In recent times, we have come to witness many new forms through which the state has sought to engage people in processes of governance. Among them, the creation of local institutions for representation, deliberation and decision making at the village level is perhaps the most important.
Seldom existing in isolation, these local developmental institutions intersect, interact and, at times, overlap with other local institutions. What shape participation eventually takes within these developmental spaces is thus contingent not only on the dynamics taking place within them, but also to a large extent on their relationship with coexisting local institutional spaces. This article explores the institutional dynamics within and between local institutions, for forest management in the hilly villages of Uttaranchal in northern India. Shaped by institutional procedures, by actors with affiliations and interests across other spaces, by competing perspectives on forest management and by a variety of forms of participation ranging from formal representation to employment to inclusion in deliberation and decision making, the dynamics of participation within spaces such as Uttaranchal’s village forest protection committees (VFCs), is complex.
Creating and institutionalising spaces such as these, the article argues, provides necessary, but insufficient conditions to ensure the democratisation of participation. It shows how multiple versions of participation coexist within the spaces created by a single developmental project, in this case Joint Forest Management (JFM). Practices, which treat people as beneficiaries, those which treat them as users/consumers who need to pay for the services, and those which make them citizens with the right to elect their representatives, demand transparency and accountability overlap and exist simultaneously. It is this complex intersection of normative ideals and practices which influences participation, as we encounter it in the villages of Uttaranchal.
Institutional spaces,Iargue here, are vulnerable to contestations and conflicts of various kinds, which means participation does not remain a virtuous normative phenomena, though the normative desirability of participation remains unquestioned. Such spaces are never created in a vacuum, they react upon already existing spaces, on spaces which are simultaneous and overlapping and on the wider social-economic-cultural setting in which they are embedded. Even when they are created by exterior agencies, institutional spaces cannot be seen purely as an external or state creation. A certain amount of interest articulation, through overt or covert protest or through deliberation and negotiation, has generally gone into the shaping of what later comes as invited forums. Such spaces are constantly being created, altered, defined and redefined, with positive promise amidst manipulation, misuse and abuse. Even the most unpromising of institutions may open up possibilities for learning the skills and arts of governance, which people can use in other spaces. Spaces can emerge as arenas of solidarity as well as contestation, which may move between relative openness and closure over time. Lastly, whilst institutional spaces exhibit some of the dominant characteristics associated with “invited spaces” (Cornwall 2002; Gaventa 2002), they acquire characteristics of the setting in which they are located. As such, the article suggests, whilst these institutional spaces have the potential to create certain conditions for participation and democracy at the local level, they can also restrict its possibilities and therefore must not be conflated either with participation or with democracy.
This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 35.2 (2004) Institutional Dynamics and Participatory Spaces: The Making and Unmaking of Participation in Local Forest Management in India