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Year : 2008  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 12-23

Political Articulation and Accountability in Decentralisation: Theory and Evidence from India

Department of Geography, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 232 Davenport MC-150, 607S, Mathews Ave., Urbana IL, 61801 and Sustainability Science Program, Center for International Development, Kennedy School of Government,Harvard University, 501, Rubenstein Building, 79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA

Correspondence Address:
Ashwini Chhatre
Department of Geography, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 232 Davenport MC-150, 607S, Mathews Ave., Urbana IL, 61801 and Sustainability Science Program, Center for International Development, Kennedy School of Government,Harvard University, 501, Rubenstein Building, 79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009


New institutions created through decentralisation policies around the world, notwithstanding the rhetoric, are often lacking in substantive democratic content. New policies for decentralised natural resource man­agement have transferred powers to a range of local authorities, including private associations, customary authorities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Scholars see such transfers as detrimental to the legitimacy of local democratic institutions, leading to a fragmentation of local authority and dampening prospects for democratic consolidation. In much of this critique, however, there is limited attention to the wider democratic context (or lack thereof) and its effect on local governments. This article develops the concept of political articulation to characterise the relationship between citizens and elected representa­tives, and argues that accountability in decentralisation cannot be conceptualised or analysed separately from the accountability of higher institutions of representation and governance. The empirical analysis of the article uses the experience of a World Bank-funded Ecodevelopment Project in Himachal Pradesh, India, to generate insights into the role of political articulation in analysing decentralisation reforms.

Keywords: political articulation, institutional choice, local government, decentralisation, ecodevelop-ment, South Asia

How to cite this article:
Chhatre A. Political Articulation and Accountability in Decentralisation: Theory and Evidence from India. Conservat Soc 2008;6:12-23

How to cite this URL:
Chhatre A. Political Articulation and Accountability in Decentralisation: Theory and Evidence from India. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2008 [cited 2020 Jul 14];6:12-23. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2008/6/1/12/49198

   Introduction Top

As the products of previous conflicts and confrontations, institutions have embedded in them the sediments of ear­lier struggles.

-Florencia E. Mallon

DECENTRALISATION in natural resource management is about community agency. The natural resource manage­ment literature uses the terms 'participatory develop­ment', 'community-based conservation' and 'social capital' to imply that decentralisation requires actors in place-based relationships who have the willingness and capacity to act collectively towards desired goals (Cham­bers 1997; Uphoff et al. 1998; Pretty 2003; for a critique see Williams et al. 2003). As Gaventa (2002) puts it, de­centralisation can open spaces to encourage citizen en­gagement through inclusive participation, leading to new kinds of local agency. Projects invariably start with the premise that capacity is lacking, and seek to improve it through programme interventions (Ribot 2004; Grindle 2007). While the significance of community agency is obvious and accepted as being central to successful de­centralised natural resource management, the sources of such agency are less clear. While some projects and poli­cies may build community capacity to engage, it is hardly plausible that the target communities had no capacity or agency before the interventions. Participatory institutions at the local level are often designed to build capacity in ways that overlook the sources of pre-existing capacity and agency. More importantly, projects tend to focus nar­rowly on capacity, defining it as a technical or managerial problem (Grindle 2007).

Constraints imposed by development policies and pro­jects are in tension with impulses unleashed by wider processes of social and political mobilisation, often through participation in democratic politics (Sivarama­krishnan 2000; Goetz & Jenkins 2001; Gidwani & Sivaramakrishnan 2003). Such participation provides commu­nities, as indeed individuals within communities, with ideological and operational resources to harness collec­tive energies for common goals. The neglect of local agency in decentralisation policies may be hindering creative solutions to local problems (Turner 1999). A ro­bust literature in political ecology has documented in his­torical detail the manner of resistance of local communities to state efforts at resource appropriation in many parts of the world (Guha 1989; Guha & Gadgil 1989; Peluso 1992; Neumann 1998). If communities are correctly ascribed agency in resisting state resource ap­propriation, we need to understand the role of this agency in responding to bad policies, attempts to shape good policies and the appropriation of space provided by good policies. More importantly, we need to understand why and under what conditions do communities mobilise to oppose the imposition of institutional forms that they deem to be inappropriate to the situation and the role played by the wider political context in mediating com­munity agency.

The implicit assumption that states are predatory and communities are powerless, underlying most arguments for 'participatory' forms of interventions, is being chal­lenged by analyses of democratic interactions between citizens and state institutions in several less developed countries (Tendler 1997; Gibson 1999; Saberwal 1999; Andersson et al. 2006; Chhatre & Saberwal 2006b). Scholars need to focus on how communities-self­defined and self-realised-act on their priorities and as­sume an agency for their objectives. Research must look beyond stated objectives of particular policies to what the constituents are doing through and inside the institutions created by such policies. The degree to which particular projects or policies enable (or disable) community agency depends on the larger democratic context and the role of political parties and electoral institutions is critical in new democracies (Kohli 1987; Williams et al. 2003). This article argues that accountability of local govern­ments cannot be conceptualised or analysed separately from the accountability of other/higher institutions of rep­resentation and governance.

