Contested constructions of water


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WATER is a scarce resource that lies at the heart of much of the political and social contestation in local, sub-national and national arenas in South Asia. This is reflected in the increasing attention it now receives in both the scientific and social science research agendas. The consequences of a drastic reduction in water flow in South Asian rivers is prominent in the earth sciences while the danger of large dams to local ecologies and livelihoods, illustrated most famously by the case of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, has become a global symbol of poor ecological management.

The strength that is unleashed from institutional management of water is also manifestly evident: historical analysis points to state institutions gaining considerable clout from ownership of water, an extreme case being that of ‘oriental despotism’. Similarly, debates about the marketization of water raise concerns about unfair advantage to the private sector and the possible exclusion of the poor.

The literature on water management currently emerging from new inter-disciplinary work, in particular the sub-field of institutional design of natural resource management, indicates that institutional mechanisms must incorporate both technical dimensions such as scale of the resource alongside social specificity, such as heterogeneity of users to ensure sustainable solutions (Ostrom 1990, 2005).


There are now specific formulations for advancing our understanding of water resource management that incorporate the presence of water resources in different physical forms, river and groundwater, as well as its different use by location, rural and urban, to provide finer distinctions on the supply side features of ‘fit’. The ‘fitting’ of water management to administrative and hydrological boundaries – ensuring an ‘interplay’ between water management and other forms of governance, and evaluating dimensions of ‘scale’ at various levels has been uncovered in recent institutional analysis (Mollinga 2007).

There has also been more careful analysis of the demand-side institutional differences that emerge in the management of natural resources due to the contextual aspects that are based on different needs in individual countries (Bandaragoda 2009). The importance of identifying and incorporating both supply-side and demand-side features in relationship to water ownership and pattern of use drawing on both scientific and social science perspectives foregrounds the need for further inter disciplinary framework for sustainable water resource management.

The implications of the new thinking in institutional design point to a need for devising an interdisciplinary framework of water management, as policy advisers tend to work within a single academic discipline. This restrictive policy framing makes it difficult for policy makers to identify the most appropriate academic construction of water to provide the blueprint for policy design and analysis.

This article recommends an institutional analysis of water and begins by identifying the difficulties confronting natural resource management within national policy frameworks based on a single disciplinary framing. The case of forest management is illustrative. This is followed by a discussion of how a construction of water resource management that draws on a range of social science disciplines can identify gaps in the valuation of water to improve estimation of both returns as well as risks. The paper concludes that giving a greater social contextualization to access and ownership of water resources will permit a better balance between demand and supply side aspects and involve a fuller array of stakeholders to ensure sustainable water resource management.


Natural Resource Management has been a subject of study within a number of science and social science disciplines, ranging from botany to management studies. Within social science thinking a shift took place in the 1980s, from a singular focus on economic valuation methods using quantitative techniques such as cost-benefit analysis to an understanding of the technical and social features of a particular natural resource.

The move from market economics to institutional design came about as part of a new understanding of how problems of the environment should be addressed. The starting point was an admission by economic analysts that using a ‘one-size fits all’ approach to natural resources was not viable and that one needed to incorporate the topographical and social particularities of natural resource, e.g., whether water was located in an inland lake or a river valley and the nature of the groups who had access to the resource (Ostrom 1990).


The physical and social context within which a natural resource is managed became the starting point for new cost calculations that focused on how the concerned individuals conserved resources. The framework of analyzing water management that was devised within the school of New Institutional Economics (NIE) focused on identifying economic costs associated with mechanisms for the conservation of resources. The NIE framing regarded the property rights assignment among individual users of the natural resource as central to ensuring efficient resource use and thereby conserving the natural resource. NIE thinking, consequently, directs governments and other institutions to give primary importance to the pattern of the allocation of ownership, favouring those individual users who have the greater stake in a resource as priority owners (Libecap 1989, Ostrom 1990).

The impact of such a framing that has been influenced more by North American rather than the European approaches to institutional analysis in the social sciences has resulted in a greater interest in contracts between government and individuals (or groups) than in mapping the complex use of the resource by individuals and communities. The preference in the NIE approach for identifying natural resource management with particular owners and users, rather than the pattern of use and its relationship to the social context, has resulted in a narrow notion of management rather than provide a socially constituted basis for sustainable resource use.


