Rethinking participation


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THIS is an attempt to widen thinking about community, participation and natural resources beyond the dominant discourse on environment and development. It is based on the contention that in the past four decades this discourse, backed by powerful financial, technical and communication resources and systems, has marginalized or co-opted independent and alternative research and experimentation by academics, activists and communities in the field.

The exercise begins with an examination of the genesis and nature of prevailing concepts and efforts of ‘community participation in natural resource management’ in government and non-government projects of forestry, watershed development, pasture improvement and conservation. These are shown to be part of the command systems of state-corporatist management of people and natural resources from the local to global levels. It is argued that as such they are inimical to the values of community, autonomy, justice, sustainability and diversity. This is followed by a brief exploration of other ways of looking at and dealing with the concept and reality of community. The concluding part is a reflection on the prospects and potential for communities and their natural resources in the light of their own traditions, inner character and the forces impinging upon them.

In modern development, nature and people are treated as resources. These are contested domains, both in reality as well as conceptually. During the last 50 years three conflicting trends have shaped research, policies and practices related to resources. The most powerful thrust has been that of state and corporate sector led consumerist economic growth involving more and more extensive spatial and temporal control of natural and human resources using the enormously increased power of money, management institutions, media, information technology and, when necessary, force of arms.

The second influence has been that of environment movements shaped by concerned citizens and scientists from the ’60s onwards. These have raised issues, created public awareness and brought about change in policies to protect and restore earth’s resources. The most marginalized and least organized expression has been that of the local communities of people directly related to natural resources for their livelihoods, cultures and identities.

The main contention among these three has been between the forces of economic growth and those for conservation and prudent use of resources. At times this has been resolved, more rhetorically than actually, through compromises such as ‘sustainable development’. As a rule consumerist economic growth has had its way. The communities, their natural resources, cultures, identities and sensibilities have suffered at the hands of both the developers and environmentalists, except when the latter have joined hands with communities in their struggles. These also gave rise to initiative and innovation for finding solutions by the communities themselves, as in community forest protection in Aribari in West Bengal, the Chipko movement and in watershed development in Ralegaon Siddhi.



Community participation in natural resource management is a sub category of techniques and methodologies known as ‘participatory approaches in development’. These emerged in the ’60s after the failure of top-down bureaucratic and transfer of technology models applied earlier. The bureaucrats, academics and management professionals drew upon the technical aspects of the successful experience and learning of communities and activists to formulate new participatory strategies and mega projects for large agencies.

Many of the problems in these efforts arise from this standardised upscaling accompanied by funding and centralized control. The involvement of management professionals in development programmes brought the influence of organization theories and marketing methods in industry and business. Many activist intellectuals who had become involved with mass movements and protests in this decade saw in participatory approaches an opportunity for empowerment of the poor and oppressed. Some went as far as to conflate the rhetoric of Marx, Gramsci and Freire into the terminology of planned and managed social change to justify their shift from revolutionary praxis to participatory modes. In so doing they converted learning from and with the community into participatory social research. Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) is a specific approach developed by Robert Chambers in the context of projects of natural resource development. It has become the most widely elaborated and adopted methodology to promote community participation by non-government organizations, government and international funding agencies, including the World Bank.



In current usage the term ‘community participation in natural resource management’ has a methodological connotation. ‘Community participation’ is an integral component in projects for improvement of land, water and vegetation resources. ‘Community’ refers to local groups of users, beneficiaries, stakeholders who own, use and have access to these resources and have been identified as such in the projects. ‘Participation’ means taking part by these groups in consultations and actions for planning, execution, maintenance and benefit sharing. This is done both informally and by setting up formal committees, cooperatives and other organizations which, invariably, include local functionaries of government or non-government agency to provide guidance, maintain financial control and undertake training.



Forest protection committees in joint forest management, watershed committees, irrigation users’ groups and tree growers and fodder cooperatives are the better known instances of these arrangements. These are always project initiated and set up by functionaries from outside the community. Their rules, resources for functioning and constitution are provided by the project agency in standard formats.

These are generally devoid of conceptual and historical depth regarding the ecological, existential and socio-cultural characters of communities in diverse settings. A more serious difficulty arises from the cognitive gap between the objective and instrumental rationality of the developers and the self-defined identity, world-view and specific knowledge basis of communities. Even when this is recognized there is no will or competence to bridge the gap and final planning and activity is done within the technical and economic parameters of the projects with only lip service to people’s knowledge.

From the beginning there was skepticism about the efficacy and claims of participatory approaches. Some of us felt that these needed to be subjected to closer examination in the light of our own experience. It was realized that there were limits to acquiring adequate understanding of our societal and ecological situation through these exercises, that we had to find insights and idiom that were organic and echoed the impulses and aspirations of people.