More recently, attention has been focused on the de­mocratic potential of decentralisation reforms, and the politics of institutional choice in community-based natu­ral resource management (CBNRM) that leads to frag­mentation of local authority and attenuation in the legitimacy of democratic local governments (Ribot 2003; Manor 2004). While it is indisputable that transfer of powers to parallel institutions would reflect poorly on the legitimacy of democratically elected local governments as perceived by their constituents, it is by no means axiomatic that local governments would inevitably suffer from such imposition. The relevant issue, therefore, is to examine the conditions under which a plurality of gov­ernance institutions at the local level weakens or strengthens local elected government (Ribot 2007). Where local governments are endowed with sufficient autonomy and resources, communities and sub-groups within are more likely to channel their agency through local governments to influence the implementation of policy and the functioning of parallel institutions. Local governments are located at the bottom of a pyramid of in­stitutions for democratic governance, often in close prox­imity to the communities affected by state policies. A coupling of community agency with local governments will reinforce their legitimacy and authority. Addition­ally, the location of local governments in a hierarchical network of governance institutions will enable communi­ties to harness the power of local authorities in influenc­ing higher levels of government. Such linkages between community agency and local governments are neverthe­less incumbent upon the opportunities that the wider de­mocratic context provides. They are represented by the articulation between social movements, electoral institu­tions and political parties.

Political articulation can be defined as the degree to which citizens and citizen groups can influence policy through democratic institutions. Rather than being a static property of a political system, it is determined by the in­stitutional architecture governing representation at multi­ple levels, as well as the degree of competition between political actors for the privilege of representing social in­terests. Disarticulated political systems are characterised by the alienation of elected representatives from their constituents, following from a lack of incentives to respond positively to demands from below. Accountability, in this formulation, is a function of the level of political articula­tion in the system. Citizens are more likely to hold repre­sentatives accountable in an articulated political system.

The accountability, or lack thereof, of decentralised in­stitutions is perhaps irrelevant in a disarticulated political system, at least from the broader normative standpoint of the democratic potential of decentralisation policies. Lo­cal institutions created through a 'perfect' decentralisa­tion policy will fail when located in a disarticulated political context. The examples of fiscal decentralisation in Senegal (Juul 2006) and Uganda (Livingstone & Charl­ton 2001) illustrate this failure. The success of CBNRM policies, or other decentralisation initiatives that seek to reformulate institutional arrangements at the local level, depends on the extent to which new or old institutions are made accountable through the interaction of multiple processes at different scales. An articulated democratic system will enable local communities to influence local institutions. At the same time, the level of articulation in the political system will determine the degree to which communities can harness the accountability of higher in­stitutions of representation in making local governments accountable.

Political articulation is a dynamic outcome of interac­tions between the structure of electoral institutions, the competition between political parties, and patterns of po­litical participation and mobilisation. Decentralisation policies, whether they involve devolution of power to elected local governments or creation of parallel institu­tions, create spaces for engagement of citizens and civil society with state agents. The effects of such policies on local governments depend on the level of political articu­lation. In highly articulated political systems, citizens can use the spaces created by decentralisation to hold local elected representatives accountable. Accountability is a critical component for realising the democratic potential of decentralisation policies (Ribot 2004). The central question is not whether institutions are downwardly ac­countable, but the manner in which they become so. The long list of mechanisms for encouraging downward ac­countability that scholars of decentralisation have gener­ated only serves to highlight the political process through which citizens and citizen groups engage with their repre­sentatives in order to hold them to account (Ackerman 2004).

Policies that create new institutions for decentralised natural resource management or other objectives will per­form better when implemented in a democratic system with a high degree of articulation between political actors at different levels. The literature on accountability con­veys a very low opinion of elections, almost always de­picting them as 'crude instruments' of accountability (Agrawal & Ribot 1999; Blair 2000; Devas & Grant 2003; Olowu 2003). Following Sivaramakrishnan's (2000) call for more 'ethnographies of political action', I take elections as the starting point of political engage­ment for citizens, as an integral part of a repertoire of mechanisms linking individuals and communities to their representatives. In a highly articulated political system, regular elections serve to amplify local agency, enabling communities to hold representatives accountable. Con­versely, in disarticulated systems, citizens have limited opportunity to influence policy through engagement with the democratic process, often in spite of regular elections.

With so many actors at multiple levels involved in making representatives downwardly accountable, 'ac­countability in decentralisation' must be considered a dy­namic process. It is a process whereby accountability is constructed actively, and is subject to unfolding iterative cross-scale interactions between multiple actors, rather than being a static component of decentralisation policies. Just as ecology has benefited from attention to non­equilibrium dynamics, the study of institutions stands to gain from a de-centering of focus from the conceptualisa­tion of institutions as equilibria, and towards attention to the dynamic context within which institutions must per­form. 'Emphasis on flux is a major marker of the idea of nature at the millennium' (Zimmerer 2000: 356). Some­how, this shift seems to have passed by the debate on in­stitutions and institutional change, particularly in the context of decentralisation and/or CBNRM. Flux is an appropriate marker of the idea of democratising societies as well, with multiple actors at different levels competing for access to political space and public resources at a fe­verish pace. At the same time, 'With its impulse to create plural structures of political decision making, democracy combines awkwardly with development, which serves most often as a vehicle for elite nationalism, to create a tense field of force for modern politics' (Sivaramakrish­nan 2000: 449). The fate of any interventions, for devel­opment or conservation, can only be understood as unfolding within this field of force created by the proc­esses of democratic politics. The success of decentralisa­tion policies, therefore, is linked to the wider democratic context.

