by Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, New Delhi: Centre for Science & Environment 1989 pp. 52.
Ecology and environmental concerns constitute serious business today. Agitations 'apart, great deal of money is available or unavailable depending upon the stand one takes on these questions. Faced with criticisms of environmental insensitivity in both the biggest lender (U.S.A.) and the biggest borrower (India) countries, World Bank has been spurred into action, injecting "environmental awareness" in its lending-for-development operations through the help of hired environmental consultants and floating "proposals of "debt for nature swap" programmes aimed at protecting the forests and thus the globe. In our own situation, we have seen the ongoing debates(?) between the "development" oriented people and the environmentalists in the contexts of Tehri dam and the Sagar Sarovar across the Narmada.
The development environment nexus in our situation has been highlighted for over a decade by the existence of movements such as the Chipko Andolan. In the document under review, a design is proposed whereby some kind of partial resolution of the contradiction between the processes of development and preservation or up gradation of environment may be achieved. The authors, both from the Centre for Science and Environment which is famous for publication of the State of Our Environment reports, have drawn upon their data-bases and their knowledge of various environmental movements efforts in India in proposing such a design. Their proposal appeared at a time when the Union Government was actively engaged in pushing through the ill-fated.”Panchayati Raj" Amendment. The authors themselves arc conscious of this, and suggest that the envisaged political process can be helpful in achieving their objective.
The authors start by pointing out the enormous "subsidy" that our economic system receives by (way of inputs from various ecological processes - inputs such as firewood, fodder and water, the determination of whose economic value is difficult and uncertain. The size of such contribution is very large: for example, almost 50% of the total energy usefully consumed in India is derived from biomass or, the manufacture of industrial products such as paper is dependent upon the nearly arbitary fixation of price (lowest possible) for pulpwood. While the determination of the actual contribution of biomass to the economic process is difficult, one may obtain some idea of its size by noting that the replacement of present annual con-sumption of biomass used in cooking alone by other fuels would require 370 million tonnes of coal (current annual production is 230 million tonnes) or 70 million tonnes of petroleum (larger than our present annual consumption of about 55 million tonnes). The problem takes on newer dimensions when one considers the fodder requirement of 1100-1200 million heads of cattle (according to the livestock census of 1977). Based on subsistence-level norms of fuelwood and fodder requirements, it has been estimated that by the year 2000, the country would require 300-330 million tonnes of firewood, about 780 million tonnes of green fodder and about 500 million tonnes of dry fodder annually. All these are products of land which must also cater to the requirements of food and cash crops.
This, the authors point out, is a problem which is more serious in its impact on development than "poverty", and call for refocusing of economic growth and-rural development programmes on "one major aim (which is) to increase biomass in an equitable and sustainable manner". Doing so is critical because the productivity on increasingly large fraction of India's 260 million hectares used in biomass production is "very low or even declining". The authors propose that achievement of such an objective should be an integral aspect of the "democratic decentralization" moves aimed at "devolution of powers" to "the village communities".
The authors outline their thesis of "ecosystem-specific development", which is premised on the argument that "ecologically sound land-use must differ from one ecosystem to another". They suggest that the planning system "must devolve down to the level of India's ecosystems (an illustrative list of 16 ecosystems is drawn up) so that a framework for ecosystem-specific development can be prepared". And the action must take place at "the human settlement - in other words, the hamlet" while any attempt at coversion of such an approach into creation of "area development authorities" must be resisted.
The thesis is elaborated with an "action framework" which both provides substance to the thesis and derives prescriptions. The principal argument here is that biomass development should be perceived by the village community to be an aspect of the overall complex of "vested interests" which guarantee their own survival. The thrust should be towards building up of an attitude whereby the community regards the commons, vital in meeting its grazing, fuel or even water needs, as their own and treat its preservation as an integral component of their own subsistence survival. The present approaches of State Forest Departments or the National Wastelands Development Board, involving social forestry on the commons or its "privatisation" (e.g. distribution to the landless families) are found inadequate in tackling the problem of "alienation of the commons". The authors propose that the commons should be handed over to a communitarian body, to ensure its regeneration upkeep so that the local needs of fodder,' fuel can be met the regenerated or preserved commons may also act as micro watersheds, improving catchment.
