Empowering agrarian society

AJAY S. MEHTA

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THE development of wastelands, a great deal of which exists in our society, presents both an opportunity to improve the livelihoods of the rural poor and to empower agrarian civil society. The former concern has come to engage a great deal of interest on the part of policy-makers, environmentalists, NGOs and the state, but little or no attention has been paid to the latter possibility. This note attempts to show wastelands as the site where mass rural poverty and the disempowerment of agrarian civil society converge. The challenge for wasteland development initiatives is to reverse both kinds of deprivation.

The factors for the creation of wastelands are well known. These have to do with the commercialization of natural resources at the expense of the livelihood needs of local people on the one hand, and the alienation of local communities from the management of these resources on the other. What is less understood about the contemporary management of public wastelands is that those most dependent on these lands for their livelihoods are themselves internally divided and compromised in their ability to restore the productivity of these resources. It is well known that the poor are dependent on the commons for their livelihood needs and yet their relationship to public lands is such that they are unable to come together and institutionalize efforts to regenerate the wastelands on which their lives are heavily dependent. It is also the case that in areas of mass rural poverty the bulk of the land mass is owned if not managed by the state and institutions of panchayati raj.

It is now recognized that the over-exploitation of the commons, forest lands and pasture lands for commercial gains has adversely affected the economy and well-being of the rural poor. What is less well recognized is that the custodians of public lands have systematically vitiated the ability of the poor to properly manage these lands. They have informally privatised these resources in order to derive rents and gain power and control over villagers.

The form that this takes is for state functionaries to permit peasants, rich and poor alike, to encroach on public lands. Most pasturelands vested with gram panchayats tend to be heavily encroached by the village elite, elected panchayat representatives and a smattering of villagers from the spectrum of deprived social and economic groups in the village community. These popular but derelict land practices result in land and social relations that discourage community action and emasculate institutions of local self-governance. More perniciously, it disempowers leaders of civil society vis-a-vis state functionaries.

The situation and consequences with respect to the management of revenue and forest lands is similar. All categories of lands have encroachments. While the state periodically makes provisions to regularize encroachments of the poor, these steps do not mitigate the adverse consequences of ad hoc encroachments leading to conflicts among villagers, since those who encroach deny access to the traditional users of the commons.

 

 

In the last decade and a half there have been many significant initiatives by the state to address the problems of wastelands. One common feature of the new initiatives is the idea that the current crisis of large-scale degradation of land is best solved through peoplesí participation. In 1985 a National Wasteland Development Board was created to foster a peoplesí movement to afforest wastelands with the help of the voluntary sector. Substantial sums of money were made available to the voluntary agencies to promote wasteland development. In 1988, forest policy was changed to give village people a stake in the development and management of forest department lands. The policy resulted in the crystallization of the Joint Forest Management guidelines that allowed village people to assist the forest department in the rehabilitation of degraded forestlands and share benefits with the forest department.

In 1994 the Ministry of Rural Development issued guidelines for developing degraded watersheds through peoplesí participation. Access to all categories of public and private lands is provided in these guidelines to those who are willing to rehabilitate degraded watersheds. These initiatives are informed by the idea of moving from a state-centred approach to a people-centred approach to land management. While highly significant, the one issue that does not get addressed in all these initiatives is the complication on account of land governance practices that attenuate cooperative action and emasculate the autonomy of institutions of self-governance.

While significant if not spectacular successes have been attributed to the efficacy of these new policy initiatives in various parts of the country, the experience of one fairly systematic and long-term effort at wasteland development with which the author is familiar suggests otherwise. Seva Mandir, an NGO, took up wasteland development work on a large scale at the initiative of the National Wasteland Development Board which gave it a large grant to create a peoplesí movement for afforesting the highly degraded lands of the Aravali hill ranges, the home of large numbers of poor peasants and livestock herders. Since 1985, Seva Mandir has been actively engaged in wasteland development work in about 500 villages. Seva Mandirís programmes for wasteland development are attractive in monetary terms; they compensate village people for the opportunity cost of treating and protecting their degraded lands.

 

 

Since then, Seva Mandir has cumulatively treated over 8000 ha of degraded land. Out this amount less than 20% of the treated land is publicly held land or common property resource, while the rest is privately owned. What is striking about this proportion of private to public lands treated is the fact that the compensation for treating common lands is significantly higher than it is for treating privately owned lands. In the case of the private lands the contribution of the owner for land development is on an average 50%, while for common lands the expected contribution is 10% of total land development costs.

Close to 70% of the land in the area is publicly held. Yet, despite Seva Mandirís concentration on creating a peoplesí movement for wasteland development, it is unable to find common properties near village habitations that are not encumbered with encroachments and conflicts over user rights. The small amount of land that did become available for treatment is the result of enormous effort put in by Seva Mandir and villagers to persuade villagers and state authorities to vacate encroachments.

 

 

Over time, due to a positive demonstration effect of works completed, there has been an increase in the supply of common property resources for development purposes, but this increase is far from constituting a movement for wasteland development. On a more positive note what is interesting is the fact that in the 50 odd locations where the commons have been developed, in two-thirds of the locations these lands have not been re-encroached and there is active community management of common property resources.

The conclusion to be drawn is that where clear land entitlements are institutionalized, village people are inclined to cooperate and manage common property resources responsibly. In other words, agrarian civil society institutions, notwithstanding socio-economic stratification, can become the locus of development action and management. There are enormous dividends to be had from empowering civil society through making land access transparent and in the nature of a clear entitlement. While the state has shown great imagination in changing its policy framework for land management, the hard work of disciplining its staff and village people to abide by the existing norms of public property ownership and use remains a neglected challenge. The dominant mode of land management remains patronage centred. The issue of derelict land governance needs to be addressed if wasteland development is to become a peoplesí movement, an instrument of empowering agrarian civil society and alleviating mass poverty.

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