Monday, February 1, 2016

34 Institutionalising change: Western Ghats Forestry Project. Forest Landscape Restoration in India-V.

Western Ghats Forestry Project, Karnataka (1992-2002)

The Western Ghats Forestry (and Environment) Project (WGFP) is cited here specifically, as it was probably the first externally-aided project to make institutional development and policy change its central objective (and also one of the earliest instances of the transition from the physical-output oriented social forestry projects). It is also interesting because there was a major progression from the original proposal of the Karnataka Forest department (KFD) in 1987 (Hobley & Shields, 2000, p.21), which was focused mainly on improving the ecological status of the Western Ghats forests in Karnataka. This was prompted by the department’s perception that the preceding social forestry projects had shifted attention disproportionately to non-forest and degraded forest areas, to the detriment of the ecologically richer forests of the Western Ghats, which were now in dire need of greater investment. Some of the crying priorities in the department’s view were protection from fire, poaching, encroachment, etc.; interventions to encourage regeneration, improve density of growing crops, regenerate blanks and treat insect and disease problems; and so on. But the NGOs and environmentalists put up such a forceful opposition to such a techno-centric proposal (see the interviews with one of the leading NGO activists, Pandurang Hegde, in the webpage of New Internationalist magazine, October 2004)[1], that the British aid agency DFID (or the ODA as it was then known) transformed the whole project into a process-oriented one, and insisted on a process of consultation with local communities for the interventions (including plantations) on the ground.

(A pdf file of the entire article is available at

Degraded hillsides in North Canara. Masur-Lukkeri, one-year planting. Only exotic Acacia is visible! (Viewed 1990)  

Throughout the project period, teams of DFID consultants were busy on the ground, working with the frontline staff of the department and with communities, designing new planning and monitoring systems to make them bottom-up and ecologically sound (such as Site-Specific Planning or SSP, participatory planning manuals[2] to replace the less flexible Working Plan Code, computerized database and MIS, computerized accounting and reporting systems, strategic planning decision tools,  etc.). Naturally, implementation of the JFM guidelines on the ground was a high priority, so field manuals were drawn up, training given to FD staff, community representatives, NGO support groups, etc., and scores of new village forest committees (VFCs) initiated  and set on the path to formulating micro-plans, signing up to MoUs, and taking up operations on the ground.

The physical targets of plantations of various models (fuelwood/small timber, artisanal raw material like bamboo, fruit/fodder, assisted natural regeneration or ANR, etc.) were substantially fulfilled, totaling to some 50,000 ha as provided in the financial schedules of the project document.  The fuelwood/small timber plantations (mainly of Acacia auriculiformis and Casuarina, both exotics but in use for many decades, and both having nitrogen-fixing nodules in their root systems) was  believed (by the FD) to have substantially reduced the extraction of wood by cartloads from the forests for keeping the home fires burning as well as running hundreds of brick kilns, eateries, tile manufacturies, etc. in the adjoining zones.

This was especially gratifying, as there was a high perennial demand for wood in the cold and wet climate of the Western Ghats. There used to be a particularly pernicious system of pre-paid licenses, under which thousands of cartloads of fuelwood, inevitably mixed up with illicitly felled teak, rosewood and other valuable timbers, used to be allowed under the old privileges, that had been terminated by a particularly courageous minister in the early 1970s (see Shyamsunder and Parameshwarappa, 2014, for an account of this reform). As a consequence, the department had taken on the responsibility of providing the material at controlled rates from a network of depots in the Western Ghats belt and the adjoining plains. 

Greening bare hillsides with Acacia (2-year old) (Viewed 1990)

Acacias from Australia were not anathema to foresters, who saw in it a hardy, self-regenerating (at least in some localities), nitrogen-fixing species with a host of uses, both as smallwood (the timber itself was found to have strength and finish properties close to teak), and as mulch from the leaf litter (a crucial component of agriculture in this high-rainfall zone, see Nadkarni et al.,1989). Acacia auriculiformis  came as a boon in reforesting the highly degraded, eroded, laterised bare hillocks around the forest tracts, and experiments was also being undertaken of interplanting with more ecologically acceptable local species like Emblica, rosewood, Pterocarpus, Lagerstroemia, Terminalia, Adina, etc. in thinned out plantations taking advantage of the improved organic structure of the soil after a few years. Even the relationship of the FD with communities, which tended to be patronizing (as employers and granters of favours) or coercive in the past, have been transformed with the partnership approach under JFM, as readily shared by VFC groups visited by the author (Dilip Kumar, 2014).

