Reconceived Values and Debilitating Village Forest Councils in Himalayan India

Sahib Singh
PhD Anthropology

‘We will not give our Jal, Jangal, Zameen [water, forest, land]!’, the reverberations of which trailing off from an initially rising crescendo infectiously permeated the mind and soul of all those watching in awe as adivasis in central India marched peacefully in early October of 2021 to assert their self-determination and protest against their forests being taken away for mining. Resisting the cultural hegemony of modernisation and warding off external forces that perniciously upend traditional environmental values, or shatter life-worlds altogether, are withering traits, with community forest management institutions in north India being a case in point – a far cry from worlds striving to sustain themselves in their interactions with other worlds, especially when power asymmetries are prevalent (cf. Blaser 2009), as is currently manifest in the forests of central India. In Pluriversal Politics, Arturo Escobar elucidates the unravelling of the world-making practices that modernity is predicated on, which is arguably a single world / ‘One-World World’ that has assumed pre-eminence in the multifarious worlds that really exist but are instead subsumed within the dominant ontology of Euro-modernity. As he writes, “[…] many groups currently rebelling against developmentalist extractivism are resisting this One-World World; they are instances of the pluriverse rising up” (Escobar 2020: 27). Why is the situation in the central Himalayas in north India so different, and what is driving the ecological and moral breakdown? 

Although forests still cover about 30 percent of the world’s land mass, they are disappearing at an alarming rate, thereby adding to greenhouse gas emissions, and in turn, global warming. One way to curb emissions is harnessing the potential of local communities, and empowering them by granting them proprietor, claimant, and access/use rights over forest resources (Schlager and Ostrom 1992). Moreover, sacralising the environment and conserving it is ingrained in indigenous cultures the world over. A recent study has shown that indigenous peoples and local communities protect five times more carbon than previously thought (RRI 2018). There is a plethora of examples of community-governed forests – both formally recognised and informal institutions –  that have translated into positive biological outcomes. In this article, I employ critical social theory to throw light on how market forces and commoditisation are reconfiguring value orientations amongst communities in north India, thereby debilitating age-old governance structures and cultural predilections.

The van panchayats (village forest councils) in Kumaon, Uttarakhand, created in 1931, are probably the oldest surviving examples of formal collaboration between communities and the state to manage natural resources anywhere in the world. Village community members conceive of, draft and implement their forest management plan across a whole a host of activities, including forest monitoring, dispute resolution mechanisms, tactics for enforcement of rules, the quantum of extraction permissible, fines and sanctions for recalcitrant village members, amongst others. The van panchayat is vested with the responsibility to prepare a 5-year micro plan, in consultation with village members, making the process participatory in theory. In practice, however, few members are consulted/invited to partake in the planning and drafting phase. While the councils are quasi-autonomous, financial authority rests with the forest department which controls the allocation and disbursement of funds. With almost 13,000 village forest councils managing one-third the total area of Uttarakhand as of today, it becomes critical to understand its impacts – socioeconomic, political, and ecological – and the institutional regime that forms the backbone of such a large land mass. Indeed, many scholars have carried out this exercise, with the result being that a substantive body of literature now exists drawing on both the natural and social sciences and addressing questions on decentralised forest management in the middle Himalayas. 

Community-managed areas such as the van panchayats of Kumaon have however come under increasing stress and have undergone considerable degradation during recent years. What accounts for this “break-down” of these age-old institutions? Unsustainable extraction leading to declining trends in biological indicators could be one factor, with studies from other contexts providing an explanation: powerful economic forces and the growing monetisation of livelihoods lead to unsustainable harvesting, adversely affecting community-managed natural resources.

Leela Devi, Sarpanch (head of village) poses in the denser part of the Dhanachuli forest, which is one of the better-managed and few intact community forests in the region.