There was a time when we had this. Swaraj and Swadeshi were expressions of our own power. Over time we allowed ourselves to become captives to the schema and vocabulary of international development business and could do little but play the word games designed for us. However, we could see and say that people’s participation in ongoing development was different for the elite and for masses. The participation of the latter was somewhat akin to the participation of bullocks in the ploughing done by farmers. There was no doubt as to whose decision and design was paramount in this work (Saint 1980). Given these reservations, several well-known voluntary organizations did not adopt these approaches in their work.

Serious critiques of participatory approaches began to appear in the late ’80s (Majid Rehnama 1992) and have culminated recently in their virtual denouement by a group of researchers with backgrounds in anthropology, development and management (Cooke and Kothari 2001). They have analyzed the context, theory, techniques and practice of participatory approaches.



Being heavily embedded in international aid and development policy, these approaches are seen as instruments of global capitalism with or without government involvement. As a cultural concept the genesis of participatory development can be traced to European Renaissance in the economic and political spheres and to Reformation in the religious domain. These epochal changes promised liberation from old orthodoxies and direct participation in Enlightenment, Progress and God’s grace. In fact they created new orthodoxies with new forms of dependence and control. Participatory development promises empowerment but is unable to bring about liberation from established structures. Worse, it ends up with new kinds of dependence and domestication.

As Henkel and Stirrat argue, ‘In the contemporary world, participation as an administrative or political principle eases authoritative force, in turn placing responsibility on the "participants". In the language of discourse theory, participatory approaches "afford" certain subject positions to the participants, and thus, to some extent, presuppose and shape "participants" from the very beginning. But this is done in ways not always foreseen by exponents of participation. It is in this sense that we suggest that participation, counter-intuitive though it may seem, is a form of governance – in fact the ultimate modern form’ (Cooke and Kothari 2001, p.179).

The roots of these problems can be traced partially to what Partha Chatterjee calls the change of concept of people from communities and citizens to population in government policy. According to him, ‘With varying degrees of success, and in some cases with disastrous failure, the post-colonial states have deployed the latest governmental technologies to promote the well-being of their populations, often prompted and aided by international and non-governmental organizations. In adopting these technical strategies of modernization and development, communities have often entered the field of knowledge about populations – as convenient descriptive categories for classifying groups of people into suitable targets for administrative, legal, economic or electoral policy’ (P. Chatterjee 1998, p. 280).



Thus, one of the outcomes of the application of participatory methods is the redefining and reconstitution of communities and the idea of community in accord with the needs of the programmes of development and administration. From being self-defined, face to face communities with internal organic relationships, they become groups of stakeholders, beneficiaries or target populations in the framework of projects. In order to understand the diminishing and distortion this involves, we need to turn more to in-depth views of communities as social/spatial entities and of community as a concept as they have taken shape in recent history.



Community in vital relationship with nature is the primary condition of human social existence on earth. In the evocative words of Martin Buber, the philosopher of community and dialogue, ‘The essential thing among all those things which helped man to emerge from Nature and, notwithstanding his feebleness as a natural being, to assert himself – more essential even than the making of a "technical" world out of things expressly formed for the purpose – was this: that he banded together with his own kind for protection and hunting, food gathering and work; and did so in such a way that from the very beginning and, thereafter, to an increasing degree he faced the others as more or less independent entities and communicated with them as such, addressing and being addressed by them in that manner. This creation of a "social" world out of persons at once mutually dependent and independent differed in kind from all similar undertakings on the part of the animals, just as the technical work of man differed in kind from all the animals’ works’ (Martin Buber 1950, 1996, p. 130).

More than making possible human survival, it provided the nurturing ground and social synergy for the unfolding of myriads of cultures and ways of life as elements of human civilizations. Of necessity to begin with and increasingly by choice, it gave rise to self-reliant and self governing units based on participation (in the sense of being part of and partaking), mutual aid and cooperation among members.

The most common form of natural resource based community historically has been the village community and it continues to be so even today. These were never isolated. There were constant dealings, including conflict, with neighbours and with others further away. Elaborate modes of prudent use of nature with social (sacred and secular) restrictions on misuse and over-exploitation, worldviews, knowledge and techniques were evolved. Occasionally they broke down under internal and external stress but were modified, revived and restored.

These communities of hunter-gatherers, peasants, pastoral and fishing people, artisans, traders, labourers, healers, artists and religious devotees, with constant overlap and interaction among them, continued to be in existence and formed the vast majority of humans well into the modern times. They still constitute the majority of people in Asian, African and Latin American countries. However, their condition has undergone enormous change for the worse in the last 400 years.