Kalam (Mitregyna parvifolia) interplanted in Casuarina, 2-year old (Viewed 1990)

From the point of view of the FD, therefore, the project was surely a resounding success, but it ran into very strident criticism from many quarters. One was the familiar burden of the social environmentalists, which is well represented by Sharachchandra Lele (2003). Some  of the grounds for criticism are that by restricting the JFM mechanism to degraded forest (less than 25% canopy), it ended in putting valuable village grazing lands under tree crops;  the process of formation of VFCs, micro-plan creation and VFC functioning tended to be top-down; there was insufficient attention to “community mobilization and awareness building” so that “VFCs so formed could not generally free themselves from the inherent economic, caste and gender inequalities within villages”; and so on (Lele, op. cit.). Critics seem especially incensed by the fact that in many   cases, plantations were even raised before the VFC was formed, and many times VFCs were given older existing plantations to protect as an incentive (bribe?). Of course, for the FD, such criticisms appear to be mere quibbling. However, Lele does concede that there were some benefits, mostly intangible, like freer interaction between village communities and FD staff, acceptance of the philosophy of people’s participation, and so on (Lele, 2003).

There are apparently two different agendas at work here. The FD personnel, like most government agencies, are keen to get on with the job and achieve concrete results, answerable as they are to audit and the elected government for the money being spent (no matter it comes as a grant from the donor to the central government), and bound as they are by the existing framework of law and policy (flawed or otherwise). The NGOs and social activists, on the other hand, are in the game of actually changing the very basis of the relations between community and state (they have taken seriously Karl Marx’s admonition that the job of the sociologist is to change the world, not just study it). But this is a long and hard path to tread, as found by some of the DFID consultants (Hobley and Shields, 2000):

However, it must be recognised that change is never easy, and that the main delivery agency requires space to make adjustments, not just to processes, but also to attitudes. Change is slowed down by ‘undue’ and heavy pressure from external bodies and by myriad reviews, audits, evaluations all of which demonstrate and show up serious problems in current practice. Without space, without time to rebuild new processes and attitudes, and under pressure to deliver, staff inevitably become defensive and practice returns to the old process and attitude” (Hobley & Shields, 2000, p.8).

One of the limitations[3] of the WGFP was its strategic choice of starting in just one pilot area, and this happened to be North Canara (Uttara Kannada), a highly forested district with relatively low population densities and a resource-rich forest establishment as well as a highly privileged agricultural economy (under the Canara privileges, valley-bottom agriculturists had 9 acres of hill forest or betta land to each acre of cultivated land)[4]. This strategic decision put the following handicaps on mainstreaming of the innovations from the start: a feeling in the rest of the department that the conditions in Canara were so non-typical as to have low applicability in the real world; a lack of sympathy, let alone ownership, in the rest of the department, which may have contributed to a lurking interest in ‘showing up’ the Canara innovations; a sense that the new planning systems were being driven by the consultants (although they did try to maintain the stance that it was developed seemingly by the local staff), and that these systems, though well presented, seemed over-demanding and unnecessarily complicated; a feeling that the project was being run by consultants, for consultants, and some of their local hangers-on; a sense that DFID, in collusion with local NGOs who were out to make their careers at the cost of the department, was trying to dictate policy with a relatively small grant, akin to the tail trying to wag the dog (especially in contrast to the much larger state-wide projects of other agencies, which came without the pressure for drastic policy change); a sense that the project was taking the FD away from the main mandate of improving the physical resource, and taking up too much time of the staff in endless discussions, workshops, training, and so on.

Further, by continually revisiting abstract ideas like the ‘goal’ and ‘purpose’ of the project (a problem inherent to the ‘logframe’ approach to project management), there was a sense of over-analysis and filibustering. The high media attention (mostly adverse) and publicity to the differences aired in the course of periodic reviews and discussions gave the impression that there was a large-scale mismanagement of the project.