This article examines the process by which a highly ar­ticulated democratic context helps to make elected local governments accountable to the citizens in the state of Himachal Pradesh in north India. The article uses an eth­nographic account of political action in a democratic con­text where local governments became more representative and accountable to constituents. They did so through so­cial mobilisation against the World Bank-funded Ecode­velopment Project that created parallel institutions to plan and implement activities, bypassing local elected gov­ernments. Competitive democratic politics at higher lev­els and its articulation with localities provide the mechanism for citizens to enlist local governments in communicating their grievances, thereby strengthening local democracy. Regular elections at three levels enable the cross-scale articulation of democratic politics, and al­low social mobilisation against the externally aided pro­ject to be translated into downward accountability in local governments. In the next section, I lay out the larger so­cial and political context within which social mobilisation against the Ecodevelopment Project unfolded, resulting eventually in a consolidation of local democracy. Through a description of democratic politics in Himachal Pradesh, this section also illustrates the concept of politi­cal articulation, thus laying the foundation for an explora­tion of its role in enabling community agency. The third section contains an ethnographic account of the use of lo­cal governments by the nascent social movement in oppo­sition to the Ecodevelopment Project and in voicing grievances to higher authorities. It explores the roles of political parties and competitive elections at multiple scales in terms of their contribution to the dynamic con­stitution of local accountability. I conclude in the final section with reflections on the relationship between de­mocracy, decentralisation and the role of communities in natural resource management.

   Articulated and Disarticulated Political Systems Top

Amin (1974, 1976) argued that economic and social de­velopment is often constrained by what he termed 'disarticulation': a structural distortion of the economy charac­terised by the lack of strong linkages across sectors, es­pecially between sunshine sectors that are the engines of growth and under-developed sectors. Disarticulation, therefore, explains the lack of correspondence between human development indicators and levels of economic growth amongst less developed countries. It operates through the inhibition of impulses of positive social transformation ordinarily assumed to be associated with economic growth (Stokes & Anderson 1990). In this for­mulation, disarticulated systems are characterised by a duel economy, with wages at subsistence level and dy­namic sectors oriented towards the production of luxury or export goods. In such a situation, there is very low in­centive to produce consumer goods for domestic con­sumption due to lack of distributed purchasing power, leading to stagnation and under-development. Con­versely, articulated systems generate domestic demand leading to higher wages to produce goods for domestic markets, resulting in a positive spiral of overall economic growth.

Drawing on this literature, it is possible to theorise the political dimension of disarticulation; after all, the link­ages across economic sectors can be enabled and streng­thened through policy and political intervention. As an ideal type, a disarticulated political system is one in which the majority of citizens have little or no direct in­fluence on the political process. Conversely, articulated political systems provide the space and opportunity for actors to influence the political process through direct engagement. Political actors in disarticulated systems are oriented upwards within the political hierarchy, following the direction of power and authority. There are structural impediments to downward accountability. These impedi­ments are only exacerbated by vertical networks of pa­tronage and clientelism that privilege narrowly defined identities over democratic norm of citizenship. Decen­tralisation in disarticulated systems leads to elite capture, or worse, serves to mask strategies of recentralisation of power (Ribot et al. 2006).

Disarticulation in the political system is mainly a func­tion of the institutional architecture of politics. In democ­ratic polities, elections and political parties constitute two of the principal mechanisms for the translation of social preferences into policy. Policy interventions, in turn, are instrumental in enabling community agency, which could then be directed at making local governments account­able, among other objectives. Ideally, decentralisation policies create the space for demands from below and empower local authorities that can attract the attention of citizens for engagement. The extent to which political parties competing in electoral arenas will respond to popular demands or constitute enabling policies is deter­mined in the first place by the incentives that electoral institutions present. An illustration is closed list propor­tional representation systems with a large number of seats per electoral district, such as in Brazil, which are likely to act as a disincentive to political parties in responding po­sitively to any locality specific issues. First-past-the-post plurality systems with single member districts, such as in India, do not provide such a disincentive, but never­theless they allow representatives to be elected with a minority of total votes.

However, to extend the dimensions of disarticulation, a democratic system will only push political parties to­wards greater responsiveness under certain conditions (see Schumpeter 1944). High political competition at the electoral district and higher levels will push political par­ties to be more responsive towards local grievances. Fur­ther, competition between multiple parties creates conditions for winning elections with a minority of votes. It is only when political competition evolves into a two­party system, at least at the level of the electoral district, that citizens will gain leverage with political parties and their representatives. Disarticulation, therefore, signifies the absence of both enabling institutional infrastructure and high two-party political competition.

The disillusionment with the lack of deepening and consolidation after the 'third wave' of democratisation across the developing world is perhaps attributable to po­litical disarticulation. Electoral institutions are often de­signed in ways that encourage upward accountability of elected representatives. But, even with enabling institu­tional infrastructure, the pattern of political competition may also serve to discourage citizens from engaging ef­fectively in the political process. India has a system of representation characterised by low barriers to entry, with electoral institutions facilitating citizen engagement. Yet, India presents a variety of articulated and disarticulated political systems at the provincial level. These variations in levels of articulation are largely determined by the pat­tern of political competition. States with established two­party high competition pattern like Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, are examples of highly articu­lated political systems, and have the best record of eco­nomic and social development. Other states where such a system is evolving but is not yet fully established, such as Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh, have better political articulation. States with high political competi­tion but three or more parties competing as in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, or low levels of political competition, as in West Bengal, represent disarticulated political systems within India.

Democratic institutions that encourage or enable local agency through creating spaces for citizen engagement represent an institutional choice reflecting the propensity to create democratic accountability at a local level. While it is hypothetically possible for communities to hold local governments accountable in the worst of circumstances and for this process to expand from the inside out or bot­tom up, articulated political systems allow for the trans­mission of accountability in both directions in a mutually reinforcing relationship. Of course, articulation or disar­ticulation in political systems is not a static property; eco­nomic growth and distribution, demographic changes, technological progress and market penetration lead to so­cial transformations that reconfigure politics over time and reformulate the incentives of political actors, chang­ing the level of articulation. However, the limitations and opportunities provided by the institutional architecture governing politics at large exert a significant influence on the extent to which there will be any meaningful decen­tralisation, and on whether decentralisation will result in local accountability.