The limitation of the NIE framework lies in the assumption that optimizing individual preferences drives the decisions of individuals in the management of natural resources (Saravanan 2009). A discussion of natural resource management is consequently reduced to the desires of individual players and does not incorporate the larger social context within which these decisions are taken. The focus on individual decisions also prohibits an explicit incorporation of norms that might operate in time periods that exceed that of an individual’s life (Fennell 2010). In particular, it does not help in understanding the role of factors that function across generations and have inter-generational effects.

The contribution that long-term social norms play in the lives of local communities in managing natural resources has been disregarded not only by NIE but also the mainstream development institutions. This oversight has resulted in supply-side decisions being made by national governments and their designated institutions regarding ownership and contracting without taking on board the demand-side considerations that affect the livelihoods of local communities dependent on these natural resources. The inability to incorporate the role of social groups demanding access to and in managing natural resources has resulted in a partial and lopsided understanding of management design.

The shortcoming of both traditional economic thinking and NIE thinking on institutional design exposes the limits of costing and contracting approaches to natural resource management. Thus the need for policy formulation on water management to go beyond single disciplinary perspectives and comprehensively incorporates social and technical dimensions (Ostrom 1990). A restrictive policy framing which denies the role of communities and groups in conserving natural resources also prevents them from being involved as active agents who can contribute to appropriate blueprints for policy design and analysis.


The significant role played by communities in the management of natural resources has become an important area of study in ecological social sciences in the last decade. The sub-field of forest management has been particularly helpful in improving our understanding of the challenges posed by state policies that do not take into account the needs and perspectives of local forest communities. These studies focus on the institutional diversity present in both the supply and demand-side features of natural resource management, using a combination of natural and social science tools (Ostrom 2005). The purpose of these new techniques in natural resource management is to ensure that faulty methods drawn from narrow single-disciplinary approaches are no longer applied in institutional design.

One sub-field where the dangers of narrow approaches became evident by the end of the 20th century is that of forestry (Moran and Ostrom 2005). The diminution in forest cover across the globe, and a number of national contexts makes it evident that supply-side concerns far exceed the demand-side analyses of the manner in which forests are managed. The evidence in the national examples below shows the consequences of such a one-sided approach to natural resource management.

The increasing colonial demand for Asian wood gave rise to a new commodity trade during the 19th century in South Asia and East Africa (Sivaramakrishnan 1995). The lucrative market opportunities arising from the considerable commercial value of particular species of timber resulted in private contracts being provided by the state for the removal and use of wood and other forest produce. While such contracting was initiated during the colonial era, it continued into the post-colonial period with little consideration for the historical denial of community rights in and usage by the public of the forests (Guha 1989). This disregard for traditional, communal and indigenous rights to forest resources by the state resulted in a confrontation with the community and groups in civil society.


A clash over the ownership of the forest and its primacy as a form of life and livelihood has resulted in distributional conflict and contestation over rights. At the heart of this conflict is the manner in which the state uses politics, rhetoric and knowledge to privilege current economic value and market opportunity over cultural, traditional and indigenous forms of society. In the case of forests, we need a deeper study of the history of ownership and stakeholder usage for ‘there is a dialectical relationship between discourses of rules and discourses of protest, and we can advance the study of this relationship by treating resistance as a diagnostic of power’ (Sivaramakrishnan, 1995: 3). The nature of and reason for contestation reveals the problems that emerge when demand-side factors are not adequately recognized and incorporated into policy design.

Malaysia: The case of the Orang Asli, the original peoples of Malaysia who were excluded from any legal deed to their traditional lands, sets out the difficulties faced by local communities in getting formal recognition of their systems of natural resource management. The formal position of the British colonial administration was in support of the laws promulgated by the princely Malay states which decreed that all land was the property of the kings. After independence, the same understanding was carried over into the national policies of Malaysian government. The National Land Code that was introduced in 1965 to provide a uniform system of land ownership, continued to draw on the system of land registration that had initially been introduced by the British colonial administration during the 1930s (Means 1985).


As independent Malaysia was a federation of thirteen princely states, it required the promulgation of laws that could operate across all states. The National Land Code proceeded to vest land rights of individuals only upon registration in the land registry. Though this was approved by each of the princely states, the legislation was contradictory to the practices of indigenous groups viz. the twelve tribes of Orang Asli whose practice was to pass on their collective rights from generation to generation through customary law, and not to vest it in an individual (Cheah 2004).

