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Year : 2021  |  Volume : 19  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 205-217

Making Decentralisation Work: A Comparative Ethnographic Analysis of Forest Conservation and Village Governance in West Bengal, India

Current affiliation: Ambedkar University Delhi, Delhi, India; Research undertaken at: University of Manchester, Manchester, UK

Correspondence Address:
Sumana Datta
Current affiliation: Ambedkar University Delhi, Delhi, India; Research undertaken at: University of Manchester, Manchester

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Source of Support: This research was funded by the University of Manchester (UK) as a PhD research, Conflict of Interest: The author declares no competing interests in the conduct of this research

DOI: 10.4103/cs.cs_20_81

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Date of Submission24-Apr-2020
Date of Acceptance08-Jun-2021
Date of Web Publication09-Sep-2021


The literature on forest conservation lacks comparative analyses of decentralisation across different sectors to understand their relative advantages and limitations. This article adopts an ethnographic approach to compare the functioning of two decentralised village-level institutions in the state of West Bengal, India: the forest protection committees created under joint forest management and the gram panchayat, the lowest tier of the panchayati raj institution. The comparative analysis shows that despite their decentralised structure, the village forest protection committees have very little discretionary power relative to the powers exercised by gram panchayats. Gram panchayats have been effective in developing an inclusive and transparent decentralised governance system which retains the support of diverse interest groups within communities and other layers of the state. The study shows that style of decentralisation under joint forest management in West Bengal has been alienating forest-based communities from conservation because their voices remain symbolic in local, state, and national-level policy decisions. The study provides new theoretical and methodological insights for analysing decentralisation by underscoring the importance of criteria such as discretionary power for local decision-making and accountability; local bureaucratic and infrastructure support; and designated physical space in the everyday working of decentralised governance at the village level.

Keywords: Decentralisation, joint forest management, gram panchayat, devolution of power, West Bengal, India

How to cite this article:
Datta S. Making Decentralisation Work: A Comparative Ethnographic Analysis of Forest Conservation and Village Governance in West Bengal, India. Conservat Soc 2021;19:205-17

How to cite this URL:
Datta S. Making Decentralisation Work: A Comparative Ethnographic Analysis of Forest Conservation and Village Governance in West Bengal, India. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2021 [cited 2022 Aug 18];19:205-17. Available from: https://www.conservationandsociety.org.in//text.asp?2021/19/4/205/330247

   Introduction Top

Decentralisation, denoting the transfer of power from the central or national government to local bodies was perhaps the most significant reform in governance that re-defined the state-local partnership in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in the 1980s (Ribot et al. 2006). In contrast to being “supplicants of the state”, decentralisation empowered local people to define policies for local development including natural resource conservation (Corbridge et al. 2006, 82). Decentralisation set a new process of state-making in which institutions of government and ideas of governance were negotiated and reconsidered at various levels (Sivaramakrishnan 2000). The local agencies for implementing decentralisation vary from one country to another and consequently reflect significant diversity in approaches and outcomes.

Scholars have described decentralisation using different concepts such as deconcentration, devolution, and co-management (Johnson 2001; Ribot 2004). Ribot (2004) considers devolution as a 'strong' form of democratic decentralisation and deconcentration as a 'weak' form of decentralisation. With devolution, the power including political and financial authority is devolved to sub-national levels of government ranging from village councils to state-level bodies (Blair 2000), while with deconcentration the power is transformed to local branches of the central government such as prefects, administrators, or local technical line ministry agents (Ribot 2004). In co-management, state agencies form partnerships with local communities and create “single purpose user committees” to solicit their participation in implementing programmes for managing natural resources such as water and forests (Manor 2004, 184).

During the 1980s, forestry emerged as one of the first natural resource sectors to embrace governance reforms through decentralisation and co-management in many parts of the world (Ribot et al. 2006). These governance reforms were much lauded as the indigenous communities living in forest areas had been progressively excluded from access to, and management of forest resources under European colonial rule from the eighteenth century onwards (Neumann 2002). The shift to decentralisation kindled hope for efficiency and equity in governance by bringing local people, local priorities, and local knowledge into everyday decision-making (Fox and Aranda 1996). During the last three decades, an estimated 30% of the forested areas in developing countries were brought under different models of decentralisation such as community forest governance, joint forest management, and community-based natural resource management (Gilmour 2016).

Decentralisation reforms were not only limited to forestry sector but also introduced in local rural and urban governance. Some examples include India's 73rd Constitutional Amendment (1992), the Local Self-Governance Act (1999) enacted in Nepal, and the Local Government Reform Agenda (1996 – 2000) undertaken in Tanzania. Decentralisation reforms in forestry thus overlapped and were embedded in the overall process and politics of state-making (Sivaramakrishnan 1998a).

Although decentralisation has been pursued in both forestry and local governance, very few studies offer a comparative understanding of the institutional and political processes in which decentralisation reforms have been negotiated and implemented in these contexts. This article offers a critical analysis of forest decentralisation by comparing the institutions created for joint forest management (JFM) and local rural governance in the state of West Bengal, India. JFM originated in West Bengal during the 1970s and 1980s through pilot initiatives of Forest Department officials to engage local communities in participatory forest management. The Leftist coalition government that governed between 1977 and 2011 promoted its spread across the state (Banerjee 2007). JFM occurred alongside the agrarian reforms and land redistribution programs implemented by the Left Front government during this period and overlapped with the process of administrative decentralisation promulgated through the 73rd Constitutional Amendment and establishment of Panchayati Raj system in India. West Bengal has thus been at the forefront of democratisation and participatory governance at the local level for nearly five decades and offers an excellent context for comparing decentralisation in forest conservation and local governance.