Looking at the enabling mechanisms for local account­ability listed by Agrawal and Ribot (1999), it is easy to see how an articulated political system is conducive to higher accountability. Vigorous media, NGOs and social movements, widespread participation and embeddedness of leaders in their community, are all likely to be more effective in a system with higher articulation. Moreover, these features of a society are often in dynamic interac­tion and tend to evolve in a common trajectory. The dy­namic nature of political articulation is best illustrated with the case of the state of Himachal Pradesh in north India. As mentioned earlier, India has a plurality system with one representative per electoral district, with the possibility of independent non-party candidates running in any election. This system allows easy entry for new political formations reflecting popular opinion at a local level, and in highly competitive situations, increases the responsiveness of political parties to local issues. As a federal system, India also has multiple layers of political representation-at local, state and national levels-that amplify the possibility of holding representatives ac­countable. Himachal Pradesh has witnessed rising par­ticipation in elections since its inception into the Indian Union as a full state in 1971. The two main political par­ties have regularly alternated in power at the state level, with only one instance of a party retaining power through two terms over the last nine electoral cycles. The periodic loss of power has forced the parties to retain an edge in mobilisational capability, and has resulted in a thriving democratic opposition to the government in power in any period. High levels of citizen participation have allowed political leaders to stay connected to their constituencies and contributed to healthy intra-party competition. Pat­terns of political competition combined with enabling electoral institutions have resulted in a highly articulated political system in Himachal Pradesh.

The high level of citizen participation in democratic politics, combined with an open and vigilant media, have forced elected representatives to be accountable to their constituents. Himachal Pradesh, amongst a handful of other states in India, boasts relatively better human de­velopment indicators such as education, health and sani­tation, nutrition and rural electrification. In contrast to most other states, every village in Himachal Pradesh is electrified and has access to drinking water. For a total of 17,495 villages, there exist close to 11,000 primary schools employing more than 28,000 teachers. They ob­viously have been functioning well, as the basic literacy rate has increased from 42 per cent in 1971 to 77 per cent in 2003, with women's literacy pegged at 69 per cent (DES 2003). The proportion of girls in school in the 6-17 years age group is a staggering 97 per cent, and Himachal Pradesh is located at the top of the rankings for almost all gender related indicators across Indian states (Dreze & Sen 2002). Minor innovations in delivery systems have had a dramatic impact on the quality of services. For ex­ample, teachers for primary schools have been recruited from within the district into a district cadre, thus allowing them to be close to their own villages. At the same time this system ensures that children are not burdened with a teacher who is ignorant of their general context. Rural drinking water supply schemes have been implemented in a completely decentralised manner. Every scheme is situ­ated on a local stream and caters to a few villages at the most, allowing the vast network of small tributaries to be tapped at source or not far from it. In other words, in its welfare incarnation, the state has been decidedly closer to the people and its functioning has been slightly more transparent than is the case with most other parts of the country.

This is not to say that tensions do not exist, but rising levels of political articulation have allowed the state, through political parties and elected representatives, to respond to societal demands in a manner that leads to ne­gotiated resolution of most issues. For example, a social movement in the 1980s mobilised large numbers of peo­ple in the western parts of the state. The mobilisation tar­geted commercial forestry policies that were replacing natural forests with monocultural plantations of species providing industrial raw materials, mainly pine and euca­lyptus. Beginning in 1983, the movement generated con­siderable support amongst citizens and extracted significant concessions from the government. In 1984, in direct response to the demands of the movement, the Hi­machal Pradesh government became the first in India to ban the planting of eucalyptus on public lands. By the early 1990s, forestry policies in Indian states had moved in the general direction of participatory forest manage­ment under pressure from donors. However, in Himachal Pradesh, the experience of the movement in the 1980s and the presence of its leaders as key NGO activists pro­vided an important check on the Forest Department in the implementation of participatory forestry projects. Within local communities, the high level of citizen participation in democratic politics and the consequent linkages to elected representatives provided the former with leverage in dealing with the consequences of imposition of 'paral­lel institutions.' Experience with communal forms of forest management, along with a long history of collabo­rative state-society initiatives, helped foster an environment of negotiation rather than open conflict (Agrawal & Chhatre 2006; Chhatre & Saberwal 2006a).

The Himachal Pradesh Panchayati Raj Act of 1994, to empower elected local governments, was enacted and im­plemented in this context: high levels of citizen participa­tion in democratic politics, accountability of elected representatives to citizens, a tradition of social move­ments, and media scrutiny of public policies and citizen grievances. With the mandate of the 73 rd constitutional amendment to devolve powers to panchayats, there was a heightened discussion on the future role of panchayats in the state. [1] The second half of the 1990s was a period of increasing tensions between panchayats and parallel in­stitutions created by externally supported projects all over the state. Donors ranging from multilateral agencies such as the United Nations Development Programme and World Bank, to bilateral agencies such as Department for International Development (DfID) (United Kingdom) and AusAid (Australia), to private charitable organisations like Oxfam and ActionAid, were implementing projects in collaboration with the state government in several sec­tors. The projects involved the creation of 'village level' committees without any linkages to constitutionally man­dated panchayats. The Ecodevelopment Project in the Great Himalayan National Park was part of a state-wide and national trend of creating 'user committees.' These encompassed education, public health, forestry, irriga­tion, drinking water and watershed management. By 2003, however, the Himachal Pradesh government and donors had converged on the choice of local elected gov­ernments (panchayats) as the locus of participatory de­velopment and/or conservation programmes. Ten years and three local elections after panchayats were empow­ered in 1994, political articulation in Himachal Pradesh encouraged greater citizen engagement with local gov­ernments, making them more representative and account­able.

