Tuesday, February 2, 2016

36 Process projects in a world of physical objectives. Forest Landscape Restoration in India-VII.

Landscape approach and the art of 'muddling through'

As can be seen from the somewhat ambivalent results of various ‘integrated’ approaches in the past, implementation of the Green India Mission, GIM (or the forest landscape approach, FLR, in general) can be expected to be less than perfect. Given the predilection of academic researchers to judge the results against very exacting standards of equity and process integrity, the ultimate results are bound to fall short. However, state actors (e.g. forest departments) are answerable, based on a completely different set of  expectations, to the state organs (Parliaments, statutory  auditors, courts, etc.): that expenditures result in measurable physical outputs.  Processes are seen only as one component of the means to the ends, and there is no excuse for failure to produce physical output merely on the plea that the people are not ready, or the process did not throw up a consensus, etc.

(A pdf file of the entire article is available at https://www.academia.edu/21490696/Forest_Landscape_Restoration_in_India_Antecedents_experience_and_prognoses)

Kemmangundi, Karnataka landscape: naural forest and coffee shade trees (silver oak) 

In a world where the official environment requires clear-cut physical results, certain precautions are essential in taking up projects or activities that are strong on the rhetoric of process-orientation.  A basic precaution is to ensure that the project has a core of sure-fire physical outputs that will be achieved through the normal working systems of the departments concerned, regardless of the success, failure or quality of the processes prescribed. No government department will even think of getting into any considerable expenditure programme unless there were some physical output guaranteed, especially a land-based department like the forest, where obviously some sort of crop has to remain at the end of the day. Because the process component is by definition bound to be a disappointment (especially with the constant changing of objectives and redefining of measuring scales by social scientists),  the implementing agency will be able to justify the expenditures only if there is a physical resource left at the close of project. That is why, in past project interventions, the forest departments (at least in India) have held almost fanatically to the crop development targets, much to the chagrin of the social analysts. This is also the reason why programmes like the social forestry (SF) projects, the DFID-funded Western Ghats Forestry Project (WGFP), and the joint forest management (JFM) programme, are seen as successes by the department, even though they are almost complete deemed failures from the sociologists’ viewpoint. Physical targets are the safety nets of the forest department, which operates in a remorseless world where inputs have to match with some concrete physical result. Indeed, if any substantial incremental (extra) expenditure is to be incurred, say for special project staff and project directorate and planning/management units, then it would be foolhardy for the department to ignore physical outputs (otherwise the extra expenditure cannot be justified, and will probably be recovered from the officials responsible, or disciplinary action initiated against them).

This is also the reason why exact synchronization of process with physical operations cannot be maintained: the plantations will be raised even if the committees are not formally present (which has been touted as a major deficiency), and communities may have to play catch-up with the physical progress at times. Sometimes, no doubt, believing is seeing (the thought precedes the reality), but most of the time in the real world, in fact people wait to adapt to a changing physical reality brought in by outside forces: seeing is believing. On the other hand, if a purely process-centered project is being pushed by policy makers (in our experience mainly the international donors and consultants, to which JICA is perhaps an honorable exception), then local counterparts in the recipient countries would be wise to rigorously eliminate all extra expenditure, all special staff and directorates, for example (which may end in zero physical output, but lots of workshops, and overseas consultants, whether paid for by the implementing agency or directly by the donor through the technical cooperation component). They should rather attach the additional work relentlessly to existing positions and agencies. In the Green India Mission (GIM), for instance, national coordination was entrusted to the existing National Afforestation and Eco-development Board (NAEB) at the ministry of environment and forests; in the states, the existing State Forest Development Agency (SFDA) and the district FDAs are to be entrusted the new responsibility, and the operations in the field also will be handled by existing structures; this is as well, since there is no guaranteed funding for the field operations.

The dilemma with such ambitious, over-arching, all-embracing, holistic, integrated, process-priority interventions like the landscape approach is that they want to bring together all players to indulge in exhaustive discussions and consultations before embarking on action, but the catch-22 situation is that they will not be able to pull in collateral actors unless they hold out carrots in the form of financial resources, infrastructure investment, perks like foreign visits or at least buildings, vehicles and computers, and so on. But the paradox is that money for such components can rarely be garnered (whether from government budgets or from international aid agencies) on any large scale unless there is a guaranteed physical result of appropriate magnitude. To incorporate such physical results, many decisions will have to be taken at the time of presenting the project proposal itself, thereby pre-empting the process activities. If communities feel that the department may have some substantial money in its hampers, they may deign to come to consultations; if they know that the department has still not got the funding, they may not be interested in mere talk.