By the early 1990s, the success of JFM in West Bengal led the Indian government to formally adopt the approach at the national level and establish policy guidelines (Pattnaik and Dutta 1997). Under the national JFM policy guidelines, forest protection committees were to be set up with local representatives and ground-level forest staff living in forest fringe villages to jointly manage forests with the assistance and overall guidance of state Forest Departments. Overall, the Forest Department's silviculture systems established within the framework of scientific forestry were to remain the primary guiding principles for forest management. This meant that the Working Plans which are normally prepared by state Forest Departments on a decadal basis to assess their forest status, tree stock, and prepare harvesting plans were to also incorporate forest resource needs and demands of local forest fringe and forest dwelling communities. The national policy recommended the creation of JFM working plan circles that would overlap with existing Working Plan divisions and allow preparation of micro- working plans at the local forest committee levels.

JFM witnessed an enormous expansion across the country during the 1990s and received large-scale investment from multilateral funding agencies such as the World Bank (Sivaramakrishnan 1996). Subsequent studies of JFM implementation, however, showed that the actual workings negated the spirit of partnership and instead created a 'state of participatory exclusion' of the local people (Sunder 2000). The state Forest Departments continued to maintain control over major decision-making and regulation of resource extraction (Springate-Baginski and Blaikie 2007). In some instances, the Forest Department's retreat from regulating extraction without building local institutional capacity led to the depletion of non-timber forest products (Véron and Fehr 2011).

In 2006, the government of India passed the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act (Recognition of Forest Rights Act). At the collective level, the Act offers room for transferring the ownership of forests to the community and gives them the authority to manage according to their traditional rights and wisdom (Gadgil 2007). However, a provision of the Act, which states that it shall be 'in addition to and not in derogation of the provision of any other law for the time being in force' legitimises the continuation of JFM in its original form instead of transferring those areas to communities for self-governance (Chiriyankandath et al. 2020). Hence, after three decades, despite disenchantment amongst the forest dwellers, JFM remains the 'principal institution' for community involvement in forest governance across all Indian states and union territories (Pai and Datta 2006).

Just as JFM was being adopted nationally across India during the 1990s, the passage of 73rd Amendment of the Constitution (1992) and the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Area Act (PESA) (1996) laid the foundation for democratic decentralisation of rural local governance in India. Within India's federal political structure, each state is divided into districts, and each district is further sub-divided into sub-divisions/blocks. Each subdivision or block encompasses a group of villages and a few rural towns. The three-tier democratically elected structure known as the Panchayati Raj system is constituted at these levels. The village council or gram panchayat is the bottom-most tier consisting of a cluster of villages with electorates of 10,000-12,000 persons. Above the gram panchayat are the panchayat samiti and the zilla parishad constituted at the levels of block and district respectively. [Figure 1] The representatives of all three tiers of the panchayat are directly elected via secret ballot every five years. The constitutional amendment recommended devolving substantial administrative and financial powers to all three tiers of the Panchayati Raj to enable democratic governance for local development. In practice, however, the amendment resulted in “a limited and patchy regeneration of local democracy” on the ground, depending on the financial resources allocated by each state towards these tiers (Manor 2013: 04).
Figure 1: Three-tier governance system in rural India Role of elected local representatives and state representatives in the Panchayati Raj system

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The passage of the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in 2005 gave new momentum and financial resources to the gram panchayats (Chiriyankandath et al. 2020). The Act underwrites a welfare scheme for enhancing livelihood security in rural areas by providing one hundred days of guaranteed wage employment to every household. MGNREGA also significantly influences the nature of the local democratic process (Abraham 2014; Fischer and Ali 2019). It develops an integrated network from the level of the gram panchayat up to the central government for monitoring progress and enables greater transparency in political and administrative systems (Datta 2012).

Although JFM and the Panchayati Raj system in India differ in their legal status, their parallel evolution provides an interesting opportunity for a comparative understanding of the processes and outcomes of decentralisation reforms. While Panchayati Raj was established through constitutional amendment, the JFM guidelines were passed by executive order by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. This article takes an ethnographic approach to analyse the institutional structure and processes of making decentralisation work in JFM and in gram panchayats in the Indian state of West Bengal. Ethnographic accounts of everyday governance draw rich data from “localised offices in which it is instantiated” (Gupta 1995: 376). In India, everyday governance at the village level occurs at various sites such as the office of the patwari (land record keeper), the gram panchayat and anganwadis (rural creches) (Corbridge et al. 2002). I articulate these instantiated spaces as 'physical space' in this paper.

In the following sections, I outline the broader debates centred on decentralisation and forest conservation. I then provide the context and describe the methodology for the comparative ethnographic study of decentralisation in West Bengal. Thereafter, I present the case study and discuss the gaps in the institutional reforms in forests. In conclusion, I use the findings to highlight the importance of criteria such as the discretionary power with the local actors, role of bureaucratic support and physical space for understanding decentralisation processes in forestry and other community-centred resource management initiatives.