   Ecodevelopment in the Great Himalayan National Park Top

Faced with mounting criticism of an exclusionary policy that displaced communities around national parks, inter­national conservation organisations have come up with a number of variants on the same theme: local communities needed to be provided with a stake in the conservation process if it were to have any chance of success (Wells & Brandon 1992). In India this took the form of ecodevel­opment. According to the logic of ecodevelopment, local communities would be provided alternative means of livelihood through a variety of development initiatives. This would arguably reduce their dependence on re­sources within protected areas. Eight national parks were chosen as sites for experimentation in the country. The projects enjoyed the support of the Global Environment Facility. Prior to that, however, the World Bank provided funds for two pilot sites: the Great Himalayan National Park (henceforth GHNP), Himachal Pradesh, and the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu (World Bank 1994, 1996; Pandey & Wells 1997; Singh 1997; Mahanty 2002). Ecodevelopment came to GHNP in 1994. Over the course of the next 5 years, approximately 70 million rupees (US$ 2.2 million) were spent as part of ecodevelopment, research and management activities in GHNP; all part of a loan from the World Bank. Since ecodevelopment was pursued in the name of the people, and required their cooperation, it was to be implemented through the agency of 'village ecodevelopment commit­tees (VEDCs)' formed at the level of a few villages. [2]

Nearly a year before the ecodevelopment funds arrived, news about the project had been filtering down to the vil­lages, raising hopes and political manoeuvrings. By early 1995, with the money in the state kitty, decibel levels in local politics had risen sharply. Through political and kinship networks, the word was out that resources from the new project were available exclusively for use in vil­lages around the national park. Local politicians, particu­larly Congress leader Sat Prakash Thakur, were the most voluble, eager to apportion credit for the development of the region. Sat Prakash Thakur was then a member of the Himachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly from the Banjar constituency, roughly half of which was included in the project area. He was also a cabinet minister for horticul­ture. The excitement percolated down the political and bureaucratic rungs, and officials and politicians started promising all manner of benefits to the only too willing local villagers. Without a clue as to the details of the pro­ject, political networks were being activated throughout the ecodevelopment zone to access that money.

The notification of intent regarding GHNP had been promulgated in 1984. Like many other similar protected areas in India, it had remained in suspended isolation since then. There was no serious effort on the part of the bureaucracy to complete the formal acquisition of rights of local communities before GHNP's final notification under the India Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972(WLPA). Under the act, all usufruct rights in a national park must be eventually acquired through compensation and extin­guished before the final notification. Until early 1995, lo­cal villagers were completely ignorant of the provisions of the WLPA and the consequences of living next to a national park. Nobody-bureaucrat, politician or scientist-had taken the trouble to explain the unpalatable provisions of the law to any section of the affected population. Ultimately, it fell upon NGOs to undertake that task. In November 1994, the issues raised by GHNP were dis­cussed in a separate session during a conference organ­ised by Navrachna, a state level coalition on forests and governance. [3] Among those present were many environ­mental activists and NGO leaders of Himachal Pradesh, along with some senior officials from the Forest Depart­ment and other state departments. The director of GHNP made a presentation on the status of the park and the up­coming Ecodevelopment Project. Evading questions on the fate of the people presently using the park resources, the director chose to concentrate on the positive outcomes that would follow from the Ecodevelopment Project.

Subsequent to this meeting, a local NGO, Society for the Advancement of Village Economy (SAVE), decided to take the information to villages in the periphery of GHNP, with assistance from Navrachna. The NGO was mainly concerned with informal education and vocational training programmes. Its leader, Iqbal Singh, became in­volved with the GHNP issue because of demands from villagers for information on the Ecodevelopment Project. When it became clear that the park authorities were ac­tively hiding the implications of the WLPA from the peo­ple dependent on the park, SAVE trained its workers to organise villagers. It began disseminating information re­garding the Ecodevelopment Project, as well as the WLPA. SAVE activists then walked through the villages on the park periphery in January 1995, holding meetings and informing people about the implications of the park for their livelihoods. In a popular expression of dissent, protests erupted around the national park in the spring of 1995. In early March, villagers blocked the road connect­ing the park to the district headquarters to prevent a bus carrying some villagers and forest personnel to an 'expo­sure visit' to another district, demanding information about how the project money was being spent and how the villagers were selected for the exposure visit. In a public meeting to disseminate project information held in the Neuli village on the edge of the park, the GHNP di­rector was manhandled and roughed up by local women, who demanded the truth. The truth, the director insisted, was that the park would not abrogate the rights of local people and the Ecodevelopment Project was the best thing to have happened to the region. [4] Over the course of the first 6 months of 1995, the protests became more co­ordinated and organised across the three main valleys of the park-Jiwa, Sainj and Tirthan-even as the trickle of official information continued to be scarce. SAVE and Navrachna activists provided community leaders with in­formation, infrastructure support for coordination and ac­cess to park authorities.

