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Conservation and Society
An interdisciplinary journal exploring linkages between society, environment and development
Conservation and Society
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Year : 2021  |  Volume : 19  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 205-217

Making Decentralisation Work: A Comparative Ethnographic Analysis of Forest Conservation and Village Governance in West Bengal, India

Current affiliation: Ambedkar University Delhi, Delhi, India; Research undertaken at: University of Manchester, Manchester, UK

Correspondence Address:
Sumana Datta
Current affiliation: Ambedkar University Delhi, Delhi, India; Research undertaken at: University of Manchester, Manchester

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Source of Support: This research was funded by the University of Manchester (UK) as a PhD research, Conflict of Interest: The author declares no competing interests in the conduct of this research

DOI: 10.4103/cs.cs_20_81

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The literature on forest conservation lacks comparative analyses of decentralisation across different sectors to understand their relative advantages and limitations. This article adopts an ethnographic approach to compare the functioning of two decentralised village-level institutions in the state of West Bengal, India: the forest protection committees created under joint forest management and the gram panchayat, the lowest tier of the panchayati raj institution. The comparative analysis shows that despite their decentralised structure, the village forest protection committees have very little discretionary power relative to the powers exercised by gram panchayats. Gram panchayats have been effective in developing an inclusive and transparent decentralised governance system which retains the support of diverse interest groups within communities and other layers of the state. The study shows that style of decentralisation under joint forest management in West Bengal has been alienating forest-based communities from conservation because their voices remain symbolic in local, state, and national-level policy decisions. The study provides new theoretical and methodological insights for analysing decentralisation by underscoring the importance of criteria such as discretionary power for local decision-making and accountability; local bureaucratic and infrastructure support; and designated physical space in the everyday working of decentralised governance at the village level.

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