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BOOK REVIEW
Year : 2008  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 99-102

Living with Diversity: Forestry Institutions in the Western Himalaya


Department of Anthropology, York University, Toronto, India

Correspondence Address:
Radhika Johari
Department of Anthropology, York University, Toronto
India
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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009
 


How to cite this article:
Johari R. Living with Diversity: Forestry Institutions in the Western Himalaya. Conservat Soc 2008;6:99-102

How to cite this URL:
Johari R. Living with Diversity: Forestry Institutions in the Western Himalaya. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2008 [cited 2019 Nov 19];6:99-102. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2008/6/1/99/55814

Sudha Vasan, Living with Diversity: Forestry Institutions in the Western Himalaya. Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Rashtrapati Niwas, Shimla, India. 2006. 273 + xviii pp. INR 400 (Hardcover). ISBN 81-7986-053-1.



Sudha Vasan's Living with Diversity is a significant and timely contribution to a rich and expanding body of literature that engages with the complex contours and varied dimensions of environmental politics and governance in and beyond India. In particular, this literature has examined how access to resources such as forests, pastures and water is contested and negotiated by socially diverse agents located within complex and cross-cutting institutional spaces that confound any simplistic equation drawn between state and society. Vasan's regional focus on Himachal Pradesh provides a suitably broad canvas for her selective portrayals of diverse forestry institutions within this state and their continuities and transformations within the wider political-economic structures in which they are embedded. It is notable, however, that her case studies are largely confined to two districts within the state, Kullu and Kangra, with the resulting omission of other areas that are not well studied and that could have provided useful comparative insights. However, this is to be expected given the location of her research, primarily in Kullu, and should not be regarded as a shortcoming of the book.

To begin with theoretical anchors, Vasan adopts a conceptual framework that provides her with a sharp and well defined lens for her case studies of forestry agents and institutions in Himachal Pradesh. She primarily draws on Pierre Bourdieu's concept of habitus, which connotes a historically evolved system of structures, dispositions and actions that is constitutive of a logic of practice. Her focus on habitus as a product of the collective and experiential memories of state and non-state actors foregrounds their agency and enables her to explore how their logics of practice contribute to continuities and transformations of forestry institutions in the region. Importantly, she argues that a practical and grounded logic engenders diversity as local institutions are structured by macro-level forestry policies and practices oriented towards homogeneity and in turn confound state simplifications to shape socially and ecologically diverse spaces. Diversity on the ground is thus shown to be characteristic of forest management in the state as illustrated in successive chapters of the book.

Chapter two provides a detailed contextual overview of Himachal Pradesh, revealing both uniform and diverse features of agrarian subsistence oriented human ecology, social demography, forest use, and forestry legislation and practice across the state. In places, however, the discussion stretches somewhat thinly across the wide and detailed canvas it attempts to cover. For example, while her portrayal of the structure and functions of the Forest Department is generally comprehensive, Vasan only briefly mentions an increasing emphasis on public interaction as a major component of community oriented forestry. She does not discuss recent legislation, notably the Participatory Forest Management Rules of 2001, which have aimed to integrate this approach within mainstream forestry practice. A critical analysis of this developmentalist turn within the Forest Department could have drawn out issues and concerns of relevance to current forestry policy and practice in the state.

The remaining chapters in the book are thematically focused on different institutions, agents and sites of forest management in Himachal Pradesh. They each illustrate Vasan's pivotal argument that diversity is the product of a logic of practice that began during the colonial era and that continues to shape both institutions and landscapes in this region. Chapter three discusses the ongoing tension between forces of homogeneity and diversity that has been generated within successive forest settlements across the state. It highlights the efforts of the colonial government to control and maximise profit from forests through attempts to inscribe legibility on pre-existing and complex patterns of property rights in forests and 'wastelands' in different parts of the state. Vasan shows how these attempts were often confounded by several factors working in conjunction to create a diverse patchwork of forestry institutions and practices across the region. These included: a variety of institutional and administrative arrangements that have changed over time; fundamental differences in notions of property between the colonial government, local rulers and communities; and different interpretations of rights and the law within successive settlements. These complexities have continued to complicate efforts to finally 'settle' Himachal's forests- an issue that remains alive and contentious within the state.

Vasan's discussion of how forest guards negotiate the many contradictions that arise between their personal and social identities within rural society and their professional identities within a very structured and hierarchical department is a fine piece of analysis that is ethnographically rich and nuanced. It provides a grounded critique of an ideal Weberian institutional model, which is predicated on the maintenance of a rigid separation of private and professional roles. The analysis reveals how forest guards as frontline implementation staff, who straddle the boundary between the Forest Department and the village social networks in which they are located, strategically negotiate their identities. Their discourses and actions oriented towards different audiences reveal their habitus and a logic of practice that is generated by the practical necessities of having to function within a broader sociopolitical environment. Vasan concludes the chapter by raising the pertinent challenge of envisioning a flexible policy implementation structure that can account for the embeddedness of implementers such as forest guards in society.

Given that chapter five focuses on the establishment of colonial and post-colonial reserves, it might have been better placed following the discussion of historical forest settlements in chapter three. The chapter highlights the recurring theme of continuity and transformation, providing an important critique and comparative analysis of colonial forest reserves and the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) as an illustration of a contemporary national park. Vasan shows how, despite their different legal histories and motivations, both types of reserves have sought to impose uniform and permanent property regimes upon the dynamic and diverse property rights that exist on the ground. These intersections have in turn engendered a disjuncture between policy intentions and their actualisation that reveals the diversity of practice at multiple locations. However, the sources of documentation used for this comparative analysis of reserves raise some questions. While Vasan's more general discussion of debates and processes for establishing reserves in the colonial era draws on rich textual material, her description of GHNP's formation is somewhat thin since it is based exclusively on official and cursory government records. She explains her reasons for excluding other textual materials that bring out better the complex politics around GHNP's formation as being due to the need to use parallel textual material for comparative analysis. Her argument, though, is not entirely convincing given that these studies differ in any case in terms of their levels of analysis (general versus particular).

