ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
Reader Mode
-A A +A

Decentralisation of Natural Resources in Uttarakhand

Rakesh Agrawal ( is an independent researcher based in Dehradun, Uttarakhand.

The Local in Governance: Politics, Decentralization and Environment by Satyajit Singh, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016; pp xiv+262, first edition, ₹ 895.


The people of Uttarakhand had waged a long struggle for a separate hill state where they could enjoy autonomy in governance over three crucial natural resources—jal, jangal and zameen, or water, forest and land. However, while the demand of the state was fulfilled, the community was left with no role in natural resource management. The paradigm of contemporary development remains the same—destruction of natural resources to erect so-called monuments of development, such as dams and hydroelectricity projects (HEPs), road widening and rail-line expansion; a process that has further intensified under the current ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led state dispensation. Left with no choice, ordinary citizens, especially women, have kept up the struggle for their “own” government (Agrawal 2018).

In this context, the present book is a welcome contribution. It looks into the theoretical and practical attributes of two natural resources: forest and water. The book provides an in-depth framework to understand the institutions and politics of decentralisation, and explores why multilevel governance is necessary for the political and economic empowerment of local people and villages. The interests of the locally powerful oligarchy and other centres of power like the petty bureaucracy are often in dominance. There could be many conflicting interests and issues at the local level between different castes and classes, as also genders, that have implications for the management and governance of natural resources. Decentralisation is the way for conflicting groups to manage these resources without much hatred and animosity, although the author makes it clear that

Decentralization is not a panacea for guaranteeing peace. Institutions have to be created for effective service delivery, consensus building and conflict resolution mechanism and efficient and accountable local government. These require enormous inputs into institutional design of decentralized governance as diverse contests require different institutional inputs. If centralized interest and mechanisms are replicated in the newly created local structures, conflicts are bound to reoccur. (p 2)

Forest Policy Then and Now

The author discusses how colonial forest policy was used as a tool to create conflicts between local interests and larger state interests, and how the colonial state used its unbridled power to contain these conflicts. Sadly, independent India has continued the same policy at the national level and a despotic forest department deals high-handedly with the locals, especially, the forest dependents. Various forest polices, starting with the Forest Act of 1878, resulted in the expansion of government rule over forests, which caused immense hardships to the locals. As a result, they rebelled (Guha 1989), forcing the government to form a four-member Kumaon Forest Grievance Committee, that ultimately established van panchayats. These were village forests, governed and managed by the villagers, whose administrative control was with the district commissioner and not with the forest department.

After independence, the government of free India tried to turn the clock back through various acts and the passing of the Van Panchayat Niyamawalis (regulations) (latest being 2005). Although now there are about 12,000 van panchayats, most of them are just on paper and the forest department has virtually become their master. The van panchayats prepare micro-plans for distribution, planting, protection and conservation of the forests, but these plans must be cleared by the forest department. Sadly, the author has not discussed it, and nor has he mentioned that the new Van Panchayat Niyamawalis have usurped the autonomy of van panchayats and have made them the stooges of the forest department.1 As the van panchayat forests are just 8% of the state’s total forests, but serve the biomass needs of most people, the author correctly emphasises the need for the greater decentralisation of forest management and governance. The book has clear data to explode the myth about 64% of the state having forests, as this area is just forestland, with no forest cover on about 30% of the land. The forest department tried its best to regain its control over the state forests and the draft 1995 legislation, the formation of the van panchayats on paper, joint forest management (JFM) and both the 2001 and 2005 niyamawalis (Forest Department 2006: 4–6; Agrawal 2014) were steps in this direction.

Community Governance

The author has conducted his field study in Manauli village, Almora district. As he has chosen a single-caste village with all residents belonging to the same sub-caste except one Dalit household, caste dynamics and conflicts that are clearly visible in most multicaste villages, are conspicuous by their absence in the chosen site. In this small village of 30 households, all van panchayat members are men. As is the case in most van panchayats in Uttarakhand and elsewhere, the primary responsibility for the collection of biomass lies with the women. The author discusses the impact of two voluntary organisations: Laxmi Ashram and the Society for Promotion of Wasteland Development, on the collective actions of Manauli village.

As people have to use government or reserve forests to meet their biomass needs, they must have defined haq-hakooks or usufruct rights in these forests. In his field visits to Chadrabadni Watershed in Tehri district, comprising of Basoli Malli, Kafalna and Krass villages, the author finds that the villagers guard their forests. While almost always the paid guard is male, unpaid and voluntary guards, usually daughters-in-law, are women. The study discusses villagers protecting parts of the reserve forests in Kafalna and Krass villages, while the village of Basoli Malli has privatised parts of the civil forest. Due to this, some encroachments have taken place in Basoli Malli village, an issue the village elders tried to resolve. In Sungh and Luwani villages in Chamoli district, the author finds the intervention of the state a must for settling the boundary disputes in the forests.