The inability of state law to recognize the rights of the Orang Asli became a matter of public concern when the federal government used the Land Code to compulsorily requisition the land of the Orang Asli Temuan tribe to facilitate a road link between the new Kuala Lumpur international airport and Kuala Lumpur city. The Temuans complained to the High Court of Malaysia and sought the restitution of their right to ancestral land. In its 2002 decision, the court recognized that the rights of the Orang Asli were different from the private land rights determined within market contexts, and that the Orang Asli did not obtain only economic products from the land, but that their very way of life was directed by the spirits of their ancestral land. It, therefore, decreed that the ‘native title’ of the Orang Asli could not be treated as though land was a mere commodity and on par with private land holdings but rather that it should be regarded as a way of life that was based on a system of beliefs linked to the land (Cheah 2004).

India: The colonial policies of forest management that had been introduced during the 19th century continued unaltered till the 1970s. Forest agitations, most particularly that of the Chipko agitation in the mountainous regions of Uttar Pradesh, resulted in changes in the forest legislations in the 1980s (Damodaran and Engel 2003). Even though the new laws recognized the rights of hill communities, their traditional systems of governing access to resources were not incorporated in subsequent forest policies.


The difficulty of striking a proper balance between state policy and community demands is best illustrated in the Joint Forestry Management (JFM) programme introduced in the 1990s. The JFM was designed to initiate a participatory form of forest management. However, these programmes failed on account of official interference and were unable to vest any power in the local communities, whether by intent or poor design, and prevent premature exploitation of the trees (Sundar 2000).

This new managerial form of organized resource use became the official state framework for a wave of social forestry programmes in Indian districts for the next two decades. The participation that was to be the foundation of this framework did not result in the poorest sections of the forest community, by caste or occupation, gaining equal access to forest resources (Vemuri 2008). The failure of the JFM programme to restructure the access structure indicates that the social features of demand were not taken into account adequately in what remained a top down management structure of the bureaucratic administrative and forest services.

China: The difficulties faced by the state in recognizing and designing common property resources are widespread and cross over different development paradigms. After independence in 1949, all land, including forest land, in China was declared as state property. The Chinese approach to forest management during the first half of 1950s was modelled closely on Stalin’s understanding of controlling and exploiting nature (Bao 2006). Though from 1956 onwards, forest land was awarded to private households, this policy was revoked during the years of the cultural revolution from 1966-76 (Long and Zhou 2001). It was thus only after the start of the economic reforms of the 1980s, that there was a reconsideration of the rights to the forests with regard to usage and management of resources.


In September 1984, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee adopted the Forest Law of the People’s Republic of China. This law was formulated to protect, nurture, and rationally utilize the forest resources so as to speed up the greening of the country’s territory. The law was designed to foreground the roles that the forest could play with regard to storing water, saving soil, adjusting the climate, improving the environment, and supplying forest products (Xi 1999). The remit of the law was largely concerned with changing incentives with regard to the cultivation, planting, logging and utilization of forests and to regulate the operation and management of forests, trees and woodlands.

The strong developmental spin placed on the use and conservation of forest lands has implications for the rights and lives of indigenous people who have long established customary laws with regard to the forest lands in far flung areas of the country. The sale of user rights and the growth of tourism have emerged as large revenue earners for the provincial governments, but they have also come into conflict with the traditional ways of the indigenous groups. The market based approaches to user rights have devalued traditional ways of knowledge transfer regarding flora and fauna.


The politics of forest resource management is contest-ridden in Asia. Indigenous and tribal groups continue to be overlooked by the bureaucratic and forest institutions and supply-side matters such as contracts take the upper hand. Similarly, official laws are rarely invoked by the local communities who would rather turn to their customary laws to deal with forest disputes. The gap between contractual supply-side models of forest use and the group demands arising from social norms of forest use indicate that all is not well in the world of forest policy modelling.

There has been an attempt to reduce confrontation between state and civil society by relying on community approaches that use interdisciplinary tools to ensure sustainable forest resource management. The biggest challenge to managing these resources is the difficulty that players on the supply and demand sides face in creating a common platform through a process of ‘collaboration as a way forward’ (Vira, Daniels, Dubois and Walker 1998).

