May 31, 2020
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Big Brother Handshake

Ownership and empathy: the solid fuels motoring development schemes

Big Brother Handshake
Anyone judging the state of the nation from the daily headlines may be extremely confused. Stories of scandal, corruption and poverty jostle side by side with accounts of a 'Shining India' leapfrogging into the 22nd century. But there is also another reality, which is buried somewhere in page 5, or completely missing altogether. This is the story of ordinary people achieving extraordinary transformations through out-of-the-box solutions, and innovative partnerships. Here's a tiny sprinkling of this silent revolution.

Water and watersheds: Villagers and city-dwellers are increasingly collaborating with civil society organisations (CSOs) or government agencies to harvest water locally, rather than depend on expensive, unreliable sources from afar. Several hundred villages in Rajasthan and Gujarat have been transformed from drought-prone to water-sufficient due to the combined efforts of residents and CSOs like Tarun Bharat Sangh, Seva Mandir and Utthan.

Forests/grasslands: In Uttaranchal and Orissa, villagers protecting forests have formed federations at regional and state levels. This inter-community partnership provides crucial avenues to share experiences and present a unified voice to the government. Also notable is joint forest management (JFM), a partnership between the forest department and local communities that has spread to 14 million hectares across 27 states of India since it began in 1990.

Wildlife: At the troubled Manas Tiger Reserve and Biosphere Reserve site in Assam, local CSOs Green Forest Conservation and Nature's Foster worked with villagers through a period of intense political upheavals involving militancy and state repression. They facilitated the creation of a number of protection committees for forests and the endangered golden langur. At thousands of other sites (collectively called 'community-conserved areas'), local people are conserving crucial wildlife habitats.

Agriculture: In over 70 villages of the arid Zaheerabad area of Andhra Pradesh, the Deccan Development Society has worked with Dalit women farmers and grassroots scientists to achieve food self-sufficiency, eliminating the use of chemicals, reviving almost 100 traditional varieties of crops, and linking the public distribution system to local production. Similar work by the Green Foundation with farmers in Karnataka has transformed lives and livelihoods.

So why is it that these initiatives have worked, while others have floundered? Why do the thousands of crores of rupees the government spends on rural development and natural resource management, ostensibly with the collaboration of CSOs and communities, hardly show any result? What are the key ingredients of success and failure for a partnership in natural resource management?

One is the quality of the partnership. Mutual trust, equality in decision-making and sharing benefits among partners are crucial. In most supposedly participatory government schemes, the government has full control, thus generating little 'ownership' among communities. This is why JFM, despite its phenomenal spread and many success stories, has often been a failure. Even in the case of many CSOs, the sheer money and information power they possess relative to the communities they "work for" makes the relationship unequal and often short-lived.

Second, most government schemes and CSO projects are short-term, don't manage to empower local institutions, and collapse once these agencies withdraw. Sometimes they even undermine existing community work. In Kailadevi Sanctuary in Rajasthan, well-functioning forest protection committees started by the villagers were taken over by eco-development committees under a World Bank/GEF project. Most of these did not last beyond the time period of the project, and the self-initiated committees could not be revived.

Most crucial is that laws and policies and schemes meant for development and conservation remain in the clutches of a cynically powerful partnership among a handful of politicians, bureaucrats, and businesses. Constitutional amendments to ensure decentralisation are over a decade old, but gather dust as those in power refuse to let go. They have been effective only where people have struggled to take control. Real democracy is not about voting once in five years, but about being able to participate in decisions that affect your lives.
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