Governing the conflicted commons: Authorising resource access in the Indian tribal belt


Siddharth Sareen

PhD defended at: 

University of Copenhagen



What determines authority over and access to resources in state-building, resource-conflict contexts? That is the puzzle of our times for research focussing on local governance and natural resources. This thesis demonstrates both how struggles over access and authority are taking place and how government action currently constrains democratisation in a recently-formed state of India, and suggests ways in which future state-building can enable equity and inclusion in authorising resource access. It approaches the puzzle by asking: What (i) nurtures or (ii) prevents inclusive and equitable local governance in Jharkhand, and (iii) what does local governance look like in practice in this state-building context? In the form of three research articles that prioritise the local impact of government action, it addresses specific versions of these research questions, namely:

(i) What nurtures democratisation? A comparative study of two cases of a formal local deliberative institution, the village assembly, is undertaken to investigate this. These village assemblies have the constitutional authority to govern natural resources and implement development schemes by serving as community platforms for collective decision-making. This makes them the natural institution of choice to nurture democratic practice among the Ho people of Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district, whose village communities form the focus of this study. However, Jharkhand’s state laws are at odds with national ones, and decentralisation works more along administrative than democratic lines. This limits the extent to which the village assemblies can nurture democratisation in the implementation of development schemes. One village assembly is far more successful at governing natural resources than the other. This is shown to be due to proactive leadership, a cohesive community and local social mobilisation within the successful village assembly, in contrast to the co-option of benefits by some village inhabitants in the other. Based on these cases, it is concluded that while a local deliberative institution is essential for nurturing democratisation, it is not sufficient to ensure it. Instead, democratisation also requires the additional conditions identified to be fulfilled, both within and external to village communities. Thus, inclusive local governance can be nurtured through these processes, though this is largely not the case at present.

(ii) How do external interventions impact local democracy? This question is addressed by studying practices of governmental development interventions in two contrasting forest divisions of Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district. While Sadar Chaibasa division is relatively peaceful but faces considerable developmental challenges, Saranda division is one of India’s most resource-rich, conflict-affected regions with ongoing insurgency and counter-insurgency operations. The study shows how governmental development interventions treat development as securitisation through practices of technicisation, selective authorisation of knowledge, aligning different objectives and managing failures, engaging in anti-politics and re-assembling practices that hold interventions together over time. Interventions in the Saranda division elide development with security-oriented concerns and, rather than ensuring forest inhabitants’ development, open the region up to mining companies. Meanwhile, interventions in the Sadar Chaibasa division ignore the development needs and aspirations of its village inhabitants, despite many of their challenges being the same as those of villagers in the resource-rich Saranda division. Thus, it is argued that governmental development interventions in West Singhbhum enable top-down authorisation and inequitable resource distribution, undermining local democracy and inhabitants’ visions of development.

(iii) Who governs access locally? To address this question, local actors’ access to benefits under two examples of government services is studied in three villages in West Singhbhum. One example is the regulation of trade in a non-wood forest product called the kendu leaf which is valuable for its use in rolling country cigarettes, while the other is a public scheme to provide minimum-wage labour work to every village household. The regulation of kendu leaf trade favours privileged private actors or local elite traders over the primary collectors of kendu leaves, who are poor villagers. Despite in-built accountability and transparency mechanisms in the minimum-wage work scheme, privileged private actors are able to co-opt much of its benefits at the cost of most village households. The study shows how both examples of government services allow different local elites to use structural and relational mechanisms to access inequitably large benefit shares. These mechanisms moreover enable the elites to locally regulate rights-based access to the benefits from government services. It is argued that this constitutes the privatisation of public authority. Privileged private actors with vested interests partner governmental institutions in governing access locally, benefitting through the inequitable distribution of benefits from government services. This demonstrates how local governance in Jharkhand is inequitable and exclusive in practice.

Investigations of these three questions are based on in-depth empirical research in forest and forest-fringe villages of Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district, focussing on three forest villages in Sadar Chaibasa forest division, conducted between 2013 and 2015. A mainly qualitative approach is adopted, employing several unstructured interviews, 107 semi-structured interviews, three sets of 36, 30 and 12 highly-structured interviews, 49 key informant interviews, six focus group discussions, and participant observation over extended periods. This is complemented by secondary research on national policies concerning local governance and natural resources, on Jharkhand’s recent political history and on West Singhbhum study district. Respondents comprise inhabitants of villages that are predominantly populated by the Ho, an indigenous people concentrated in West Singhbhum district. Key informants cover a large variety, including government officials especially from the forest and rural development line agencies, staff of local non-governmental organisations, regional researchers, village chiefs, scheme contractors, and traders in non-wood forest products.

The three questions are approached through analytical frameworks that help generalise findings in relation to theoretical debates within the literature on local governance and natural resources, as expounded in an introductory chapter that presents a comprehensive overview and synthesis. Article 1 shows what nurtures democratisation using three dimensions of democratic practice: functional democratic institutions, people’s involvement with these institutions, and inclusive participation without co-option of decision-making and resources. Article 2 employs six practices of assemblage to identify how interventions impact local democracy through forging alignments, rendering technical, authorising knowledge, managing failure, anti-politics and re-assembling. Article 3 demonstrates whose rules govern locally using an access framework that details rights-based, structural and relational mechanisms through which actors access benefits. While the first framework is designed by combining two conceptual discussions, the second and third frameworks are applied for the first time to development interventions and government services respectively.

Overall, the study presents a picture of the manner in which government action impacts authority over and access to resources in local political spheres within the state-building, resource-conflict context of Jharkhand. This has implications for local governance. A central claim is that government action is not supporting local democracy sufficiently, and in fact on occasion undermining it through development interventions. Another key claim is that local governance is shaped by both governmental and non-governmental institutions, with the latter playing a role in determining access to benefits arising from natural resources and welfare services. Lack of democratisation and partial privatisation result in top-down governance with little downward accountability, in which access to resources is governed inequitably, benefitting locally powerful actors. Yet, locally there is not only conflict but cooperation, not only consolidation of undemocratic authority but negotiation and an effort to organise collectively. In presenting a nuanced picture of these processes, this thesis furthers an understanding of local governance and the role the government is currently playing in Jharkhand, and contributes to the wider literature on state-building and democratisation.

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