This collaborative process is based on the understanding that sustainable resource management is more likely in a situation where all players have a shared urgency of risk in natural resource use. The central plank in this approach is that all stakeholders identify a common need for a valued resource that permits the use of procedures to reduce risk by using collective mechanisms to mitigate costs. If such collective mechanisms can be made to work, despite the presence of social and economic hierarchies, the process of collaboration is likely to succeed. In situations such as those seen in the development trajectories of the forest sector in Malaysia, India and China, where there is little effort to identify all the stakeholders on the demand and supply-side, it is not surprising that the institutional design for resource management suffers from poor computation, resulting in an underestimation of relative costs and benefits (Adams, Brockington, Dyson and Vira, 2002).


The lessons from the poor record of forest resource management highlight the difficulty of identifying the full range of players on both supply and demand sides of natural resource management and usage. Simple interventions based on legislative reform do not provide a sufficient basis, as the legal framework alone is not able to ensure equality of access for all players, nor can it reverse top-down bureaucratic administrative and forest institutional structures.

The limitations of these early management frameworks have led to a review of natural resource management that goes beyond relying on contract and formal laws to a more careful inclusion of social norms and informal practices (Ostrom 2005). The importance of carefully linking law to policy and administration has also been recognized with regard to water resource management. In particular, water law, policy and administration have been identified as three pillars of water management in international literature (Saleth and Dinar 2000). These formulations are also finding favourable reception among scholars of Indian water policy.


Even as the focus on law, policy and organizations as central themes for an improved institutional analysis of water management has been welcomed, there is concern that these global policy formulations have yet to devise tools that can analyze how societies adapt to the supply side interventions by the government and other institutional players (Shah 2005). Additionally, there is concern that the lessons from the international sphere should not be seen as the magic mantra that can solve water management problems. In fact, the reverse process by which Indian water resources experiences have helped fashion national and international water policy frameworks should also be recognized (Mollinga 2010).

The possible solutions for Indian water resource management thus lie in the overlapping spheres of these two processes. The complexities of India’s water-bodies demands detailed knowledge of social and technological processes (Shah 2003) alongside a more astute evaluation of the hydrological and other ecological dimensions (Bandaragoda 2006).

The case of rural water management has been of particular significance in devising management structures. The context of this phenomenon emerged with the rising power of the rural farmers’ lobbies in the 1960s. Another dimension of rural action emerged with the increasingly vocal protests by subordinate groups such as marginal farmers and landless labour in anti-dam movements such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan from the 1980s.

The political economy of rural water management has thus been played out in the battleground between national architects of development policy and local advocacy groups for the poor and marginalized groups in the last few decades. The backdrop to this story of conflicting claims to water is the increasing demand for water resulting from the introduction of thirsty high-yielding varieties (HYVs) brought in by the Green Revolution technologies of the 1960s, and the associated increase in rent-seeking opportunities alongside the growing revenue accruing from water delivery (Mosse 2003). The political posturing of the rural elites and their use of irrigation facilities to gain private wealth through the proliferation of corrupt practices in water delivery and usage became endemic in the sector. It is within this social context that we need to understand the specific characteristics and types of water resource management in rural India.


The technical aspects of such inequalities have also received attention. The first feature is known as the ‘head end-tail end’ problematic. This terminology relates to the topographical feature in an irrigation system where farmers on the upstream side of a canal are able to appropriate more than their due share of the water, depriving those at the downstream. Such differentiation is compounded by the fact that richer farmers tend to occupy or to manipulate access to the ups-tream land and this results in an unhealthy overlap between social and spatial inequality with regard to rural water resources (Mollinga 2003). One consequence for Indian rural water management has been that there is no strong lobby to demand irrigation reforms and activist movements in the matter of water distribution have so far not come to the forefront in any consistent manner.