He analyses both formal and informal institutions like the van panchayat, lath panchayats, the privatisation of commons for their customary rights and the regulation of natural resources. Though he mentions the lath panchayat as an old, informal institution of forest governance, but as they are fading institutions in Uttarakhand (Agrawal 2001), he does not go into the details. It would have been more pertinent if the author had also discussed how van panchayats are actually governed by talking about their meetings—their frequency, issues discussed, the responsibilities and rights allotted and fines.

There is an old and influential voluntary organisation, the Shri Bhubaneshwari Mahila Ashram, which is operative in the region since years, but the author has not even mentioned it, while he should have analysed its impact on women’s empowerment and forest governance. The author discusses Gharkharak village in Pauri Garhwal district where the forest is governed by the van panchayat and a women’s grass-roots institution, Mahila Mangal Dal (MMD). However, the MMD is not unique to this village, as after the Chipko movement and under the leadership of Chandi Prasad Bhatt, it almost became an all-Uttarakhand phenomenon. It would have been better if the author had also studied a few women-headed van panchayats, like those in Bharki-Urgam area in Urgam Valley in Chamoli district of Garhwal.

Effectiveness of Policies

The author discusses JFM, a World Bank-sponsored project, ostensibly aimed to decentralise forest governance, that has been a state monopoly until now. As the author points out,

Strengthening of the decentralization process outside a contest of power that takes place between the traditional beneficiaries of a centralized state and the emerging constitution of a decentralized state—the forest dwellers. (p 130)

The author rightly finds out that instead of promoting decentralisation, the forest department has used JFM as a tool for recentralisation. As it has been the reviewer’s experience too, this is a top-down approach where the forest department, often in connivance with participating non-governmental organisations (NGOs), uses villagers as tools to promote projects. The villagers who carry out the micro-plans are often reduced to being unpaid labourers for plantation, protection and conservation, without any tangible benefits of meeting their biomass needs or any financial gains.

As JFM was implemented only in 1,000 villages of Uttarakhand, the author advocates the establishment of van panchayats in all villages. However, as mentioned before, the administration has established more than 12,000 van panchayats, but the forest department does not consider these as a priority. Moreover, the jurisdiction of the forest department and the revenue department overlap, as the civil administrative officer now has the power to remove a member of the van panchayat, including its sarpanch. Hence, the establishment of more van panchayats is no guarantee of decentralised forest governance, nor an assurance of forest-dependents getting their legitimate forest rights.

A legislation aimed at granting legitimate forest rights to the forest dependents of the country, namely the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) act (FRA), 2006, has also been dealt with by the author, but only as a passing reference. The act was notified in Uttarakhand in 2008 but has never actually been implemented as a majority of the people, despite being forest dependents, are other traditional forest dwellers (OTFDs) who have been unable to furnish a “proof” of having resided for 75 years on forestland. The Scheduled Tribes welfare department, Uttarakhand, has rejected all the claims filed by the Van Gujjars, who fall under the OTFD category, and live inside the Rajaji National Park. The forest department has forced them out of the national forest (Agrawal 2014). Sadly, the picture is not different for the minuscule Adivasi (Scheduled Tribes) Vanraji and Vanrawat communities, residing in and around the Askot Wildlife Sanctuary in Pithoragarh district. Their claims have been rejected by the Uttarakhand social welfare department, the nodal agency in the state to implement the FRA. It would have been pertinent if the author had discussed these issues as well.

Rural Water Supply

After forests, the author focuses on the need and the rationale of rural water supply (RWS). While the current domestic water supply norms are 150 litres per capita per day (LCPD) in metropolitan areas, 135 in other urban areas and just 40 in rural areas, the government now aims that

By 2022, every rural person in the country will have access to 70 lpcd within their household premises or at a horizontal or vertical distance of not more than 50 meters from their household without barriers of social or financial discrimination.” (MoDWS 2013: 3)

The government also claims that

In the Twelfth Five Year Plan, there will be a major shift of emphasis towards piped water supply with the goal of providing at least 50% of the rural population with at least 55 lpcd within the household premises or at a horizontal or vertical distance of not more than 100 metres from their household without barriers of social or financial discrimination. (Forest Department 2006: 4)