   Decentralisation, Deconcentration, co-management in Forest Conservation Top

Decentralisation provides an institutional framework for widening public space (Cornwall 2004) and deepening public accountability (Ribot 2004) in the functioning of the state. The ideological shift towards accountability, participation, and decentralisation in the 1980s led to a different paradigm of governance with the creation of a “new technology of rules” (Corbridge et al. 2002: 45), which restructured the contours of the state-society relationship in most sectors of development including forestry. Ribot's (2004) global review of decentralisation in forestry distinguishes between deconcentration and co-management based on the different forms in which public participation and accountability are institutionalised. According to him, deconcentration limits the extent to which local institutions are involved in decision-making but includes some downward accountability of functions undertaken by central or state-level forestry agencies. He describes co-management as a “contracting arrangement for implementation of programs or the provision of services” (Ribot 2004: 9), implying that community-level institutions enter into a legal agreement with the state-level agencies for managing forests in their localities. Ribot concludes that the process of decentralisation in forestry mostly led to deconcentration and in a small proportion of cases resulted in co-management of natural resources.

In critically analysing decentralisation in forestry, Sivaramakrishnan (2000) points out that statemaking through any form of decentralisation involves negotiation amongst a wide range of actors, interests, and forums in the formulation and implementation of 'public policy'. He observes that “any program of co-management is at its heart a fundamental redefinition of the role of states in resource management” (Sivaramakrishnan 1998a: 27). He argues that in the absence of discretionary powers in the hands of local actors, co-management can often give local governance an imagined or illusory sense of local autonomy and resource sovereignty (Sivaramakrishnan 1998b).

Ribot et al. (1996) have argued that the conjunction of three normative factors is critical to assess the nature and the extent to which governance reforms can be considered as decentralisation: first, the extent and mechanism of inclusion of local actors; second, the extent of downward accountability; and third, the devolution of meaningful discretionary power in the hands of local actors. Inducting local actors in governance is one of the key reforms in decentralisation, and the mechanism of selection or election of these actors influences the quality of reform. The evidence of decentralisation shows that if elected, local actors can “tighten the loop of accountability between those who produce public goods and services and those who consume them” (Faguet 2014: 5), and thus bring effective governance. The introduction of local actors, however, creates multiple players in local governance with overlapping authorities (Faguet et al. 2014) between technocratic practices of development bureaucrats and evolving pluralistic political practices (Sivaramakrishnan 2000). Hence, the bureaucracy and the internal structure and rules governing them remain crucial factors in decision-making under decentralisation (Fleischman 2016). In such a situation, the power associated with day-to-day decision-making for implementing a programme or enforcing rules cannot ensure authority for the local actors (Ribot et al. 2006). It is the domain of discretionary power that enables local actors to apply authority and transform local aspirations into policy and practice (Ribot 2004; Pritchett and Woolcock 2004).

Regarding the second criterion for effective decentralisation, accountability is defined as the relationship between outcome and sanction (Ribot 2004), which is to say that local citizens have the ability to question outcomes and impose sanctions if outcomes are not consistent with prior decisions and objectives (Manin, Przeworski, and Stokes 1999). If the decision of local actors is consistent with the choice of the local citizens, then this is regarded as downward accountability (Ribot et al. 2006). According to Ribot et al. (2006), when local-level actors receive autonomy over funding and are empowered with discretionary powers, they are likely to be downwardly accountable whether or not they are appointed or elected. On the contrary, if elected local actors need to seek approval from superiors for all decisions, then downward accountability is weakened.

The third aspect of effective decentralisation which relates to devolution of discretionary power to local actors requires change in the everyday practices of bureaucracies by redefining roles, responsibilities, and powers between the new actors and traditional representatives of the state. Discretionary power in the hands of local actors is often restricted, and the line of accountability is compromised on the pretext of the importance of technical or 'expert knowledge' especially in the forest management (Garcia-Lopez and Antinori 2018). Sivaramakrishnan (2000, 438) observes that “foresters make powerful claims to exclusive control over the pertinent expertise”. This means that the specific 'bureaucratic support', i.e., the technical inputs and administrative support provided by forest bureaucracy to local actors is critical in deciding the patterns of empowerment and accountability in local governance. This shift in roles from controlling local community actors to providing them administrative support requires a significant change in the mindset of bureaucracies. Thompson (1995) argues that while acceptance by higher-ranking bureaucracy is critical for overall implementation of the decentralised approach, it is the middle level bureaucracy that is key for institutionalising the new system. Overall, “collegial and supportive” (Thompson 1995: 1533) relations between senior and junior members of the government can create enabling conditions for effective devolution.

Cornwall (2004) observes that decentralisation can also create a deliberative 'new space' for local governance. She considers this space as “rich with metaphor as well as a literal descriptor of arenas where people gather, which are bounded in time as well as dimension”. She notes that this space represents the “extent of participation and engagement of citizens” in public policy, and distinguishes between an 'invited space' created by a co-management institution and a 'popular space' created 'with statutory backing' (pp. 1-2).

There are very few empirical studies that demonstrate direct correlation between different forms of decentralised forest management and their ecological outcomes. One global review of decentralisation over the last four decades indicates positive ecological outcomes in terms of increase in forest cover, density and, occasionally, associated biodiversity (Gilmour 2016). Another study by Persha et al. (2011) concludes that forest systems are more likely to have above-average tree species richness when local forest users participate in forest rulemaking. Kellert et al. (2000) identify the uneven devolution of power as one of the major reasons for limited ecological impacts in community conservation areas in Kenya and Nepal. Sayer et al. (2017) find that the absence of regular assessment and monitoring constrain the ability of decentralised forest governance to achieve conservation goals. They note that empowerment of local actors along with adequate infrastructure for monitoring and evaluation is not only important for creating downward accountability but also critical for effective forest conservation.