The second aspect regarding technical differences in irrigation relate to the heterogeneity of irrigation types: for instance, how well irrigation has been overlooked in relation to canal irrigation. In the former, water is restricted to examination of a single source while in the latter case, water availability is dependent of the ability of individual tube well pumps to draw up ground water. The preference in the economic approach to water management based on the existence and operation of water markets is related to the importance of tube well extracted water for the accumulation of rural wealth in regions such as the Punjab. It is the economic costs rather than the social and political aspects of water access to non tube well owners and inequities that exist with regard to small farmers and tenants that have been the subject of study (Dubash 2002). The existing management structures for groundwater extraction have focused on evolving a contractual framework that is based on rationing of water extraction across claimants. Such an approach is ineffective, as it does not permit an institutional analysis of individual household demand nor the pattern and purposes of water use by each household (Shah 2005).

The third aspect regarding the technical features of water resource management is that of false conceptualization, as in the case of tank based irrigation. Despite the tank being a human construction that is located within a community, a limited analysis of the social differentiation in a village results in poor management practices. This shortcoming arises out of a shallow understanding of both community and small villages as non-hierarchical spaces. This is a manifestly faulty proposition as we see caste based and use based conflicts in water usage that are prominent in these communities (Shah 2003).

Tank irrigation is therefore presented as a simple form of water resource use and conservation. This is not accurate as there are social features and social relations that affect water usage: e.g., where elites undertake mechanical recharging of water basins that change the water levels in tanks in the locality and consequently the water availability to households from traditional water use arrangements.


There are numerous shortcomings of a narrow economic and technical analysis of Indian water resources which have been highlighted by Indian scholars. This failure is further compounded by the existing management practices undertaken by administrative and water bureaucracies at district, block and cluster levels in rural India. These bodies continue to operate within a top-down institutional framework. This has resulted in a history of confrontation between communities asserting group rights and the state claiming natural resource ownership.

The claims of subordinate and marginal groups are resisted by national development architects who advocate a trickle down policy, claiming that it will eventually benefit these groups as economic growth proceeds. This market based approach to development has been unable to accord rights to marginal farmers, landless labour and other marginal groups in local communities whose rights to water resources have consequently diminished over the last few decades. This situation prevails despite the attempt of new management approaches to include the ‘community’, possibly because the water resources that are located in these community spaces are becoming increasingly attractive to the state as contributors to new sources of wealth (Shah 2003). This head-on collision results in conflicts regarding the institutional design of natural resource management frameworks between the supply side interventions being devised by bureaucrats, national and international agencies and the patterns and purposes of use among heterogeneous users of water across a range of water resource types (Shah 2005).


The inequity perpetuated by such poorly designed institutional mechanisms for water management has resulted in regressive social and economic consequences within local communities. Furthermore, there are additional social fractures created by an overlap of social and spatial differentiation. These complex social features imply that legal reform by itself cannot ensure that water resource management can be improved through remedying ownership assignment. The reason is that legal reform in a narrow economic framing is restricted to only those who have rights of ownership, such as landowners, tube well owners, and tank irrigation owners, while regarding all other groups as mere tenants of the state (Fennell 2010). This binary separation of members of a local community creates a basis for conflict within the community and works against forging a common identity that is necessary for sustainable natural resource management.

The focus on identifying ownership and contractual rights does not take into account of the processes or purposes of usage by those in the community who do not have access to these privileges. Consequently, legal reforms that reorganize the principles of rationing water or of redistributing water use, only value the economic benefit from such usage but fail to take into account livelihood or cultural dimensions that do not have a market equivalent. A legal perspective that reduces individuals’ varied use of water to mere economic motivation and eschews the cultural, political and social experience results in poor computation of the costs and benefits of particular mechanisms of water resource management. It also militates against a securing of all three pillars of water management – law, policy and administration – required for sustainable institutional design.


If the institutional design of water resource management mechanisms fails to incorporate tenets of social justice in relation to both supply and demand side features, there is less chance of constructing a common identity around resource use. Social justice, defined in terms of equity rather than individual equality, appears to be a more effective starting point, as it permits individuals to be treated ‘fairly’ so as to address social and economic inequalities. The call for equality based on a notion that all individuals are identical and can therefore be fully functional in a market context without caste, class or gender hierarchies is not likely in situations marked by a variety of inequities in water access and use (Fennell 2010).

The limitations of existing water resource management mechanisms in India cannot be overcome by looking only at legal reform without ensuring that proposed legal changes dovetail with policy and administrative reforms. This is particularly pertinent in the current legal environment where the right to property is regarded as sacrosanct. Note that it was only after the green revolution in agriculture became widespread in India and the powerful landlords became rural capitalists that the state changed its views on private property in land holdings. These forms of persistent inequity in treatment by the courts have cast doubt on the ability of the law to transform social relations.

