Are project created institutions sustainable?

RANJITA MOHANTY

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ADVOCATING participation in development has now become a fetish in projects implemented by the national government. Unlike in the ’70s when the notion of participation in development projects was reluctantly accepted under pressure from international aid agencies and voices emanating from the local level, it gained wider acceptance in the ’80s and by the mid-90s became mandatory in all development projects.

Formation of village based institutions is one among many ways of involving people in developmental activity and eliciting their participation. Village level institutions (VLIs), as representative bodies of people residing in the same village, are initiated by project officials through a people’s mandate. The purpose of forming village level institutions, as one grasps from the project documents, is to provide people ownership of the project by making them an integral part of decision-making, giving them control over their resources, autonomy to implement the project, and carry on the process even after the project period is over.

Bringing people to the centre of development by incorporating the element of participation in developmental projects, such as through the formation of VLIs, recognises that social reality is complex and there can be multiple interpretations of that reality. Therefore, the people’s interpretation of their own reality is to be treated as the most authentic one. Privileging people’s understanding means not only privileging their interpretation, but also local knowledge and methods of intervention.

Second, is a recognition that the community is not a homogenous entity. Different groups are placed differently in the social structure and that determines their access and control over scarce resources. Third, it recognises that participation and power are intrinsically related. Developmental interventions will not bring about equity unless they address the issues of exclusion and marginalisation, and until the marginalised are able to influence resource distribution and control the forces which impact on their life chances. Last, it recognises that the practice of democracy and decentralisation in decision-making – the decisions that affect local reality – are to be taken at the local level.

 

 

Whether participation is to be treated as a means or an end is an old debate. In treating it merely as a means, the act assumes importance, whereas when participation is treated as an end or a value to be cherished and promoted, it becomes a process. Initially, the participation of people in development was sought with a view to successfully implement projects. With the passage of time participation became a value to be promoted because including the voice of the marginalised and excluded people in development was thought of as a way to bring them at the centre of development.

This shift from an instrumental to a normative view of participation in government run developmental projects is reflected in the evolution of various mechanisms to seek the inclusion of excluded groups. However, an acceptance of the normative view of participation does not necessarily mean that the instrumentality of participation is abandoned. There is a tacit understanding that it is far easier to achieve targets with participation than without it. This mixing and matching of instrumental rationality of participation and the intrinsic values associated with it, as we will encounter in this paper, has given rise to ambiguity and affected participation in many different ways.

The inclusion of community participation as policy and in the project is a step towards the inclusion of people in effecting changes that have implication for their lives. However, this per se is no guarantee that participation as desired would take place. If VLIs are designed to function as a forum for participation, the critical issue is of their sustainability, both in spirit and form.

Looked at from this angle, the issues that have a bearing on the sustainability of VLIs can be framed as: Are VLIs truly participatory in character? What is the nature of their representativeness? Whose decisions and voices count and whose go unheard? What are their lines of accountability? Are they accountable to the people? Can people take the functionaries of VLIs to task in the event of a deviation from the goals? Does the formation of VLIs reflect the spirit of participatory democracy? Do they work towards the cohesion of society or give rise to conflict and fragmentation? What are their linkages with other participatory fora that operate at the village level?

 

 

If we examine these questions in the context of Gaon Resource Management Associations (GAREMA), village level institutions formed by the Doon Valley Integrated Watershed Management Project, their sustainability over a long period of time would appear doubtful. The DVP was implemented by the Watershed Management Directorate, Government of Uttar Pradesh (now Uttaranchal), Dehradun during 1993-2001 in seven sub watersheds and 43 micro watersheds mostly in Dehradun district1 and covered a total of 400 villages. The European Community provided the financial grant for the project.

The aim of the DVP was to reverse the ongoing degradation of the Doon Valley environment. The physical component of the project included forestry, livestock, horticulture, minor irrigation, agriculture, soil conservation and energy conservation. Garemas were formed in each village to ensure community ownership of and participation in the project.

 

 

Each Garema has a general body of which all village adults are members. The general body selects an executive committee (EC) that functions as a link between the villagers and project officials, helps implement the project and maintain assets created after the project is withdrawn. The membership of EC is limited to 7-11 persons and it has three functionaries – chairperson, secretary, and treasurer – who are office bearers.