Factors affecting van panchayats and theoretical ambiguity

Market linkages and economic pressures will only have an impact if communities react. Communities seldom act in isolation (other than maybe some very remote tribes like the Sentinelese of the Andaman archipelago!); rather, they are enmeshed in larger socio-ecological systems and they respond to pressures and incentives. As was presciently pointed out over two decades ago by Agrawal (1996: 11), community institutions are therefore likely to “become less effective if the rural economy becomes more closely integrated with the national economy”.  With the growing connectivity to larger markets, subsistence users have greater incentives to increase harvesting levels so as to capitalise on cash income that accrues from the sale of resources. In addition, there are a host of other variables that have a bearing on the effectiveness of van panchayats such as social homogeneity and conflict, the ease with which rules are construed, effective enforcement of rules and regulations, monitoring, sanctioning, strong leadership with capable local organisation, amongst many others. While some scholars who have studied the van panchayats in Kumaon have found a link between changing socio-economic parameters and the erosion of social cohesiveness, which they claim are crippling the functioning of these community forest councils, none have parsed out the mechanisms that underpin this association. Even in cases in which intermediate variables have been alluded to, such as increasing demographic pressures, monetisation of traditional livelihoods, declining monitoring and participation levels, changing resource use patterns, and non-farm employment opportunities, a theoretical exposition conspicuous by its absence leaves much to be desired. 

Identity formation and intersubjectivity

How social identities get reconfigured as markets penetrate rural hill areas and destabilise institutional regimes is fundamental to understanding the link between market integration, social cohesion and the variegated outcomes of village forest councils. A natural antecedent worth examining is how social norms are formed and “environmental subjects” made. Agrawal argues that “participation in certain forms of environmental regulation and enforcement generates new conceptions of what constitutes the participants’ interest” (2005: 178), and the creation of new subjects that are concerned about the environment. However, I contend that self-formation takes place not only through involvement in different forms of practice, but as importantly, in how subjects view each other inter-subjectively; that is to say, how, for example, I understand and identify myself by how others identify me. These collective recognitions and identities, realised through continuous interaction and engagement, would contribute in large measure to the creation of unwritten norms that influence behaviour implicitly. 

Agrawal employs Foucault’s ideas on subject formation and its relationship with government and power to illustrate his conceptual framework. While Agrawal does underline the fact that the conditions associated with the origins of a particular subject (or subjectivity) might have little impact on the continued existence of that subject and the actions they take in the future, he stops right there and doesn’t embark on the idea’s natural progression. He refrains from analysing or discussing the implications of sustaining subjectivities, or their reorientation – the focus of this article. Drawing on Axel Honneth’s theory of intersubjective recognition (1995), I explore how villagers in Kumaon reconstitute their conceptions of their interests in the face of growing connectivity to national markets. Honneth sets out to re-imagine critical social theory by arguing that:

…the reproduction of social life is governed by the imperative of mutual recognition, because one can develop a practical relation-to-self only when one has learned to view oneself, from the normative perspective of one’s partners in interaction, as their social addressee” (Honneth 1995: 92).

According to Honneth, individuals develop three different forms of relation-to-self via a trifecta of social interactions. They include self-confidence, self-respect in legal relations of rights, and “self-esteem in local communities defined by shared value orientations” (Zurn 2000: 116). One might deduce that granting local communities rights to manage resources in Kumaon endowed them with a certain degree of self-respect, which in turn led to them embracing “environmentality”. Given Kumaon’s changing socio-economic environment, I focus on self-esteem and argue that shared values get reconfigured due to something akin to herd mentality or what Durkheim (1964 [1893]) called the collective consciousness, wherein as values transform for certain populations, others emulate these reconceived value orientations so as to be mutually recognised and retain their self-esteem. In contrast to Agrawal’s concept of “environmentality” and how it presupposes the formation of environmental leanings simply by engaging in regulatory affairs and participating in enforcement and monitoring (a form he calls “intimate government”), intersubjectivity works by seeing others engage in environmental practices or not, the way other subjects regulate their resource use according to widely accepted norms and rules and how that shapes one’s own regulatory practices, and the malleability of these same norms that are socially reconstructed as external influences begin to play a larger role.