The staff of the state Auditor-General also jumped on the adversarial bandwagon, and most of their objections amounted to the fact that actual operations did not adhere strictly to the model-wise targets in the project document (which of course was the result of the DFID treating these as only indicative, since actual operations were to be decided village by village by the communities). The audit wanted even the individual components to match the project document (e.g. different plantation models, but also components like buildings, salaries, equipment, etc.). On the other hand, DFID had pressed the point that even talking of planting models (fuel/small timber, fruit, fodder, artisanal material, NTFP, etc.) was against the philosophy of bottom-up, site-specific, community-level planning. One result of this was that ultimately all the interventions were being reported under the generalized head of miscellaneous plantations, so that it became impossible to explain what exactly could be expected as a return to the communities or the state from all this investment.[5] 

Ultimately, the DFID decided to make a far from satisfactory exit at the end of the (extended) project period, and the second phase of the WGFP, which had been under discussion, was abandoned. All this gave a bad name to the project, to the FD and DFID, and to JFM itself. This experience, as far as the main implementers was concerned, points to the general need to have a well-thought out, mutually validating, exit policy, that does not leave an impression that things have gone horribly wrong. The extreme intellectualism of the DFID consultants, combined with the sense among the NGOs that they could strike at the implementing state agency with lethal effect, combined to negate all the sincere effort that had gone into both the physical and institutional aspects of the project, and in effect succeeded in snatching a humiliating failure from the jaws of success.

This unhappy exit also emphasized the inadequate time spans in the donor agencies’ approach, compared to the long-term commitment that is really required for such changes to be tested and take root on the ground. The project also shows the difficulty that implementing agencies have in responding to the periodic changes that take place in donor theories.[6] This is a factor that should obviously be kept in mind when taking up pilot projects in the ‘landscape’ mode now.

[2] See one such example of a new Forest Management Planning Handbook at:, accessed December 2014
[3] Unlike the social environmentalists’ viewpoint and the donor agency/ consultants’ analysis, the Karnataka forest department’s (KFD’s) viewpoint has seemingly not been properly articulated. This will probably be the topic for a future paper by the author. 
[4] The main product of these valley bottom ‘gardens’ is the areca nut, a mildly narcotic alkaloid product that is chewed assiduously by itself, or with the betel leaf, or impregnated with tobacco, all over south and southeast Asia, to the grief (as in the case of tobacco and beedis) of the users’ teeth and health.
[5] This is related to the ‘legibility’ concern of governing bodies when they take up interventions (Scott, 1999).
[6] It appears that the international donor community changes tack every decade or so: in forestry, from business models at one time, to financial efficiency (well illustrated by the National Commission on Agriculture, 1976), followed by massive industrial forest plantations sponsored by the World Bank in the 1970s (see Barnes et al., 1982); then Social Forestry as a panacea in the 1980s; then to community forestry, participatory approaches, during the 1990s; then to empowerment and transfer of ownership to communities and withdrawal of support to the agencies of the state in the 2000s (witness the writings on democratization of forest governance, as laid out in Lele & Menon, 2014); and now the holistic, all-embracing view of the landscape approach. Since the actual cycle of each approach seems to have been around a decade, the implementers are always at the receiving end of the critical backlash at the end of the project cycle of 10 years. 

(A pdf file of the entire article is available at


Barnes, Douglas F., Julia C.Allen, William Ramsay. April 1982. Social Forestry in Developing Nations. (Unpublished). The Centre for Energy  Policy Research. Resources For the Future, Washington, D.C. April 1982. Available at

Dilip Kumar, P.J. 2014. Managing India’s Forests: Village Communities, Panchayati Raj Institutions and the State. Monograph No.32. Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore. Available at

Hobley, Mary and Dermot Shields. 2000. The Reality of Trying to Transform Structures and Processes: Forestry in Rural Livelihoods. Working paper 132, February 2000. Overseas Development Institute (ODI), London. Available at

Lele, Sharachchandra. 2003. Participatory Forest management in Karnataka: At the Crossroads. Community Forestry, Vol.2, Issue 4, May 2003, p.4-11. Available at:

Lele, Sharachchandra and Ajit Menon. 2014. Democratizing Forest Governance in India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Nadkarni, M.V., with S.A.Pasha and L.S.Prabhakar. 1989. The Political Economy of Forest Use and Management. Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore. Sage Publications, New Delhi and London.  

NCA. 1976. Report of the National Commission on Agriculture. Part IX, Forestry. National Commission on Agriculture. Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, Government of India, New Delhi. (Available at

Scott, James C. 1999.Seeing Like a State. How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press.

Shyamsunder, S. and S.Parameshwarappa. 2014. Forest Conservation Concerns in India. Bio-Green Books. (Review by Ullas karanth, available at

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