The DVP emphasises adequate representation of weaker sections, viz. women, lower castes and tribals in the EC. A Garema’s EC is formed in a village meeting in the presence of the project staff who act as facilitators to ensure that the EC has adequate representation of weaker sections. In case conflicts arise at the meeting they intervene to resolve it.

Garema helps in implementing the project which includes identification and planning of the work to be undertaken annually, distribution of items like pressure cookers, feed tubs for cattle, fertiliser, seeds, setting up of gobar gas plants, solar heaters, construction of rainwater harvesting and water storage tanks, etc. It has to seek the involvement of people in project work such as plantation and check dam construction.

The DVP operates on the principle of reciprocal obligation which implies that the beneficiaries also bear the costs of the project. One way is through contributing labour for plantation work, check dam construction, construction of water storage tanks and so on. This may be done in two ways – either by providing free labour during implementation of the project, instances of which are rare, or when they work as labourers for the project, a part of their wage is deducted and deposited in a revolving fund, which is the village fund. The intention of the revolving fund was to invest Garema with financial resources so that it could maintain assets created by the project.

 

 

Since the DVP also links watershed management with improvement in living standards of people, Garema is responsible for granting loans for income generation activity, meeting personal crises, social obligations, etc. Loan recovery is also its responsibility, as is maintaining accounts of the revolving fund, minutes of meetings, list of beneficiaries, and records of expenditures. This facilitates the maintenance of assets created by the project after it is withdrawn.

The structure of Garema as a forum for participation has two dimensions: as a representative body of the village, the EC of Garema itself stands for and signifies people’s participation. But alongside it must seek wider participation and cooperation of people in the project. The issues of sustainability, therefore, have to be located both at the level of the EC as well as the general body of Garema.

The formation of Garema post the process of Participatory Rural Appraisal and framing of the micro plan of action limits its participatory role. Simply handing down a micro plan turns it into a mere implementer of the project, defeating the very purpose of building it as a participatory village institution. Unfortunately the representative role has been more formal than substantial.

The reservation in membership for women, lower castes and tribals has given them a voice in the executive committee, but in a village setting which has never been inclusive of people low in social and economic ranking, the social space remains restrictive. There is a reluctance to speak out. Further, a lack of education limits their understanding of the technical nuances of the project.

Involving women in Garema has been particularly problematic. Their involvement in the project was sought by the DVP through two ways: by providing membership to women in Garema and by creating self help groups (SHGs). However, despite SHGs functioning effectively in some villages and some overlapping membership between Garema and SHG, women have failed to meaningfully occupy the social space in village meetings held to discuss project related issues.

This is because there is no proper linkage of SHG and Garema. The SHGs have their own separate plantations and the profit from selling fodder grass grown in their plantation goes to the SHG fund. Thus, barring a handful of women in each village who take an interest in project activities, overall participation of women in Garema is conspicuously low. In many cases husbands represent their wives and take decisions on their behalf.

 

 

The culture of silence in which the weaker sections, including women, live due to social and economic marginalisation is not easy to break in a short span of time. The issue of sustainability is precisely that – if participation is to be inclusive, the forum needs to be sustained beyond the project period. But what kind of a forum? To my mind a forum must at least show the promise of inclusion, evolution, and participation. With the exception of Bangakhala village where women have excelled in taking responsibility of the project and gone ahead with many income generating activities, in most villages their participation has remained severely limited.

 

 

The participation of the poor in the project has been synonymous with employment. The DVP, following the general pattern of development projects, emphasised the contribution of people’s labour whereby a certain percentage of their wage went in to a revolving fund. This was done to inculcate a sense of ownership of the project among the people. However, in an economic setting where means of gainful employment are few, employment opportunities in project work such as plantation and check-dam construction are much sought after. No wonder, it was mainly during the period of project work that people attended meetings more regularly.

Given this economic reality, once the project is completed, there is no involvement from people; their sense of ownership of the project lasts till the project lasts, as is evident from their absence at meetings after project completion. There are also disagreements between Garema and the people in the post-project management of assets created by the project and on the nature of expenditure from the revolving fund. Ironically, a large number of people who contributed to build the fund are not even aware that a portion of their wage is kept in the fund.