Microplan of Letibunga village drafted and designed by the van panchayat with inputs from village members to manage their community forest.

Collective behaviour, “thresholds”, and focal pivots

It is important to clarify that I am not suggesting that collective-choice arrangements, one of the eight design principles identified by Ostrom (1990) on which successful common-pool resource management systems are predicated, will erode altogether. While market integration might weaken certain bonds, levels of trust, and cooperation, what is more pertinent to the argument considered here is the reorientation of collective interests, mutually reinforced via intersubjective recognition. However, one could point to gaps in this line of reasoning; in particular, when and how this reorientation take place (if at all), whether it affect all subjects, and the variations in intersubjectivity. In his classic paper, Granovetter (1978: 1420) outlines a key consideration, that of a “threshold” on which collective behaviour depends: i.e., “the proportion of others who must make one decision before a given actor does so”. One avenue for future research is therefore ascertaining not just whether and how interests have been reoriented in rural Kumaon, but also what the threshold for this reorientation is, if they have been indeed. 

A key question that arises is whether these socially mediated identities have focal pivots. In other words, can key actors (local leaders or influential elites for example) mould norms and consequently identities? And are they doing so in Kumaon? One might reasonably conclude that vested interests and elite capture are adversely affecting traditional pro-environment subjectivities with the growing monetisation of livelihoods. Or it might be that some leaders who are traditionally inclined, and steadfast in their convictions, are preventing age-old identities, norms and value systems from pivoting or being reconfigured. Investigating the variations in these two possible scenarios across van panchayats is an important potential future research avenue as it has implications for local governance structures and incentive-based mechanisms that mobilise local leadership. 

Intersubjectivity and environmentality are not competing forces vying for theoretical supremacy but, rather, flipsides of the same coin; after all, environmentality is nested within the community-built panopticon of intersubjectivity with the two theoretical frameworks reinforcing each other in practice. While their relative strengths shine individually, it is the creative amalgamation of the two that supersedes either in isolation. Their organic emergence and synchronised sustenance is due, in large measure, to affective bonds, trust, and agencies that are collectively realised, shaped and reshaped fundamentally by a steady dose of embodied ethical subject-making practices and moral atmospheres of more conscious forms of ontological self-reflection. As we ramp up our efforts at fighting climate change, it is important to keep in mind that ideas of self, personhood, and identity are critical for an alternative future, and while technology and green energy have a pivotal role to play, we also ought to focus our efforts at trying to inhibit commoditisation and forces of globalisation in getting entangled with socially mediated world-making enactments contributing to Escobar’s (2020) now famous “pluriverse”, environmental leanings, and age-old cultural identities. 

Title image: A degraded community forest near Nathuakhan, Kumaon.


  1. Agrawal, A. (1996) The community vs. the market and the state: Forest use in Uttarakhand in the Indian Himalayas. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 9(1), 1-15.
  2. Agrawal, A. (2005) Environmentality: Community, intimate government, and the making of environmental subjects in Kumaon, India. Current Anthropology, 46(2), pp.161-190.
  3. Blaser, M. (2009) The threat of the yrmo: the political ontology of a sustainable hunting program. American Anthropologist, 111(1):10-20.
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  5. Escobar, A. (2020) Pluriversal Politics: The Real and the Possible. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  6. Granovetter, M. (1978) Threshold models of collective behavior. American Journal of Sociology, 83(6), 1420-1443.
  7. Honneth, A. (1995) The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Cambridge: Polity.
  8. Rights and Resources Initiative (2018) Toward a Global Baseline of Carbon Storage in Collective Lands: Indigenous and local community contributions to climate change mitigation. Washington, DC: RRI.
  9. Ostrom, E. (1990) Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press.
  10. Schlager, E. and Ostrom, E. (1992) Property-rights regimes and natural resources: a conceptual analysis. Land Economics, 249-262.
  11. Zurn, C. (2000) Anthropology and normativity: a critique of Axel Honneth’s ‘formal conception of ethical life’. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 26(1), 115-124.

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