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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