Work started in earnest in April 1995 to repair the damage by the protests to political support for state as­sembly representative Sat Prakash Thakur. The main in­strument of confidence building was, initially, gifts of pressure cookers to several individuals in the villages. Pressure cookers take less time to cook food, and there­fore could legitimately be seen as helping reduce fuel­wood consumption. Perhaps more importantly, the measure was designed to build bridges and gain entry into the community. Simultaneously, the process of setting up VEDCs and preparing micro-plans was also taken up. This activity, channelled by earlier confidence building measures into a certain direction, was reduced to orches­ trating the execution of the project through existing political and kinship networks. The pageant was choreo­graphed by the imposing political persona of Sat Prakash Thakur, himself a senior and powerful Congress leader. Thakur had successfully lobbied for political control of the project monies and went about the task of activating local networks for distributing the largesse. During the 1995 protests, he was conspicuous by his absence in the affected villages, the protests having been taken over by the opposition political party. Working through the park authorities who were only too amenable to his direction, he worked through party workers to attract attention of villagers to the potential patronage from the project. By the time VEDCs were being organised, Thakur was firmly in command of the disbursement of project funds.

Until mid-1995, panchayats-elected local govern­ments at the level of a few villages-were not involved in the process in any way. The Ecodevelopment Project de­sign stipulated that villagers would participate through the project organised Village Ecodevelopment Commit­tees. These were archetypical 'parallel institutions' that bypassed panchayats. On the other hand, panchayats were also not considered to be very legitimate by villag­ers, with few powers and even fewer resources. Things, however, were changing, at least at the level of rhetoric. The 73 rd amendment to the Constitution of India in 1993 provided greater autonomy to panchayat institutions and instructed state governments to enact suitable legislation to meet the new constitutional requirements. Himachal Pradesh passed a new law in 1994, incorporating many new provisions, but also leaving ambiguous the issue of discretionary powers and autonomy. Nevertheless, the na­tional buzz around the new powers to be devolved to panchayats had percolated down to the villages in Hi­machal Pradesh. When elections to panchayats were scheduled in November 1995, a new dimension was added to the dynamic around the Ecodevelopment Project.

With the panchayat elections in view, the local leader­ship of the main opposition party in the state assembly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), moved to capitalise on the opposition to the Ecodevelopment Project. Even as the BJP captured the initiative, the ruling Congress party leader, Sat Prakash Thakur, mobilised his supporters in the villages to defend the project. Ecodevelopment funds were spent as patronage to win support for panchayat candidates, and indirectly for the project. In the short run, the panchayat elections became the battleground between the two political parties, and panchayats became linked to the Ecodevelopment Project in a manner not foreseen in project documents.

The results of the panchayat elections were mixed. The opposition BJP enjoyed only a slight lead over the other parties. Irrespective of who won in any particular pan­chayat, elected representatives became burdened with the responsibility of bringing ecodevelopment funds to the villages. They were the links to district level political leadership of both parties, the carriers of aspirations and grievances of villagers. Even candidates who lost the election stayed involved, acting as alternative couriers of information to the higher levels of authority. In the proc­ess, the VEDCs, still being constituted, failed to gain any legitimacy as interlocutors for ecodevelopment funds. Panchayat representatives, acting on behalf of their con­stituents, negotiated with the project directly. The Raila panchayat refused to cooperate with the project authori­ties until they were provided written guarantees that the grazing rights of residents inside the national park were protected. The Shangarh panchayat welcomed the project with open arms, promising full cooperation. The Shrikot panchayat was divided down the middle, and conflict be­tween the two sides led to sporadic acts of violence in 1996 over the location of project related civil works.

The panchayat representatives, who became important links to higher representatives and authorities for local villagers, were also evolving into even more important sources for the political leadership in accessing their con­stituents. As elections to the state assembly approached, the Ecodevelopment Project rose to prominence as the prime campaign issue in the Banjar constituency. In the elections to the provincial legislature in April 1998, the BJP candidate Karan Singh defeated Sat Prakash Thakur by a comfortable margin. The BJP was also returned to power at the state level, and immediately set about making changes to the status quo in GHNP. The park director was replaced amidst a renewed rhetoric of participatory de­velopment through the project. The new director made changes to the way ecodevelopment funds were being spent, urging dialogue with local leaders, including panchayat representatives. He started new initiatives, such as women's savings and credit societies and small-scale value-added processing of apricot oil at the village level. Soon, however, the focus of all relevant actors shifted from the Ecodevelopment Project to the national park itself.

In November 1998, the state government signed a Me­morandum of Understanding with the National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC) for the construction of a hy­dro-electric project in Kullu. The Parbati Hydro-electric Project involved the construction of diversion weirs and related structures inside the national park. In order to get around the WLPA imposed restrictions on construction activity inside protected areas, the state government initi­ated proceedings for the final notification of the national park. The initiative included a possibility of carving out the small area required for the Parbati project. A notifica­tion was issued on 24 December 1998. It called for claims for compensation rights to be acquired for the national park, and the issues were further clarified by senior offi­cials from the Revenue and Forest Departments in a pub­lic meeting on 5 January 1999.

Several community leaders and panchayat representa­tives from the affected villages met on 12 January 1999 to discuss the situation and ways to safeguard their rights.

There was disagreement regarding the course of action. One faction wanted to ignore the official process, as fil­ing claims for compensation would indicate that the local people were willing to give up access to the park. The other faction suggested that filing the claims was the best way to validate the locals' rights in the first place, and fight for continuation later. Ultimately, the second faction won the argument, and the representatives decided to compile lists of all rights enjoyed by their respective vil­lages in a week's time. A committee of representatives including panchayat leaders put together a master list of rights for all the villages, and presented it to the settle­ment officer on 23 January 1999, a day before the limita­tion on the filing of claims ran out.