Since this is a huge target that needs a massive amount of financial, human and physical resources, the government is keen to transfer this task to private agencies, panchayati raj institutions and NGOs and, “The Central Government is keen to withdraw from its current perceived responsibility of providing for drinking water in rural India and take on more of a facilitator’s role” (Water Aid India 2005: 11). It is not just handpumps, but a plethora of traditional water harvest systems (TWHS), thriving all over rural India, such as talabs (ponds), kua, kui, stepwells, kundi, johad, tanka, pat, etc, that are conspicuous by their absence in the present work. It seems that the author is supporting Swajal, a World Bank scheme that banks more on software, rather than community participation, for rural water supply and sanitation. But the reviewer’s experience of such schemes in rural Uttarakhand, can at best be described as mixed, as in most villages, while NGOs received good financial and hardware resources, the lack of proper maintenance and accountability has resulted in the water supply becoming defunct within a few months of the operation of the hardware. However, in a few cases where the NGOs have established good grass-roots community groups and have entered into a partnership with gram panchayats, the water supply is working well.

The political economy of decentralised rural water supply and sanitation which has been the government’s responsibility, has not been overlooked by the author, as he discusses policy reforms like the creation of State Water and Sanitation Mission and a separate Ministry of Water and Sanitation in 2012. He compares the decentralised RWS systems in Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand and Kerala and finds the systems in Uttarakhand and Kerala quite comparable. Although he prefers the village-user committees of Uttarakhand, he is dismayed by their state control. The author claims, “The village-user committees are under direct control of state bureaucrats and exist outside local government institutions of political control, local representation and accountability” (p 205). Here, it is noteworthy that the RWS system in Kerala is an example of a democratic devaluation that must be tried elsewhere,
including Uttarakhand.

It is true that an RWS system must be evaluated by four parameters, namely autonomy, sustainability, equity and efficiency as the author advocates, but the lack of any mention of any kinds of TWHS in these three states that the author discusses in detail, remains a major lacuna, as without them the effectiveness of RWS schemes cannot be evaluated. While there is a good and detailed theoretical base for RWS decentralisation, it would have added significant value to the book, if the author had also explored the governance of the RWS by the villagers. No discussion of natural resources can be complete without talking about land, as both forests and water need land, but the book does not cover land. More than forests and water, agricultural land is crucial for the people of Uttarakhand, as a majority of them are engaged in agriculture and allied activities. Land is a pertinent issue as the net sown area fell from 13.52% in 2004–05 to 12.60% in 2011–12 (Directorate of Agriculture 2013a, 2013b) and even more now, as a plethora of so-called developmental projects keep displacing people.


As decentralisation is a process to empower the bottom of the pyramid, it “is clearly a political activity. Its terms of values and specific functions assigned to different levels and agencies shape its purpose” (p 223). The people of Uttarakhand struggled to achieve this decentralisation, so that they could enjoy autonomy of governance over water, forests and land. Their very hope has been belied, as there has been no capacity building and understanding of the role of village-level institutions. The goal of “building capacity of poor people to run state institutions” (p 231) remains a pipedream, at least in Uttarakhand. Hence, rather than focusing on the management of resources such as land, water and forests by the locals, according to a set of existing rules and norms, the book should have discussed their governance, that is, the ability and the power of the locals to formulate and implement laws and norms regarding natural resources.


1 For a detailed critique of the Van Panchayat Niyamawali 2001, see Sarin et al (2003).


Agrawal, Rakesh (2001): “Uttarakhand: ‘Lath’ Panchayats: Fading Away,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 36, No 1, pp 20–22.

— (2014), “No Rights to Live in the Forest: Van Gujjars in Rajaji National Park,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 49, No 1.

— (2018): “Women of Uttarakhand Fight for Their Rights over Natural Resources,” The Journal of Social Work, Vol 79, No 2, pp 193–205.

Directorate of Agriculture (2013a): “Statistical Diary of Uttarakhand, 2012–13,” Government of Uttarakhand, Dehradun.

— (2013b): “Agriculture at a Glance, 2012–13,” Government of Uttarakhand, Dehradun.

Guha, Ramchandra (1989): Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalayas, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

MoDWS (2013): “National Rural Drinking Water Programme: Movement towards Ensuring People’s Drinking Water Security in Rural India Guidelines—2013,” Ministry of Drinking Water & Sanitation, Government of India, New Delhi, p 3.

Sarin, Madhu, M Neera Singh, Nandini Sundar and Ranu K Bhogal (2003): “Devolution as a Threat to Democratic Decision-making from Three States in India,” Local Forest Management: The Impact of Devolution Process, David Edmunds and Eva Wollenberg (eds), London: Center for International Forestry Research, pp 55–126.

Water Aid India (2005): “Drinking Water and Sanitation Status in India: Coverage, Financing and Emerging Concerns,” New Delhi: Water Aid
India, p 11.

Updated On : 22nd Feb, 2019


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top