The process began in Europe with the emergence of the concepts of the sovereign state on the one hand and of the sovereign individual on the other. It continued in successive stages of development of capitalism and modernity and was extended to other parts of the world through European conquest and colonization. The miseries, devastation and, at times, decimation of entire communities led to resistance, revolts and movements for liberation from the colonial and post-colonial yoke.

This situation also generated studies related to the plight of these communities and to policies of governance and development as part of an effort to understand the evolution, historical development, organizing and functioning of human society, especially in the last two hundred years. Starting with the reports of administrators, explorers and travellers and the emergence of social sciences, peasants and tribal communities became the subject matter of study by human and social geographers, anthropologists and sociologists. These provided the empirical basis for the formulations of the systems of diverse social/historical explanation by thinkers like Karl Marx, Peter Kropotkin, Max Weber and others.



Along with these studies, in the course of the development of the actual systems of capitalism, imperialism and socialism, there were intense debates about the future of these communities. The general view was that they are likely to be transformed by new modes and relations of production and governance. In the later thinking of Marx there was ambiguity where the possibility was allowed for the building of a socialist order based on revitalized rural communes in Russia, provided their external constraints could be removed by the revolution. However, Marx saw no future for them in the capitalist course Russia had launched into. Only the utopian socialists and anarchists in the West, Mao in China, Nyerere in Tanzania and Gandhi in India saw in these communities the potential for a more cooperative and caring future for humankind.

The development decades of the ’50s and ’60s triggered a spate of studies, including in rural sociology and extension education, focused on peasantry in the Third World, mainly to facilitate transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture and from tradition to modernity. Post-colonial research, such as Subaltern Studies, threw up new ways of looking at history and society in non-western countries, recognizing the survival and legitimacy of little traditions in the overall continuity of civilizations.

The development and environment crises of the ’70s and ’80s gave rise to studies of common property regimes, environmental history, community based conservation, and sustainable development. More recently a parallel stream of cultural studies, focused on traditional and indigenous knowledge and practices in natural resource use, has provided new insights from peasant, tribal, feminist, ecological and spiritual angles. These studies range across the whole spectrum of political and social thought and can be broadly categorized as communitarian, statist and capitalist, depending on the relative importance they assign to social, political or economic factors.



How are these communities faring today? This question is explored first on the basis of three case studies of self-initiated efforts of recovery and protection of common pastures by predominantly tribal villages in South Rajasthan (Saint 2000).

Two of the cases, Keli and Jogion ka Guda (JKG), are of revenue villages whose initiative was supported by Ubeshwar Vikas Mandal (UVM), a local voluntary organization with membership of Bhil tribal people in village communities. It has focused on actual existing communities in hamlets and villages with livelihoods partly based on family holdings of cultivable land and pasture, shared water resources, common village pastureland and revenue and forest land. Primacy was given to self recognition by the community regarding its common pasture and defining its responsibility to recover, restore and protect it. The third, Seedh, is a self-governing Gramdaan village constituted as such under the Rajasthan Gramdaan Act 1971 and supported by its traditional purohit or ceremonial priest, a Brahmin from a nearby village.

These cases are examples of communities that continue to exist in close relationship with their natural resources all over South Rajasthan. They maintain a strong material and cultural grounding in their locale even though their livelihoods are only partially based on resources in their control. Despite the partial formalization and market orientation of ownership and transaction of resources, communities continue to exist around their assets, icons and modes of communication, both secular and sacred. These take the form of community regulation of the commons, mutual help and shared support in labour, savings and credit, knowledge, techniques and implements, and customs and traditions around life cycle events, seasonal and religious festivals.



In times of crisis like periodic droughts and scarcity there are collective responses of migration and pleas and pressure for relief by government and non-government agencies. Traditional elders take the lead in this with support from younger educated members to negotiate projects and organize local operations. People rely on them to ensure equitable opportunity for benefits and regulated use of assets in consultation with the community. In these struggles for subsistence and survival in adverse conditions there are internal conflicts as in JKG and with external forces as in Seedh.

Outside agency support brings its own inputs, system and ethos for the community to deal with. Very different patterns of interaction, each unique in its own way, and different outcomes are brought out in the three cases. Keli shows traditional coherence with strong elders’ leadership, own capacity for recovery, ability to define own terms to deal with and take advantage of political, welfare and development opportunities available through various agencies in order to strengthen and sustain its resource base. Seedh’s experience is strongly influenced by the traditional authority and idealism of the village purohit. This found resonance in traditional common land based solidarity of the community, helped it to recover control over this asset and to move towards a self-governing Gramdan village with statutory recognition.

Overall these efforts and experiences demonstrate that, as actual existing social-spatial entities, local communities define themselves and hold together around their commons. They have a body, mind and will of their own. Their body is their land. In North India rural areas are called dehat from deh, which means land as well as body. Common land is called shamlati deh and a village is called pind which again means body. Their mind is their knowledge and wisdom about themselves, their resources, their traditions and the systems around them. Their will is their capacity for collective decisions in a complex matrix of kinship, occupation, livelihoods and external dealings.