It is the current challenges to ensuring that legal reform is transferred to policy and administrative spheres that make the new interdisciplinary mechanisms based on multidisciplinary perspectives so promising. The possibility of using institutional features such as the ‘fit’ between administration and hydrology, provides a way to disentangle parts of supply features that could make for more careful legal redress such as regulatory reform of delivery mechanisms and the monitoring of use; in the case of ‘interplay’ there could different methods of creating synergy between water management and other local management structures, whether these are social or market-based could be determined by the use of participatory evaluation; and finally ‘scale’ could be incentives provided for both administrative and water bureaucracy to reduce any rent-seeking opportunities from top-down management.


The possibility of moving across the three pillars – from administration, to policy and finally the law – facilitates community-led initiatives that focus on both the process and the purpose of water usage by each household in the community. Using the appropriate methods to identify household usage can provide contextualized and location specific evidence on water availability, access and ownership. The heterogeneity, and possible conflict, between diverse groups in the community can be an entry point for uncovering the challenges to establishing a platform for resource management. In recent years there have been academic initiatives to use multi-disciplinary teams and approaches to devise a broader basis for conceptualizing the management of natural resources that takes into account the social, political, and ecological systems that interact with the economic motivation of individuals (Poteete, Janssen and Ostrom 2010).


The identification of the specific social, cultural, political and economic values that each group accords to water availability and access can lead to a better estimation of the benefits and costs of current ownership patterns of water resources. For instance, if there is evidence showing that the lives and livelihoods of marginal groups are adversely affected by existing water ownership patterns, it would be a more effective strategy to provide new water markets that favour the most disadvantaged, whether by caste, class or gender. The ability to incorporate social and power relations through the mapping of lived experiences facilitates the study of individual choice in terms of community norms and locally constructed attributes and values (Cornwall and Scoones 2011).

The move from earlier governmental and market notions of ownership of natural resources to models that draw on stakeholder management encourages collaboration across groups to maintain the resources in the water sector. Simultaneously, the movement away from legal diktat for natural resource management frameworks to an administrative process based on a mapping of heterogeneous demands within a local community, ensures that both demand and supply features of institutional design can be tested and subsequently monitored when the framework is operational.


The growing concerns about water, both globally and within India, have brought to the fore the difficulties of creating a platform for sustainable water resource management in a conflict ridden policy environment. The divisive elements are not only in the actual field of water management but also in the combative attitude taken by individual disciplines regarding the appropriate policy framing for the institutional design of water resource management.

An alternative framing of academic disciplines in new resource management analysis shows how the intersections of various disciplinary perspectives can contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the supply and demand side features of water resource provision and usage. The most important feature is the ability to bring in contextualized and location-specific analysis of water availability, access and ownership. The possibility of using these process and purpose based mapping of heterogeneous usage within a community permits the drawing up of a water resource design that has the ability to identify the difficulties of attempting natural resource management within national policy frameworks. Such a framework permits a construction of water drawing on natural, scientific and social science disciplines to identify gaps in the valuation of water which lead to poor estimation of both returns as well as risks in a range of environments.

As indicated in the review of challenges of forest resource management, it is clear that following a narrow approach that focuses on economic valuation and regards law as a starting point for devising a framework for natural resource management is fundamentally flawed. The need to regard policy as primarily constituted by political and social contestation to prevent further reduction in the water resource availability in India points to legal reform as the final stage rather than the starting point for institutional design. Undertaking an analysis of state institutions and how they regard water, particularly in relationship to ownership and contractual considerations, shows that there is an exclusion of the poor and marginalized groups in the local community.


Governance mechanisms for sustaining natural resources need to take into account the technical dimensions to create a better fit, interplay and scale dimensions within any management mechanism. In the case of water resources, given the presence of water resources in different physical forms – canal, tube well and tank – as well as the particularities of rural political economy in India, opportunities for sustainable water resource management will be enhanced by focusing on those individuals and households most inequitably treated by existing ownership assignment. This use of equitable rules of inclusion can remedy existing binary forms of social structure with regard to resource use and facilitate the creation of a common platform that is required for sustainable water resource management principles to operate.



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