A limitation of these empirical studies, however, is that they do not explore the implementation of decentralised forest governance in relation to decentralisation efforts that may have been implemented at the same time in other sectors. This article addresses this critical gap by presenting a comparative analysis of decentralisation at the everyday local spaces of JFM and gram panchayat activities in West Bengal. These everyday spaces are the literal descriptors of the arenas (Ferguson and Gupta 2002) and impact the politics of implementation of decentralised governance. My framework focuses on how, and to what extent, the implementation of decentralisation in forestry and village governance has shaped public space (Cornwall 2004) in terms of inclusiveness, discretionary power, and accountability (Ribot et al. 2006) for forest conservation and local development.

   Methodology Top

The field research for this study was undertaken from January 2010 up to February 2011 in the Bankura district of the state of West Bengal [Figure 2]. I conducted ethnographic fieldwork with the Shivakunda and Chakdebankura village Forest Protection Committees (FPCs). Shivakunda village is located within the Patrasayer block of the Birsingha gram panchayat and is seven km from Patrasayer town. The social structure of Shivakunda village was relatively homogenous with 39 tribal households distributed across three hamlets. Chakdebankura village is located within the Sonamukhi block of the Dhansimla gram panchayat and is eleven km from Sonamukhi town. The village has a heterogenous social combination of tribal and non-tribal households distributed across four hamlets; 28 out of a total of 40 were tribal households and the remaining 12 non-tribal households belonged to traditional ironsmith and pastoralist communities, locally known as Lohar (eight families) and Pandit (four families) respectively.
Figure 2: Location map of study areas Birsingha & Dhansimla Gram Panchayats in Bankura district in India Sources: http://www.westbengalforest.gov.in/upload/forest_map/dfm1.pdf accessed on April 18, 2021

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My fieldwork involved gathering ethnographic evidence of the “quotidian practices” (Gupta 1995, 376) or everyday workings of state at the bottom-most level of governance in the Forest Department vis-à-vis the gram panchayat. The Forest Department and the gram panchayat are the two entities of the state ubiquitously present in day-to-day lives of forest dwellers in these villages. Over the course of fourteen months, I studied the 'live processes' of negotiation amongst local bureaucrats, local actors, and citizens in daily decision making as well as the planning, allocation of resource, and conflict resolution in these two institutions. Ethnographic fieldwork included close observation of the offices of the Forest Department and the gram panchayat, which were the main physical spaces where forest and local village governance took place. I spent many days and hours witnessing and analysing the processes of interaction between bureaucrats, community representatives, and ordinary citizens in the gram panchayat offices and in the Forest Department's range and beat offices. My long presence and informal interactions helped me to identify potential key informants within the local bureaucracy and among local representatives for further detailed interviews. Interviews with these key informants were spread over multiple interactions rather than a single session. I took care to initiate conversations that were about local events and other minor issues (e.g., power-sharing amongst various actors) until a “collaborative climate” was reached (Woodhouse 2007, 173) and the informants felt comfortable to open up and speak about intra-village politics. My continued presence provided me with the opportunity to closely obtain “a sense of the texture of relations” (Gupta 1995, 378) between elected actors, state officials and citizens at the local level. During the course of my fieldwork, I was able to see how new spaces had emerged from the processes of interactions within forest protection committees and gram panchayats and to recognise the thin line between decentralisation and deconcentration in the workings of the two institutions.

   Instituting decentralisation in joint forest management Top

The state forest bureaucracy is organised according to a spatially nested hierarchy, ranging from the Chief Conservator at the state level to the forest guard at the village level. State forest areas are divided into a few large working circles which are then subdivided into forest divisions, ranges, beats, and compartments. All forest officials excepting forest guards are recruited through the state public service commission; the latter are recruited from villages that are located within forest compartments.

The forested areas adjoining Shivakunda and Chakdebankura villages are classified as Protected Forests and comprise 125 ha and 222 ha respectively. Shivakunda's forests fall within the Birsingha Beat and the Patrasayer Range, while the forests near Chakdebankura village come under the Indkatha Beat and the Sonamukhi Range. JFM was formally instituted in both Shivakunda and Chakdebankura villages in the early 1990s. The areas surrounding the villages had been deforested to such an extent that it was possible to catch sight of towns situated seven to eight kilometres away. Sal (Shorea robusta) is the dominant tree species in both Protected Forest areas. According to the Forest Department's Working Plan division, there were 1520 and 950 sal trees per hectare in Chakdebankura and Shivakunda respectively in 2011. Nearly 60% of the sal forests in both villages had trees older than 10 years. Forest restoration was mainly through natural regeneration (WPD 2011).

Local community involvement in Forest Protection Committees

Forest Protection Committees (FPCs) were set up in Shivakunda and Chakdebankura villages under the direction of the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO). All the heads of households from each village along with the village level forest guard were members of the FPC. The ex-officio committee member included a representative from the gram panchayat.

The FPCs were responsible for patrolling day and night to protect the forest from illicit felling, incidences of fire, and unregulated grazing. Participation of all member families in daily patrolling was mandatory. In Shivakunda, for example, a nuclear family whose male head lived and worked outside the village was represented by his brother, who otherwise stayed separately, for patrolling duties. A fine of INR 50 (USD 0.70 approx.) was imposed if a family failed to join the patrolling group in Chakdebankura especially during the fire season. Collection of firewood, dry leaves and non-timber forest produce for subsistence and income generation was free. Outsiders who came to collect dry leaves were charged between INR 70 to 100 per buffalo/bullock cartload (USD 1 to USD 1.50 approx.), depending on the volume of dry leaves.