The final notification for the GHNP was issued on 21 May 1999, along with a settlement award for compensa­tion of rights acquired. 5 As details of the settlement award percolated down to the villages, people mobilised against the compensation provided. They also sought to forestall the closure of access to the park for summer grazing and medicinal plant collection. The summer of 1999 was a period of turbulence and uncertainty. The vil­lagers protested collectively against the notification and the compensation, while the park authorities sought to en­force the closure of the park following the final notifica­tion. Eventually, in September, the national Member of Parliament from the Kullu constituency, Maheshwar Singh, came down heavily against the administration, calling for a suspension of the final notification until the issues were settled amicably between the villagers and the administration. Two aspects of this position of Ma­heshwar Singh are noteworthy: one, he was the elder brother of the Banjar representative to the state legislative assembly, Karan Singh, and two, elections to the national Parliament were scheduled for later that year. Both of these factors were exploited by villagers in persuading Maheshwar Singh to force the park authorities to suspend the implementation of the final notification.

Maheshwar Singh won the seat to the national Parlia­ment in December 1999. Next year, the term of pancha­yats was coming to an end, and elections were scheduled for December 2000. Following the previous 5 years of in­creasing participation of panchayat representatives in local politics, the elections were even more keenly con­tested than before. Many of the young activists who had coordinated the protests against the Ecodevelopment Pro­ject and the final notification fought the elections to vari­ous local government offices, often as independents, without the support of either political party. The new panchayat representatives were thus closer to their con­stituents and were more easily held accountable. They were also younger and more educated, less amenable to political control from above, and, given the reservation of seats for women in panchayats, more representative of sub-groups within the community. Panchayat representa­tives provided a crucial link between people and higher levels of elected representatives, and this role was streng­thened through the almost continuous sequence of elec­tions to office at different levels: local, state and national. Simultaneously, panchayat representatives also enlisted the support of wider sections of the community in exer­cising the powers provided by the 1994 legislation, which until then were largely on paper. In 2002, for example, when a private contractor delayed payment of wages to local labourers working on the Parbati project, the Raila panchayat threatened legal proceeding against the con­tractor, leading to immediate payment of back wages.

Panchayats were marginal players in local politics in the GHNP area prior to 1994. With no powers of conse­quence and fewer discretionary resources at their dis­posal, they were considered nothing more than village level extensions of the district administration, carrying out tasks decided and designed elsewhere. Things changed on paper with the 73 rd constitutional amendment in 1993 and the Himachal Pradesh Panchayati Raj Act in 1994. Nevertheless, on the ground, even when the Ecode­velopment Project started in late 1994, panchayats were conspicuous by the absence of their representatives in opposition to the project. It was only with the panchayat elections in late 1995 that these institutions became in­volved in the movement against the Ecodevelopment Pro­ject. As panchayats evolved in their role as conduits between villagers and elected representatives to state and national legislatures over subsequent elections in 1998 and 1999, as well as to leaders of major political parties, local constituents-often divided into sub-groups of over­lapping interests-also made the panchayats downwardly accountable. The subsequent panchayat elections in 2000 reinforced the accountability of elected representatives through active participation of villagers in the elections, and the candidature of several activists from the move­ment against the project. The presence of democratic elections at three levels interacted to provide sufficient opportunity to local villagers to voice their grievances to higher authorities at regular intervals, and generate a dy­namic that resulted in increased downward accountability of panchayat institutions. 6 By the 2005 panchayat elec­tion, the candidates for local offices were left in no doubt that their constituents would hold them accountable.

In a manner similar to the process in GHNP, communi­ties in several parts of Himachal Pradesh harnessed the newly mandated panchayats to help them protest against the imposition of project components deemed undesir­able. Some projects, such as the German-funded Changar Ecodevelopment Project in Kangra district, moved to incorporate panchayats formally in their design and im­plementation. By 2000, there was general consensus amongst donors, NGOs and political leaders that future projects must be channeled through the agency of pan­chayats. The DfID-supported 'Poverty Reduction Through Sustainable Livelihoods Project', which com­menced in 2001, envisaged the panchayat as the primary unit of planning for sustainable livelihoods. When nego­tiations started with the World Bank in 2003 for a project for participatory forest management in the middle Hima­layas, as a follow-up to the earlier Kandi Watershed Pro­ject for the Shiwalik mountains, there was no doubt that the project would be implemented through panchayats. This contrasted with the Kandi project, which was implemented through parallel watershed committees. Pro­ject implementation in 450 panchayats began in Septem­ber 2006. At the legislative level, the state amended the Panchayati Raj Act in 2001 to extend the powers of panchayats to forest management, explicitly linking the new community-based forestry initiatives to local gov­ernments. Later, it promulgated the Participatory Forest Management Rules in 2002 to provide detailed guidelines for the involvement of panchayats in decentralised forest management. The experience of ecodevelopment in GHNP was not isolated, but representative of trends in the rest of Himachal Pradesh. The trends in Himachal Pradesh likewise resonate with experiences in several other Indian states [see Heller (2000) for Kerala, Siva­ramakrishnan (2000) for West Bengal, and Goetz & Jen­kins (2001) for Maharashtra and Rajasthan].

   Conclusion Top

The process through which panchayats were made ac­countable to their constituents could arguably be attrib­uted to one of several conjunctures in the story: the legal regime (peculiarities related to the WLPA applicable to national parks), design faults in the Ecodevelopment Pro­ject, political competition (the BJP-Congress rivalry in the Banjar assembly constituency), the presence of NGOs (SAVE and Navrachna) as catalysts, among others. How­ever, the outcome of the process-increasingly represen­tative and downwardly accountable local governance institutions-is visible all over Himachal Pradesh to varying degrees. The outcome is not a product of condi­tions peculiar to the GHNP region or even the Kullu dis­trict. In order to understand the relationship between accountability of local governance institutions and de­mocracy, it is necessary to look at the larger context with­in which events in GHNP unfolded. Particularly relevant here are the two elements of political articulation: ena­bling electoral institutions and high competition between political parties.

