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One of the absorbing questions in institutional economics is the puzzle of how (or even whether) some communities are able to institute and maintain sustainable management ‘regimes’ for their common property resources (CPRs). Thus, the series editor to Elinor Ostrom’s epochal publication Governing the Commons (Ostrom, 1990), comments that this is “one of the most enduring and contentious questions of positive political economy, whether and how the exploration (sic.) of common-pool resources can be organized in a way that avoids both excessive consumption and administrative cost. These cases, where a resource is held in common by many individuals – that is, well-defined individual property rights over the resource are absent – are often held by economists to be exploitable only where the problem of over-consumption is solved by privatization or enforcement imposed by outside force.”
India today has been one of the more successful countries in forest conservation, inasmuch as it has been able to stabilize the forest area at around 69 to 70 million hectares (21% of the overall land surface), and even register a modest increase of some 3 mha over the decade 1997-2007 (FSI, India State of Forest Report 2009). The means to achieve this, however, have depended historically on the system of forest estate notification or reservation devised by the colonial government in the 19th century in the face of a rapid over-exploitation of the resource and increasing adverse impact of the resulting soil erosion and degradation of arable land. During the last two or more decades, however, there has been an increasingly trenchant criticism of this state-led approach from the part of the social activists and academics, resulting in a step-back from aggressive policing of the forest reserves and attempts to reinstate the community as the master, or ‘malik’, of the forests through such legal enactments as the Panchayati Raj Acts (PRAs) passed by the states pursuant to the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments of 1992, and the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006.
These approaches have excited much interest, and could provide an excellent setting to test some of the theories or hypotheses on what contributes to forest or CPR conservation in the context of institutional structures and practices. The author has initiated such a study by taking up the inter-relations among Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), village communities, and forest conservation in India. Case studies of Joint Forest management villages in the states of tamil nadu and Karnataka, and private (malkiyat) forests in the Aravalli hills of Haryana in north India were taken up, which demonstrate the complex interactions between community and state actors, private and common interests, and clearly bring out the strength in having a series of nested institutions (as suggested by Ostrom) to safeguard common property forests in a rapidly changing economic and social environment, in which both community and state are partners.