These are the material benefits and the authors bring up suggestions concerning certain structural changes in the local institutions to ensure proper distribution of benefits and sustenance of the management of the eco-regeneration preservation process. In this respect, the existing panchayats are found inadequate because of their size, mode of election of the executives, limitations due to forest and water laws and the exigencies of financial administration. The authors observe that the present day panchayats are the products of village factionalism whereas unity within a community is the primary requirement for good natural resource management". Further, a panchayat often consists of more than one village (on the average "there are 29 j villages per panchayat in Assam, and in Orissa and West Bengal about 11") because of which "environmental management mediated through the panchayat often leads to inter-settlement tensions". The failures of social forestry schemes in Maharashtra and Gujarat, mediated through village panchayats, are cited as example.
The present regulations and laws relating to forests were evolved during the British rule' and "have totally destroyed the traditional systems of village management (with the result that) the village communities have lost all interest" in protection and management of their land and water resources. In an effort to contain this "alienation" the "land and forest laws must become more rational both from a scientific and a social point of view so that we can get both people's involvement and ecological regeneration". Enactment of such "enabling laws" related to land/forest or water use will lead to a situation where "the people are encouraged to take the initiative to develop their natural resource-base". The authors believe that in addition to such measures, transfer of money, earmarked for rural development in the union budget, direct: to the redefined panchayat institutions (i.e. limited to one settlement in scope, unanimity rather than majority as method in decision-making etc.) will be necessary for eco-development.'The role of the government (union or state ?) may be changed to one involving "spread of education and ecological awareness, information dissemination, training and technical assistance, appropriate research and setting up a national corp of scientific and ecological workers". The authors, to illustrate their points, cite the examples of the successes of village communities in Sukhomajri (Chandigarh), Bemru (U.P.), Seed, Brahmano ka Verda (Rajasthan) in management of the commons leading to augmentation of the "natural resource-base" namely, the commons. Routine doubts about the proposed scheme, such as misappropriation of funds, overexploitation of the commons ("natural resource-base"), inconvenience to nomadic (pastoral) groups etc., are also sought to be answered by the authors.
So, here is a strategy for linking up economic growth or subsistence with environmental concerns, with a new version of the village institutions acting as the link. The proposal to use the panchayat or the Grama Sabha as a vehicle in managing the process of eco-development is indeed a novel one. But it must be pointed out the fascination with "village institutions" which will so enthuse the villagers that they may offer "free labour" to carry out their programmes is well-rooted in the colonial age. The mid-nineteenth century British administrators in the Madras (or even Bombay) Presidency talked of "reviving" the "custom" of kudimaramath whereby the villagers would contribute free labour to the upkeep of canals, reservoirs and waterworks because doing so was crucial to their own survival. Of course, the participation was to be mediated by local bodies. Much later, after Independence, concerns about the use of panchayats, grama sabhas or similar village institutions in carrying forward the developmental process were taken seriously. In the 'fifties. Community Development Programme and the National Extension Service were latched on to the activities of the village bodies after a high-powered committee (Balwantrai Mehta Study Team) had recommended it. About the recommendations of this team, it is said that they' evoked great interest and stimulated considerable thinking in the country. The country was in a receptive mood. The Community Development Movement had come up against the barrier of popular apathy. There was search for a proper and adequate solution. When Democratic Decentralisation, which has now come to be known as Panchayati Raj, was suggested as the proper answer, there was considerable emotional warmth in the acceptance of the suggestion by the Government as well as the people. It was felt as though a key to regenerate our stagnant and tradition-ridden rural society was found. The country was long familiar with the idea of Panchayats [and] here was the right time to implement it. The basic apparatus of the Community Development was already there. It needed to be taken over by popular bodies so that they might put more life into it.... Panchayati Raj is sought to be judged in many ways. It is judged primarily as a system of local government and also as an instrument of Community Development. In the context of widespread poverty and the low level of social services, Panchayati Raj without development would be a barren and sterile concept. Development is essential and vital (2).
Thus, the objective of the existence, and promotion of the Panchayati Raj institutions was sought to be seen in its role as a carrier of the process of Development as understood and enunciated on different occasions in the present instance. Development is redefined to be regeneration of the environment.
Not only in this matter, in regards to the sizes of Panchayats too, there was some deliberation in working out the sizes. The Rajasthan study team on Panchayati Raj (whose report was just referred to) considered this issue in detail (including eliciting responses on the issue by way of circulating a questionnaire) and, based upon perceptions of administrative and economic viability, access and the need to discourage sectarian and caste groups from "taking over", recommended a population of 2000-2500 per panchayat (according to census 1961). About the need for unanimity in decision-making within the community, Jayaprakash Narayan had this to say (3):
The community can never be at war with itself: one part of it fighting the other (albeit democratically), and the majority ruling over the minority. Such kind of political battle is possible only in mass society, where there is no community..... The polity of Panchayati Raj, or communitarian polity, must not copy the polity of mass society.