The effects of recognition granted to parallel institu­tions that bypass local governments are mediated by the level of articulation in the political system. The mobilisa­tion against the Ecodevelopment Project and responsive­ness of political actors to local demands is related to the space and opportunity for community agency. These are provided by the political system, both in terms of the institutional architecture for representation and the articulation of citizen mobilisation and electoral politics. Community agency manifested in opposition to the project was easily transferred to local governments, making them more representative and accountable to their con­stituents. The presence of competitive elections was also instrumental in the process. Representation and account­ability were actively constructed from below, and the ac­countability of elected officials at higher levels was transferred to local governments. It remains to be seen whether local governments will play a significant role in providing the goods and services that were objectives of the Ecodevelopment Project.

A focus on the politics of institutional choice in decen­tralisation is a welcome corrective to the naive concep­tion of local institutions as independent of the interests of external actors (Hadiz 2004; Ribot 2007). Nevertheless, it would be inappropriate to limit the examination of the politics of institutional choice to choices made by exter­nal actors; such as, for example, creating parallel institu­tions instead of transferring powers to elected local governments. Instead, we must look at how the local gov­ernments themselves respond to such initiatives, how this response is mediated by the level of political articulation in the system and how the intended beneficiaries of new policy initiatives navigate the reshaped terrain of local politics. Additionally, we must pay greater attention to the manner in which the larger political context enables or disables such responses. This paper argues that we need to 'look beyond 'well-behaved' local participation in specific government projects to a more openly political and even confrontational engagement with the govern­ment apparatus as a whole' (Ackerman 2004: 450) in order to make sense of how citizens respond to develop­ment, conservation or other interventions ostensibly in­tended for their benefit.

In discussions of the role of external actors in decen­tralisation, it is customary to refer to donors, local and in­ternational NGOs, and even government departments and parastatal organisations. It is a rare analysis that seriously considers the role of political parties and/or institutions of democratic governance such as parliaments or chambers of deputies. Analyses of Brazilian extractive reserves, set up after extended struggles and advocacy, continue to re­flect this lack of attention to democratic politics (Goeschl & Igliori 2006). In an otherwise insightful analysis of the experience and performance of extractive reserves in Brazil, Katrina Brown mentions interactions between all actors but political parties (Brown 2002: 14). In a similar article, Brown and Rosendo (2000) suggest that the chief gains to the Brazilian rubber tappers from the struggle to constitute extractive reserves are political rather than economic. But again, there is no mention of the long as­sociation of the rubber tappers' organisation with the trade union movement in Brazil, or with the Worker's Party (PT), currently in power at the national level. Is it plausible that the political gains achieved by the rubber tappers are somehow linked to the ascendancy of PT to power in Brazil? Or that these linkages contribute towards making extractive reserves examples of accountable institutions? Anne Larson partially attributes this success to the ideological alignment of the rubber tappers with a political party that has 'chosen to defend the rights of marginalised, particularly forest-dependent, groups' (Lar­son 2003: 222). But the process through which one political party aligns itself with the interests of what have hitherto been considered 'local' groups remains unexamined.

As mentioned in the introduction to this article, the lit­erature on decentralisation dismisses elections as 'crude' means of accountability, trying to move beyond elections to discuss more finely graduated mechanisms (Agrawal & Ribot 1999; Blair 2000; Devas & Grant 2003; Olowu 2003). This article shows that elections are much more than punctuation marks in local political trajectories, and that their effects evolve over time, in dynamic interaction with other mechanisms for accountability. Most impor­tantly, multiple levels of elected officials provide com­peting sets of political spaces and actors that improve citizen access to public institutions, and these competing sets of office holders also improve the prospects of downward accountability (Blair 2001: 123). The extent to which elections can perform such a role depends on the level of articulation in the political system. Political commitment from above is considered crucial for the success of decentralisation reforms (Charlick 2001; De­vas & Grant 2003; Ratner 2006; Toner & Franks 2006), but where does this commitment come from? This paper suggests that high political articulation can contribute to­wards the construction of political commitment to decen­tralisation and local government institutions, as well as to democratic processes and power sharing between differ­ent levels of government. Mobilised citizens may trans­form bad policies or dysfunctional institutions through collective action in a way that neither planners nor scholars anticipate. The non-equilibrium dynamics of democracy preclude an ex-ante design of the 'perfect' institution for any local setting. Greater research attention needs to be paid to the nature of community agency, and the level of political articulation or disarticulation that enables or dis­ables such agency, in order to make sense of the variety of outcomes of decentralisation policies in the developing world.


The primary research for this paper was supported by DfID, United Kingdom, for a collaborative project with Vasant Saberwal, Sanjay Barnela and Satya Prasanna. The writing of the paper was facilitated by a grant from the Decentralization and Governance Program, World Resources Institute, Washington, DC. The paper has benefited from presentations at the International Associa­tion for the Study of Common Property conference in Bali, Indonesia in June 2006, and at the Sustainability Science Seminar at Harvard University in October 2006. I am indebted to Arun Agrawal, Tom Bassett, David Bray, Giacomo Chiozza, Kate Emans, Dorian Fougeres, Parakh Hoon, Xu Jintao, Prakash Kashwan, Tomila Lankina, Anne Larson, Roch Mongbo, Jesse Ribot, Marja Spieren­burg and Fabiano Toni for discussions, critical comments and suggestions. The usual disclaimers apply.[57]

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