Transparency is maintained in the form of displaying accounts on the wall and maintaining records of expenditure, minutes of meetings, list of beneficiaries, details of the revolving fund, etc. However, Garema’s accountability to the people after project completion remained unclear. Can the villagers take Garema to task if, for instance, there is misappropriation of funds by executive committee members?

The project authorities did not think through these issues at the beginning. However, when the project reached the winding up phase, to ensure a safe handling of the revolving fund, the gram panchayat was given the authority of audit and accounting of the fund. This has made members unhappy because they feel it has reduced their autonomy and made them subservient to the gram panchayat. An antipathy has developed between the two giving rise to jealously, competition and even malice. This rivalry has created factionalism in the village that also vitiates the various fora created for participation.

 

 

This leads us to the issue of inter-relationships between various institutions operating at the village level. For Garema to be a forum for participation it must have a synchronic link with other developmental and statutory village institutions. At present it shares an uneasy relationship with such institutions. After DVP, the forest land on which plantation was done was to be transferred to the forest department. This has created uncertainties as to how Garemas would function after the forest is transferred; what would be their responsibility? In villages such as Aamwala where a Joint Forest Management Project was also implemented, there might be overlapping responsibility or even conflict between Garema and the village forest committee formed under the Joint Forest Management Project.

The linkage assumes importance for various reasons. A village institution does not operate in isolation – development is no piece-meal effort but an integrated approach to bring change. If each development project forms its own village institution, at some stage the entire population in the village will be divided into numerous institutions. That is not to say that one institution should be given all responsibility, for there is the danger of overburdening and consequent inertia. Hence, government departments responsible for implementing various projects need to coordinate among themselves to set up an institutional structure in the village that enables people to view the state as an integrated entity responsible for development and not one divided into departments having their specialised fields of operation.

Second, this institutional linkage will ensure the flow of resources even after a project is completed. Third, the danger of short duration projects obstructing participation can be redressed so that participation is not limited to a particular project, but is a process integrated with development as a whole. Last, it will minimise conflict and factionalism in the village.

 

 

If we treat participation as a process, we cannot limit it to a specific time period. Nonetheless the project has a time cycle, and that influences much of participation. While the process of getting people to organise, participate, and build institutions takes time, the project does need to be implemented in its time frame. This incongruence between social process and project duration is reflected in the lopsided development of Garema as a people’s institution.

Though representation is sought, the capacity of the weaker sections is not enhanced to participate in meetings; there is an inadequate understanding among people regarding the role of Garema; people’s involvement rarely goes beyond employment in the project and contribution of labour or cash; self help groups are formed to organise women and bring them into the social space, but they are not integrated with Garema. The leadership crisis is not resolved because the project has to achieve its target rather than meddle in village conflicts.

 

 

It would be naive to expect that people will be self-motivated to mobilise themselves and that too within a short span of time through an institution created by external intervention to take control of the affairs of Garema. In such a situation the dangers are many. A few top leaders may monopolise Garema and exclude others, interest may decline in the long run, and so on. Garema could become a misnomer for participation. Therefore, its success hinges on the balance project officials are able to maintain between implementing the physical components of the project and building Garema as an institution for people’s participation.

The formation of VLIs is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to guarantee their evolution and sustainability as a forum for participation. If the purpose were merely instrumental – that is successful implementation of the project – the sustainability of VLIs would not invite concern. But development projects, at least theoretically, aim to make VLIs longer lasting, and for good reasons.

Though the VLIs, like Garemas, have not radically altered the social landscape of exclusion and marginalisation, yet they show a promise of new actors emerging from the marginalised sections. So there are reasons to reflect upon the issues of sustainability which primarily result from three sources – the way the project designs VLIs, during the time of implementation of the project when project and people come face to face, and from the sheer dynamic nature of the community. There is a need, therefore, to address these issues in a consistent manner at all levels. The greater onus is obviously on those who formulate and those who implement projects.

 

Footnotes:

1. From 1998 onwards the project area has been extended to include seven micro-watersheds in Nainital district and 13 micro-watersheds in Tehri district.

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