Redistribution of power between village community and state actors

There was minimal alteration in the role of the Forest Department bureaucracy within the FPCs. Under JFM policy guidelines, the role of the village-level forest guard was to change from policing the forests to keep out local populations to local-level partnership within the FPC. Despite this redefinition, the Forest Department bureaucracy continued to maintain control. The village-level forest guard was appointed as the Member-Secretary of the FPC, which effectively made them the functional head and bestowed significant discretionary powers to decide on legal uses of forests, fine or arrest people who were seen as violating the rules (Vasan 2002). The forest Beat and Range Officers were ex-officio members of the FPC but had supervisory roles, whereas the gram panchayat representative who was an ex-officio member of the FPC had no specific say or influence over forest management.

Discretionary power

In contrast to the JFM experiences in some Indian states (Vira 2005; Véron and Fehr 2011), village forest guards did not interfere much in the everyday activities of the FPCs. This was in part because they were required to oversee FPCs in multiple villages within their jurisdiction (for example, Shivakunda's forest guard was responsible for FPCs in 22 villages). The village FPCs thus made independent decisions on carrying out daily activities, framing and implementing rules regarding patrolling, and regulating local extraction of firewood and other non-timber forest produce. However, if a person was caught engaging in illicit felling, FPC members could not punish or impose fines on the offender without the approval of the forest guard. Similarly, FPC members were expected to supervise works commissioned by the Forest Department such as soil conservation, thinning or felling unwanted trees and vegetation; but were not allowed to decide whether or not to harvest timber, how much could be harvested, and from which segments of their forest. These decisions, including the setting of the final auction price for timber from the forests protected by the committees, were undertaken by the Forest Department's marketing corporation without the presence or participation of any committee member including the forest guard.

Even after two decades of JFM, the entire exercise of preparing the forest Working Plans was undertaken solely by the DFO of the Working Plan Division. Although FPCs were involved in preparing micro-plans for each village during the 1990s under the JFM projects funded by the World Bank, this process was discontinued after the project ended. During my fieldwork, while the process of Working Plan preparation was underway, there was no active participation of either the FPC members or their Member Secretaries in prioritising or decision-making for planning important silvicultural activities like plantation, thinning and harvesting. Likewise, the office bearers and the Member-Secretary of the FPCs could only nominate names for new memberships. The discretionary powers related to sanctioning membership or dissolving the FPC rested primarily with the DFO. Such concentration of power at the Forest Division level led to a crisis of accountability.


The general perception in the two villages was that the DFO and their subordinate bureaucrats were unsympathetic towards local people's priorities. There was no direct or regular interaction between the DFO and any member of the FPC. It was because of this absence of interaction that the Shivakunda FPC members could not clarify their suspicions regarding the prices set by the Forest Department for firewood bundles in 2009. Four households stated that they had applied for membership in the FPC but received no explanation from the DFO for why they had not been granted membership for more than a decade. Both Shivakunda and Chakdebankura FPC members noted that the DFOs had neither visited their forests nor met with them ever since JFM was initiated in the area. One committee member strongly felt that “if the divisional forester meets committees once in a year, he could hear our problems from our mouth rather than hearing from his staff” (Field Interview, 29 June 2010).

The Range Officer, who is placed between the DFO and the Beat Officers and village-level forest guards is normally responsible for federating FPCs at the range level and convening meetings periodically to address inter-committee issues (Fleischman 2016). However, one Range Officer pointed out that “in the current set-up of the Forest Department, the Range Officer is responsible for maintaining 28 files. In addition, he is also the drawing and disbursement officer and must attend court cases. Where is the time for people after all these?” (Field Interview; 27 June 2010). Range Officers convened meetings primarily to garner the support of the FPCs for events like the celebration of Forest Week. No major issues related to forest management or Working Plans were discussed in these meetings. Consequently, there was the widespread feeling within the FPCs that the Forest Department was non-transparent and that there was no genuine commitment towards JFM (Field Interview, 13 May 2010).

The complete absence of discretionary power within the FPCs resulted in a lack of downward accountability. While village households were held accountable for following the rules regarding forest use and protection, the office bearers and Forest Department officials had no accountability towards them. The FPC office bearers were elected every two years through a process where their names were proposed by a powerful local lobbyist in the presence of the forest guard. “The local bureaucracy always goes with village elites as they find it easier to coordinate with the power centre of the village”, said one villager (Field Interview; 16 Feb 2011). This 'cursory manner' (Manor 2004: 191) of conducting elections of office bearers was one reason why the FPCs were upwardly accountable to the Forest Department officials than to their village constituents. When contentious issues arose, the FPC officer bearers often simply passed on the responsibility to the forest guard, citing his role as the Member-Secretary. The forest guard, in turn, would claim to be powerless and refer the issue to the Forest Department officials above him. One member complained, “whenever we tried to take any issue with the forest guard or Beat or Range Officer, we were told that these decisions came from or would be taken at the higher level” (Field Interview, 5 May 2010).

