “no one could think of any more solid foundation for Asiatic despotism and stagnation” (op. cit., p.527), that their very isolation has “given rise to a more or less central despotism over the communes”, that they were “contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery”, characterised by an “undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life” (ibid., p.554). And Engels declared that these ancient communes “formed the basis of the cruellest form of state, Oriental despotism, from India to Russia”, and that it was “only where these communities dissolved that the peoples made progress of themselves” (Engels, quoted in Draper, op. cit., p.555). All this is just to remind ourselves that the description of our “little republics” was not always laudatory.

It is therefore quite likely that Gandhi and others also got their characterisation of the Indian village as a ‘little republic’, from a study of these same colonial and Western intellectual sources, to which we may add Sir Henry Maine, who served as legal member of council in India, and who wrote of a joint system of cultivation and the “council of elders” in the Indian villages (Maine, 1871, p.110).  Apart from their observation of the existing Indian villages themselves, the colonial administrators and writers may also have been swayed by some degree of nostalgia for an imagined ancient history of the Teutons or Germanic branches of the Aryans in ancient and medieval Western Europe, which had all but disappeared there as it became a ‘modern’ society, but which still survived in its original, Aryan form in India, which was still an ‘ancient’ society, as elaborated in Maine’s writings. Inden feels that not only was the concept attractive to the colonial writers as evoking a sense of their own ancient past, but the emphasis on India as a land of autonomous villages was a part of the efforts of the colonial intellectuals to “deconstitute” the Indian state, by constant reiteration of the village republics idea: “Just as the modern succeeded the ancient in time, so the modern would dominate the ancient in space” (Inden, op. cit., p.132).

During the Constituent Assembly debates, Ambedkar refers to these concerns:

“Another criticism against the Draft Constitution is that no part of it represents the ancient polity of India. It is said that the new Constitution should have been drafted on the ancient Hindu model of a State and that instead of incorporating Western theories the new Constitution should have been raised and built upon village Panchayats and District Panchayats. There are others who have taken a more extreme view. They do not want any Central or Provincial Governments. They just want India to contain so many village Governments. The love of the intellectual Indians for the village community is of course infinite if not pathetic (laughter). It is largely due to the fulsome praise bestowed upon it by Metcalfe who described them as little republics having nearly everything that they want within themselves, and almost independent of any foreign relations.” 

Ambedkar goes on to say, of these village “republics”:

“That they have survived through all vicissitudes may be a fact. But mere survival has no value. The question is on what plane they have survived. Surely on a low, on a selfish level. I hold that these village republics have been the ruination of India. I am therefore surprised that those who condemn Provincialism and communalism should come forward as champions of the village. What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism? I am glad that the draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit.” (Ambedkar, op. cit., p.486)

Being active in the real world, of course, Gandhi and other protagonists of the village-autonomy credo could not have been so unmindful of the effect of outside forces on the village, especially the development towards private property rights and titles, whether in antiquity or in their own times. Obviously one reason for the perceived independence of our villages would have been the sheer lack of communications, which meant that each settlement would have to stock up against calamities, and each household also would have to make provision against future needs if it were to survive in the long term. Of course the intermittent passage of campaigning armies of whatever hue or persuasion, could not have left these communities unaffected or unruffled; and obviously, the closer the village to the centre of power, the more it would have been integrated into those structures through trade, barter, tribute, employment and patronage.

Thus was the picture of autarky, stagnation and misery of the Indian villages built up by the colonial writers. But there are also available more realistic accounts of the institutions of community self-governance in historical times, as gleaned from the epigraphical record, which I refer to in the next section.  


Ambedkar, B.R. 1948. Basic Features of the Indian Constitution. Pp.474-494, in V.Rodrigues (Ed.), 2002, 2004. The Essential Writings of B.R.Ambedkar. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
Draper, Hal. 1977. Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution. Vol.I. State and Bureaucracy. Monthly Review Press, New York, 1977. Reprinted 2011 by Aakar Books for South Asia, Delhi-110091. 
Ganguli, B.N. 1973. Gandhi’s Social Philosophy. Perspective and Relevance. Supported by the Council for Social Development. Published by Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd. Delhi
Inden, Ronald B. 1990, 2000. Imagining India. First published in 1990 by Blackwell Publishers, Oxford. Second impression, 2000, with a new preface, by C.Hurst & Co. Publishers, London
Maine, Sir Henry James Sumner. 1871. Village Communities in the East and West. Six Lectures delivered at Oxford. John Murray, London.
Wilks, Mark. 1820. Historical Sketches of the South of India: In an Attempt to Trace the History of Mysoor, From the Origin of the Hindoo Government of that State, to the Extinction of the Mohammedan Dynasty in 1799, first published 1820, reissued  digitally 2013 by Cambridge University Press, New York.