As mentioned earlier, the private profit driven forces of global capital and market have come to dominate the state in the latter part of the last century and through the state the communities and their natural resources. ‘Community participation in natural resource management’ is the current modality of indirect control of communities by capital. This is the conditionality that defines the existence of natural resource based communities now being reconstituted by the programmes of sustainable development.

What are the prospects for natural resource based communities in this interplay of their own identities and the participatory strategies of the dominant systems of individualist/consumerist capitalism? The question can be considered in various ways. Here we shall take two aspects. One of these concerns ‘communities’ as project groups. This is a given identity with external aid defined participation which is partial and instrumental. Full participation means self-defined and self-designed community control and responsibility over resources and decisions. Only this can ensure sustainability. This also means that communities as project groups and institutions are not sustainable. Their life span is that of the project.



Politically, community participation in natural resource management and democratic decentralization can be seen, to paraphrase Partha Chatterjee, as relocation of state and capital in community necessitated by a combined ecological, economic and governance crisis. This dialectic can work either way. It can facilitate the penetration of state and capital in communities to undermine their coherence and culture, take over their natural resources and transform them into elements of market economy and consumer culture. Alternatively, it can provide an opportunity for communities to revitalize themselves, recover and regenerate their resources and, in due course, bring about a different kind of development.

Both patterns and possibilities can be discerned in various projects. However, the overwhelming tendency is towards the dominance of capital and market forces with state support. Concurrently, mainstream development continues to cause ecological damage, displacement, land alienation and loss of employment among the communities. Even participatory projects lead to cheap, even free, use of labour of the poor to build assets for the rich.

Over the past two decades these problems have been highlighted by movements focused on displacement, loss of resources, common lands, rights to resources and tribal self-rule. A perspective around ‘environmentalism of the poor’ (Ramachandra Guha 2000) has evolved to shape environment protection and development policies to support natural resource based communities. Central and state legislation recognizing self-defined tribal communities and enabling their stake in their natural resources have been put in place (Panchayats – Extension to Scheduled Areas – Bill, 1996).



There are also moves in some states to decentralize governance to empower actual village and hamlet communities through gramsabhas (Madhya Pradesh) and neighbourhood groups (Kerala) to influence decisions for resource use and development. At the global level, on the high table of corporate capitalism, ‘community’ is the ‘in’ word with benign declarations of hope for ‘reducing world poverty, and doing so in a manner consistent with a clear social and environmental conscience’ (Ian Johnson, Vice President, World Bank, in Environment Matters 2001).

Does all this portend an inner turning of capital and state, a new rationality? It is too early to say, and no categorical answer can be given. It all depends on contingencies and choices that have to be addressed in each situation by different actors. The foremost in these are the self-concept, confidence and values of communities themselves in responsible, knowledgeable and caring relationship among members and with their natural resources. Their comprehension of the larger forces impinging upon them and their own position in these processes is also crucial. There are also questions and choices for activists and intellectuals as to their own understanding, stance and role towards the systems and communities.



There are issues of state policy and governance, of rights of communities for control of natural resources and their capacity to manage them, of their right to information and of administrative and political regimes conducive to prudent and non-destructive use of resources, especially by market forces and urban-industrial interests. Above all there are questions of human values, our faith in these and our choices for community and care of nature or for selfishness and power. The prospects for communities and humanity hinge upon all these considerations and upon shaping our profession, practice and living in accord with what is right. There are signs of these beginnings in communities, movements, academic studies and policy changes all over the world.



Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia, Syracuse University Press, 1950,1996.

Partha Chatterjee, ‘Community in the East’, Economic and Political Weekly, 7 February 1998.

Environment Matters, World Bank, 2001.

Ramachandra Guha, Environmentalism – A Global History, OUP, Delhi, 2000.

Heiko Henkel and Roderick Stirrat, ‘Participation as Spiritual Duty; Empowerment as Secular Subjection’ in Bill Cooke and Uma Kothari, Participation: The New Tyranny, Zed Books, London, 2001.

Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid, Freedom Press, London, 1902, 1987.

K. Marx and F. Engels, Pre-capitalist Socio-Economic Formations, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1979.

Wolfgang Sachs (ed.), Development Dictionary, Zed Books, London, 1992.

Kishore Saint, ‘Development and People’s Participation’, Social Action, Indian Social Institute, Delhi, 1980.

Kishore Saint, ‘Sivipasture Management Case Studies’, Ubeshwar Vikas Mandal, Udaipur and Natural Resource Institute, Greenwich, 2000.