Physical Space

The FPCs did not have a dedicated office or place to meet [Figure 3]. Members mentioned that in the early days when JFM was being set up, meetings were conducted at the local school premises or in an open area of the village (Field Interview; 19 March 2010). Later, as interest declined, regular formal meetings were discontinued and intermittent meetings were held in the homes of FPC office bearers to discuss forest protection and management issues. This situation meant that those people who did not get along with the office bearers found it difficult to attend the meetings and consequently had less access to information and no way of expressing their concerns (Field Interview, 18 Nov 2010). In the absence of a regular meeting schedule, the village households had no knowledge of when the forest guard would visit their village so that they could register their complaints. Although the forest guards were responsible for maintaining records of meetings and activities, these were kept in the homes of office bearers. Computers were available at the level of the Range Office, but there were no technically trained staff to regularly update and upload records of forest committee activities.
Figure 3: Representation of Local and Government Representatives, their Powers, and Physical Space in local governance Note: 1Divisional Forest Officer 2Power to approve & dissolve forest committees, to grant & disqualify membership, to plan & implement Working Plan. 3Range Level Committee 4Beat Level Committee 5District Commissioner/Collector 6Block Development Officer

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   Decentralisation in Gram Panchayats Top

As described earlier, the Panchayati Raj system is constituted at the district, block, and village levels, namely the zilla parishad, the panchayat samiti, and the gram panchayat respectively. The gram panchayat encompasses an electorate of roughly 10,000-12,000 persons across a cluster of rural settlements. The representatives of all three panchayat tiers are directly elected every five years. The District Commissioner and the Block Development Officer of the state civil administration function as executive members of the Zilla Parishad and Panchayat Samiti respectively [Figure 1].

Birsingha and Dhansimla gram panchayats were responsible for undertaking all development works related to education, health, agriculture, irrigation, and infrastructure. Each gram panchayat spent 90% of its time in planning and implementing projects, and the remaining 10% was devoted to public services, such as dispute resolutions, identifying beneficiaries, and issuing certificates. With the advent of MGNREGA, more time was spent on planning and implementing the schemes. As part of the MGNREG Schemes (MGNREGS), the gram panchayats were responsible for receiving applications for job cards and job demand, registering names, preparing plans, providing employment and wages within a stipulated timeframe, and updating all information online on a regular basis. In 2009-10, around 67% of the total gram panchayat funding was allocated for implementing MGNREGS (Field Interview, 11 May 2010). In 2011-12, the Dhansimla gram panchayat allocated around 87% of its total budget for MGNREGS (Field Interview, 16 Feb 2010).

Local community involvement in village governance

The gram panchayat committees comprised at least one representative from each of the villages within their jurisdictions. They instituted the legally mandated requirement of having one-third elected women representatives in their committees. The term of office for the gram panchayat committee was five years. The Dhansimla gram panchayat had 12 elected representatives and the Birsingha gram panchayat had 10 elected representatives. The Gram Pradhan, or head was elected from among the representatives of the gram panchayat. The Birsingha gram panchayat was headed by a woman. Members of the gram panchayat received approximately USD 600 and USD 1140 as honorarium and travel allowance respectively in Birsingha in 2009-10 (Draft Annual Audit Report 2010).

The elected members were integrated into the sphere of governance with administrative support and guidance provided by a team of government officers, which included the Secretary, Executive Assistant, civil engineer, overseer, computer operator, and other support staff. These were lower-level permanent staff of the state government (Gupta 1995) mainly recruited from local communities through the mandatory reservation (affirmative action) system. For example, all permanent officers in Birsingha gram panchayat belong to the Scheduled Tribe (ST) community as it is categorised a reserved ST constituency. In 2010-11, the Birsingha gram panchayat employed a civil engineer and a computer operator as temporary staff because there were no ST candidates to fill these positions. The lower-level bureaucracy oversaw the overall administration for the gram panchayat including day-to day transactions, planning, and maintaining financial records. Temporary staff was hired mostly from the local area primarily to support the monitoring of MGNREGS implementation and for the management of data bank. In Dhansimla gram panchayat, temporary staff were hired for supporting implementation of the Backward Region Grant Fund project and MGNREGS.

Redistribution of power between village community and state actors

The Gram Pradhan is empowered to take the final decision in planning, allocating funds, and implementation of projects. As one Gram Pradhan explained: “Within the gram panchayat, the planning process followed a bottom-up approach in which potential schemes were first identified at the village level meetings. With the beginning of MGNREGS, the gram panchayats were advised to identify additional projects, which could be kept as 'shelved projects', and would only be implemented in case of the sudden demand for work” (Field Interview, 15 Feb 2010). The powers of state administrative officers were realigned to play a facilitative and advisory role and provide technical and administrative support to the panchayat committee. The Secretary maintained the overall administration while the Executive Assistant handled financial matters under the supervision of the Gram Pradhan. For example, once the gram panchayat committee identified potential projects to be carried out under the MGNREG scheme; the Secretary along with the engineer and Executive Assistant prepared estimates and the final plan document, which was then reviewed by the Gram Pradhan and members.

The elected members of the gram panchayat were thus the prime decision makers and the lower-level bureaucracy was answerable to them. Differences of opinion between the gram panchayat committee and state officials was generally resolved through discussion. The Secretary noted that in an extreme case of disagreement, the government officers could write a 'note of dissent' but could not prevent the panchayat committee from taking a decision (Field Interview, 16 Feb 2011).

The government officers working with the panchayats also facilitated dispute resolution between elected members from opposing political parties. In one instance, when a group of men belonging to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) protested against the Birsingha panchayat and demanded that MGNREGS wages be paid in cash rather than direct transfer to bank accounts, the Secretary intervened to explain the procedures and pacify them.

Discretionary power

The elected panchayat members were delegated full discretionary power over local decision-making, including the complete authority to allocate and spend funds from the central and state governments that were directly earmarked for the gram panchayat. The Gram Pradhan along with panchayat committee had full authority to appoint temporary staff, for example, computer operator and supervisor for project implementation (Field Interview, 11 Nov 2010).