Even with committed funding and guaranteed physical outputs, the state auditors may well pull up the departments if there is a mis-match between targets shown in the project document and the actual outcome on the ground, as may well happen if processes are permitted to dictate in-course corrections and modifications in operations.  Thus the deviation from the model-wise plantation targets in the approved project document was made a big issue in the audit of the WGFP described previously, because the donor agency’s stand against pre-determined models and targets (this was supposed to be a process project) was limited to oral and personal communications, and could not be put up to the audit authorities, who only recognized the cabinet-approved final project documents (FPDs).  Based on such unpleasant experiences, the author strove to incorporate in the GIM document a paragraph especially to the effect that being a process-based programme, actual achievements may not conform exactly to the model-wise areas indicated in the document. Whether audit will understand this during the inevitable post-mortem analyses is of course left to the future. In any case, if there are mid-corse deviations, implementing agencies should not neglect getting such changes approved or ratified at the highest required levels. Thus, if the original document was approved at the cabinet level, it should be ensured that all major deviations are also got approved by the donor and the state government at the Cabinet level.

One of the recurring dissatisfactions expressed by social analysts, with projects implemented by the forest departments, is their unwillingness to let go the control of the forest areas to the community. Social environmentalists want JFM and forest governance to go to the next level, where communities will be the sole masters rather than mere participants (see, e.g. Lele & Menon, 2014). The donor agency, DfID, was especially disappointed with the pace of this type of institutional change in the WGFP in Karnataka, which was probably the reason for not extending the project to a second phase after 2000. However, social environmentalists and aid agencies must understand that their interventions are usually short-lived (three to five years for a Ph.D. scholar, five to ten years for an externally aided project),   and the financial contribution is usually miniscule in proportion to the national budget; obviously it has to fit into the existing departmental set-up, and not vice versa. While the integrated approach looks good in theory, words come cheap, and if all these aspects are actually to be covered by action on the ground, there will probably be not enough resources for even one landscape, let alone for a national programme like the GIM. This does not mean that departments and communities should fold their hands in their laps and sit quiescent; it means, instead, that they will probably plan and keep on the shelf  a series of smaller interventions, and opportunistically fulfill whichever are possible depending on the funds and personnel available from different sources. This calls for a time horizon much longer than the five to ten years of an average externally aided project. At the end of the project, the forest department (or whichever is the main implementing agency) is still in place, and has to take care of things just as if the project never existed; not the least of the responsibilities being the continuing salaries of the staff added for the project, and further protection and tending of the plantations and community institutions set up during the project . Thus, the implementing departments have to be pardoned if they do not fall in with the more extreme urgings of the aid agencies and social experts to abdicate their role and position with alacrity.

The danger in over-arching concepts like ‘integrated’ or ‘holistic’ or ‘landscape’ or ‘national’ or ‘global’ is that they may lull the user into a sense of omniscience and omnipotence that is not justified. It is because of this fatal attraction of big words that many well-intentioned schemes and projects that have over-weening ambitions of social engineering do not work, as demonstrated by James C.Scott in his book Seeing Like a State (Scott, 1999) on ‘high moderrnism’ and its relevance to large projects (the sub-title being How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed). In this context, Lindblom’s contrast between ‘synoptic’ and ‘incremental’ programs and the option of “muddling through” rather than claiming some perfect solution is surely pertinent and cautionary to landscape approach enthusiasts (Lindblom, 1959, 1979).

In conclusion, is submitted this statement made by the author, as DG Forests of India at the Roundtable on “Forests and People”, during the High Level Segment of the UN Forum for Forests, 2 February 2011:

“Forestry in modern India has, over the past one and a half centuries, built on two major foundations: firstly, giving protection to the resource itself by legal and administrative measures to identify and notify forest reserves, and secondly, working with the communities to maintain over the long term the productivity of services and materials from the forests, in support of their agricultural needs and livelihood occupations…  It has been our experience that all the different strands of the polity are important in ensuring the long-term survival and sustainable management of this precious resource: well-thought out legislation, a strong and independent judiciary, strong community and civil society participation, and a professional state forester cadre and other administrative personnel and apparatus”.

(A pdf file of the entire article is available at https://www.academia.edu/21490696/Forest_Landscape_Restoration_in_India_Antecedents_experience_and_prognoses)

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