We thus find that sentiments and strategies similar to what is said in this document have been expressed time and again, almost within a generation. The focus and the programmes differ, but the concerns are the same. It appears that this was the trend with the discussions and debates on the role of bodies such as the Panchayat in 'directing the overall movement of the polity. For example, in the Madras Presidency there have been three major attempts in 1880, 1907 and in 1946 . The first attempt at creating or peared to have initial success: "revival" of local institutions of "self-governance" ar the local bodies "grew in strength, did substantial amount of work in terms of construction and maintenance of roads, starting and maintenance of hospitals, schools, dispensaries, etc.," But an impasse was reached in about 20 years, with the officers of the Presidency Government insisting on exercise of control over these bodies. The Royal Decentralization Commission of 1907, set up to examine the administrative structure of the whole country, also gave its recommendations on the local bodies. Partly due to this, and due to the wide ranging discussion on the subject during 1909-1920 (it is said that more voluminous material details from Reference (4)
was published during this decade than any other time subsequently) a new enactment was made to give shape to local institutions but the whole thing more or less collapsed by 1940, with the Presidency Government assuming full authority to control all activities of the Panchayat. Discussions and consultations during 1946-1958, quite similar to those that took place in 1910-1920, resulted in the enactment of the Panchayat Raj Act of 1958. This of course, took place within the framework of the constitution which accords an insignificant status to the village bodies. By the present decade, what situation the panchayat bodies all over the country got into is wellknown, and this document is itself an indictment of what they are today.
We stated all this only to point out there is some continuity in the concern and efforts at "revival" of village bodies and their possible roles in what may be called "developmental processes". There have been repeated failures, with neither the village bodies nor the processes becoming functional. At the core seems to be the problem that the power and authority that the village institutions could and did exercise have never been comprehended. The British designs in this respect were rather high in clarity in that the village bodies could exercise no real authority but were to be used according to the then fashionable Western notions of "popular participation" in affairs of the state. At one time upkeep of "public works" may have been suggested to achieve this end and at other times, some other. Since the locality institutions were perceived to be mechanisms to teach Indians "the art of self-governance", they were "guided" in their activities by standing orders, manuals and GOs of various kinds. This rule of codes, procedures and norms that constitute the rule have more or less crippled the locality institutions. For example, even today the reading rooms in village panchayats are regulated by instructions, set down to the minutest detail, issued from the state secretariat. The prevalent attitude in the last forty years has been that the village institutions have no real authority vis a vis the constituted governments, namely, the State and the Union governments. Depending upon the circumstances, these bodies may be asked or "guided" into doing anything which the real rulers think important: it could be maintenance of waterworks, or community development, or agro-technological education extension, or eco-development. The foci are different, but the attitudes remain the same. To this extent, it is our belief that this document does not offer possibilities of a conceptual departure, but generates yet another developmental scheme.
their activities by standing orders, manuals and GOs of various kinds. This rule of codes, procedures and norms that constitute the rule have more or less crippled the locality institutions. For example, even today the reading rooms in village panchayats are regulated by instructions, set down to the minutest detail, issued from the state secretariat. The prevalent attitude in the last forty years has been that the village institutions have no real authority vis a vis the constituted governments, namely, the State and the Union governments. Depending upon the circumstances, these bodies may be asked or "guided" into doing anything which the real rulers think important: it could be maintenance of waterworks, or community development, or agro-technological education extension, or eco-development. The foci are different, but the attitudes remain the same. To this extent, it is our belief that this document does not offer possibilities of a conceptual departure, but generates yet another developmental scheme.
1. Ashok Parthasarathi in Procthe National Workshop on Applications of High Tech. for Rural Dev. Part A Madras: Murugappa Chettiar Research Centre, 1988.
2. Report of the Study Team on Panchayati Raj Panchayat and Development Dept., Govt, of Rajasthan, 1964.
3. Jayaprakash Narayan "Foreword" in Panchayat Raj as the Basis of Indian Polity (by) Dharampal, New Delhi: AVARD, 1962.
4. Dharampal, The Madias Panchayat System VolJI: A General Assessment Delhi, Impex India, 1972.