It is important to note that the discretionary power of the elected panchayat members over local decision making, and the subordinate status of the local level bureaucrats of the gram panchayat were unique for West Bengal, in large part due to the former Left Front government that was in power between 1977 and 2011. In many other states in India where the Panchayati Raj System was not strongly institutionalised by the governments, the panchayat members did not enjoy equal amount of autonomy in decision making (Interview, 7 July 2010).


The gram panchayat committees held regular meetings with the panchayat samiti and zilla parishad. The main objective of these meetings was to get the allocation of funds for projects which were funded by them. The Block Development Officer met all gram panchayats once a month, generally on a fixed date. In addition, the Sabhapati of the panchayat samiti called three meetings of all gram panchayats every month to review the overall status of revenue and expenditure, development projects, and the progress of MGNREGS. All Gram Pradhans attended the yearly Zilla Parishad meetings to discuss and pass the annual plan and budget (Field Observation, 2 Feb 2011).

The discretionary power held by the elected gram panchayat committee left little space for evading downward accountability to their village constituents. While the lower-level bureaucracy provided support for project implementation, record-keeping, and other procedural matters, the elected panchayat office bearers sometimes found themselves in a challenging position to balance downward and upward accountabilities. As one Sabhapati of a panchayat samiti said: “I represent the people's voice and wish in the block, whereas the Block Development Officer is responsible for maintaining official procedures. Whenever there is a conflict between the people's demand and official requirement, my role becomes critical. I either have to convince the officer to work out some way to fulfil people's wish or have to convince people to reconsider their demands” (Field Interview, 2 Feb 2011).

Although my interaction at the offices of the panchayat samiti (block-level) and zilla parishad (district level) offices was limited, I observed similar power dynamics that Tiwari (2004: 134) described where “the bureaucrats work in tandem with panchayat leaders.” The regular exchanges between the three tiers of panchayat governance and the state administrations at these levels ensured both commitment to local issues and accountability for projects and decision-making. One Gram Pradhan remarked, “If I cannot convince local officers but think something really important for my people or area, I try to pursue such issue through block or district level leaders whom we meet in meetings.” (Field Interviews, 31 Jan 2011).

However, the relationship between upward and downward accountability proved to be a grey area of power negotiations between the elected members and local bureaucracy. On several occasions, I observed the Secretary of the gram panchayat had significantly orchestrated the decisions related to project design or allocation of funds in the budget under the pretext of adhering to rules and policies. One tribal member reported that the Secretary, who was a non-tribal, bargained with tribal members of the panchayat to share the funds for tribal-welfare related schemes with the general populace. The Secretary used the veiled threat that if the tribal community members were not ready to share these funds with the general people, then the general welfare funds would not be shared with the tribal community (Field Interview, 29 June 2010).

Physical Space

Overall, the gram panchayat offices operated as miniature versions of a state-level minister's office where public servants and technical experts work under the direction of the elected members. The gram panchayats had dedicated offices that were housed in two-storied buildings. They followed the normal work schedule of government offices. The Gram Pradhan and Deputy Pradhan spent at least three to four hours each day at the panchayat office, while other members visited the office from time to time. Each office was equipped with desktop systems, laptop computers, printers, and broadband internet connection. Since grid electricity supply was irregular, the offices had power backup systems for computers. The computers were operated and maintained by dedicated trained personnel.

The electronic infrastructure and presence of trained government staff allowed the panchayat to maintain up-to-date records of finances and local development activities. In particular, they were able to upload data on MGNREGS implementation on a regular basis and monitor these from local to national levels. One panchayat member observed, “There has been an improvement in the state of infrastructure with the beginning of MGNREGS” (Field Interview; 16 Feb 2011). One former central Minister noted that the improved infrastructure conditions in the panchayat offices “was possible as the percentage of establishment cost was enhanced from four to six percent for MGNREGS” (Interview, 4 Dec 2010).

   Discussion Top

The underlying philosophy of decentralisation is not to take the state away from the institution of governance but to redefine the relationship between the state and local citizens (Sivaramakrishnan 2000). The induction of local actors adds an additional layer into the existing hierarchical system of governance (Faguet et al. 2014). This is often achieved by developing an appropriate “technology of rules” which obliges state actors including local bureaucracy and higher officials to see the poor as clients or citizens (Corbridge et al. 2005), and thereby provide space for a local voice in public policy and decision making. In the case of the gram panchayat, for example, the state bureaucracy was present in the governance system but the roles of government officials were tailored to provide administrative and technical support. One state-level bureaucrat observed that:

”Today in India, bureaucracy is there for the support, legal guidance, and technical knowledge, whereas elected representatives decide development activities with the local wisdom, wish, and knowledge. In a mature democracy, the bureaucracy has learnt to adapt and adjust to these situations.” (Field Interview, 21 Feb 2011)

The participatory political-institutional approach to decision-making (Ribot et al. 2006: 1881) did not occur in the FPCs. The Forest Department bureaucracy neither provided administrative and technical support to the FPCs nor involve them in policy making for their forest areas. In the absence of institutional reforms to ensure mandatory engagement of FPCs in policy development and implementation decisions, the Forest Working Plans remained 'technical' rather than 'grounded' visions emerging from deliberation and negotiation between local and specialist knowledges. Even in the few cases where roles were redefined to empower FPC representatives in decision making, the new responsibilities lacked concomitant authority. In other words, despite two decades of implementing JFM, the state Forest Department bureaucracy maintained full control over decision making with little to no participation of their main local 'partners'.

