ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Learning from CSOs

How To Avoid Seeing Like a State

If a government’s policies are planned from a bird’s-eye view with insufficient knowledge of local conditions and livelihoods, they can go wrong. Civil society organisations on their part have the capability to act as a link between locals and decision-makers. CSOs are worth listening to because they might just have seen something that the state cannot see.

Seeing like a state, of course, is a phrase made famous by the Yale anthropologist and political scientist James Scott in his popular 1998 book that carries the phrase as its title (Scott 1998). In the book, Scott describes how “schemes to improve the human condition,” from Tanzania’s Ujamaa villages to the realisation of Le Corbusier’s urban planning theory in Brasilia to projects of agricultural modernisation in the tropics have gone awry. Scott argues that the reason for the failure of these projects was the top-down approach adopted by states with high modernist ideologies, insufficient knowledge of local conditions, and the failure to consider local people’s interests and views.

We do not intend to say that the current Indian climate policy is a replication of these failed historical   experi-ments. Rather, our argument is that in all large-scale political efforts, such as the fight against climate change, there lies a danger. If policies are planned from a bird’s-eye view with insufficient knowledge of local conditions and livelihoods, they can go wrong. Thus, biofuels, hydropower dams and nuclear stations may all reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions compared to coal-fired power plants and diesel-burning cars. But they are often dependent on large-scale redevelopment projects that affect the livelihoods of thousands of people on the ground.

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