Chapter six entails a shift in focus from state ideologies and practices aimed at establishing homogeneity and permanence towards the diversity of community-based systems for managing resources that continue to exist in the state. These are shown to be hybrid systems that encompass elements of both tradition and modernity as they seek to adapt to the wider context of market influences and other changes that have occurred within the political economy in which they are embedded. It is debatable whether all of the varied institutions that Vasan describes can be categorised under 'indigenous community forestry', the title of the chapter. For example, the traditional system of vaids may be more appropriately viewed as a community-based health system rather than as a forestry system. Most of these indigenous institutions are discussed only briefly in order to introduce their breadth and diversity into the discussion while focusing in more depth on the social and ecological transformations of devbans (sacred forests) in Kullu district.

The next two chapters are informative analyses of past and current initiatives to foster participatory forest management through efforts to build partnerships between the Forest Department and rural communities. Chapter seven identifies three parallel and contradictory narratives that can be discerned in the department's discourse throughout the colonial and post-colonial period: the paternalistic claim that forests are managed for the greater good of the people; attribution of forest destruction to local forest use; and the need to involve local people in forest management. This last narrative was influential in the development of forest cooperative societies in Kangra district, which can be viewed as a precursor to later national level projects such as Social Forestry and Joint Forest Management (JFM), described in the following chapter. Vasan provides a detailed account of the debates and processes that led to the formation of the societies in the 1940s and to their decline and official discontinuation in the 1970s though some societies continue to function informally. While identifying important issues of equity as well as management issues relating to their functioning, she points to significant elements that could be adapted to current management, notably their treatment of all legal forest categories as one management unit that was entrusted to the society.

A shifting ideology towards community and participatory oriented development as opposed to individual profit, which featured in official withdrawal of support for the Kangra societies, has also been increasingly evident during the era of projects described in chapter eight. Vasan provides a broad and comprehensive discussion of how, since the mid-1970s, projects have emerged as a dominant paradigm of forestry discourse and practice. These, she shows, have reflected a new managerialism that attempts to respond to diverse and competing discourses and demands through a narrowly conceived delineation of discrete problems and their technical solutions. In recent decades, a series of projects have been implemented parallel to existing forestry practices and have established new village committees that contribute to a multiplicity of institutions and a further fragmentation of forestry practices in space and time. As Vasan demonstrates, the emphasis on community participation within these donordriven projects, and in the latest phase of JFM and its 'clones' has also been problematic since fundamental so-problematic since fundamental social power structures for the distribution of resources are never addressed. While this chapter provides an excellent critique of the project mode of forestry practice in Himachal Pradesh, it surprisingly does not include a discussion of the Himachal Pradesh Forest Sector Reforms Project, which has significantly influenced forestry policy in the state.

In her concluding chapter, Vasan outlines a number of pertinent and insightful guidelines for developing a framework that can engage with diversity in practice. Her overall argument is for legitimising multiple models, policies and practices in forestry. At the level of discourse, she advocates more dialectical conceptual models that consider historically and culturally situated power relations and structures such as caste, patriarchy and capitalism. A second element of this framework entails a repositioning of law and policy in society through the formulation of an alternative model that responds to particular contextual realities. A centralised authority would merely specify wider objectives and assign responsibilities to regional stakeholders, who would then develop appropriate institutional structures and processes to achieve these objectives. At the level of institutions, the focus is once again on developing multi-level and dynamic structures that are integrated with existing power relations and that allow a flow of information in both directions to ensure a constant connection between policy-making and practice.

Vasan's guidelines for living with diversity are particularly salient with regard to recent forestry legislation in Himachal Pradesh. Successive rulings by the High Court since 2006 and subsequent actions initiated by the state Forest Department have resulted in a total prohibition on the felling of trees whether green, dry or diseased. These blanket bans and prescriptions have severely eroded historically evolved forest rights and are indicative of an increasing tendency towards centralisation and control that threatens the diversity of forestry institutions and practices in the state. They also reflect the dialectical relation between conservation and livelihoods, as historical and contemporary forest management paradigms, which has significantly contributed to the diversity of forestry practice in and beyond the state. This dialectic plays out implicitly in many of Vasan's chapters: in her discussion of forest settlements; the functions of the Forest Department; contests between the Forest and Revenue Departments; the politics of GHNP and; the negotiation of contrasting discourses by forest guards. It is therefore surprising that she does not bring it into greater visibility within her analysis.

A further point worth noting is the book's lack of attention to wider institutional dynamics and relations that have played out beyond the highlighted case studies, for example, NGO advocacy and initiatives to strengthen community forestry and state and donor efforts to foreground the role of panchayats as institutions in decentralized forest management. Inclusion of these important institutions in the analysis would have broadened Vasan's discussion of diversity in forestry institutions and practices. Overall, however, this is an extremely informative and engaging study, which through its consistent attention to forms of agency and practices that engender diversity of different kinds, and at multiple points, uncovers the challenges to and possibilities for developing more equitable forestry institutions in Himachal Pradesh. The book reaches out to a wide and varied audience-scholars across disciplines as well as forestry practitioners and policy makers. It can only be hoped that its well-grounded conclusions and thoughtful suggestions find a conceptual and practical space within which to take root and flourish.




 

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