Several scholars of India's JFM have highlighted the asymmetric distribution of discretionary power between the Forest Department and local communities (Sundar 2000; Springate-Baginski and Blaikie 2007). They, however, overlook the hierarchical power structure and internal dynamics of the Forest Department and its impact on the overall decentralised governance. As this study shows, the FPCs maintain an illusion of autonomy (Sivaramakrishnan 1998b) because neither the elected representatives nor the Member-Secretary (the local forest guard) were able to exercise discretionary power and implement their collectively determined decisions. Even routine matters such as approving household membership in the FPCs were decided by higher levels of the Forest Department bureaucracy. There was absolute concentration of power at the level of the DFO and FPC members were not included at auctions for timber harvested from their forest areas. In contrast, the gram panchayat representatives held significant discretionary powers and were assisted by state government staff to make and implement collective decisions on local issues. They rarely sought approval for routine decisions on local matters from higher level state government administrators.

The concept of 'space' is used in the decentralisation literature to indicate the extent of local engagement in public policy making (Cornwall 2004). My study supports this idea further by showing the importance of 'physical space' in strengthening downward accountability in decentralisation [Figure 3]. The designated physical space of the gram panchayat office provided rural citizens with an opportunity to directly interact with their representatives every day, and to hold them accountable for problems related to implementation of MGNREGS and other projects. The office was well-equipped with the computer infrastructure and internet systems for building the database which could be used by the panchayat committee for monitoring and transparent decision-making. The regular presence of state government officials at the panchayat office allowed for a supportive working relationship to develop between the state and local representatives for understanding bureaucratic procedures and systems in the process of governance.

In contrast, the lack of a formally designated space for interaction between FPCs and Forest Department officials became a barrier for developing a stable partnership for effective local governance of JFM. The 'virtual' space of JFM meant that FPCs could not maintain records of their conservation efforts, update membership data, or manage their finances; and citizens could not register their grievances. This resulted in a system of forest governance that was upwardly accountable to the DFO but non-transparent and non-inclusive with regard to daily decision making at the local level.

Finally, my ethnographic approach was critical for gaining an overview of the systems of decentralised governance and understanding the everyday politics of the governed in rural areas. During my fieldwork observations of daily encounters with the 'live process' of decentralised governance in the two villages, I was struck by the contrast between the vibrant atmosphere of the gram panchayat office and the silent and isolated environs of the forest Beat and Range Offices. As I continued my participant observation, I encountered more evidence for understanding the importance of 'physical' vis-a-vis 'virtual' spaces in local governance in establishing downward accountability.

   Conclusion Top

This comparative study of decentralised governance in forest protection and rural development in West Bengal shows the differential impact of designated and non-designated spaces of interaction on the politics of governed (Chatterjee 2004), and its impact on the nature of downward accountability in both contexts. When compared with gram panchayats, the institutional reforms embodied in JFM have not devolved discretionary power for decision-making to FPCs that exist within the same panchayat jurisdictions. The unwillingness of the Forest Department hierarchy to provide FPCs a portfolio of administrative support and physical space led to ineffective decentralised governance. Unlike the gram panchayats, there was no mandatory requirement for women representatives in the FPCs and no fixed provisions for compensating FPC members for travel expenses and time spent in meetings with the Forest Department. The differences between the gram panchayat committees and the FPCs underscore the significant disenchantment among local communities in Shivakunda and Chakdebankura towards both the Forest Department and JFM.

My comparative study reveals that the successful implementation of decentralised governance critically depends on a facilitative physical space and effective portfolio of state support so that local community representatives can exercise their discretionary power for decision making on local needs and issues. It shows how gram panchayats have been far more effective in developing an inclusive and transparent system which retains the support of diverse interest groups within communities and other layers of the state, unlike JFM where local voices remain symbolic in local, state, and national-level decision-making on forest use and management. The implementation of JFM in India has largely misrepresented the agency of local actors who, in reality, have very little influence over forest conservation and management policies and practices. The 'joint' in Joint Forest Management remains an illusion for local communities that are aware of more effective examples of decentralised governance of their gram panchayats.

In a society ridden with social, political, and class divides, collaborative partnerships between state and local actors, inclusive physical spaces and necessary infrastructure are critical to ensure inclusive and transparent decentralised governance. Decentralisation of forest governance in India is yet to provide such conditions for local communities to exercise discretionary power through their institutions for deepening public space and accountability for forest protection and conservation. Unless these issues are urgently addressed, the already disenchanted local actors are likely to be further alienated from forest conservation efforts and render their forests more vulnerable to deforestation and degradation.

   Acknowledgements Top

The primary work for this paper was conducted at the University of Manchester (UK) as a PhD research. I am grateful to Dan Brockington and Philip Woodhouse for their guidance and critical feedback during the PhD research. I thank the two anonymous reviewers and Haripriya Rangan, the senior editor, for their insightful comments and suggestions. Dan Brockington and Harry E Fischer provided valuable feedback to improve the initial draft. The paper was first presented at the Fourth Annual FLARE meeting held at the University of Copenhagen in October 2018.

Declaration of competing/conflicting interests

The author declares no competing interests in the conduct of this research.

Financial Disclosures

This research was funded by the University of Manchester (UK) as a PhD research.

Research Ethics Approval

This research was approved by the Ethics Committee of the University of Manchester (UK).

Data Availability

The data is not accessible due to privacy restrictions.

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  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3]


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