Bringing politics back in or taking politics out?

Climate & Natural resources26 Nov 2013D. Parthasarathy

In natural resource management, the issue is not bringing politics back in or taking it out, but the conditions under which issues are politicized.

Politics has always played a role in natural resource management in terms of excluding, marginalizing, and ignoring significant stakeholders from policy formulation and programme implementation, be it water, forestry, minerals, fisheries, or land. So, regarding the question of ‘bringing politics back in’ into development research and policy, politics has never really been ‘out’, even in projects and programmes designed in a technocratic or bureaucratic manner. Politics has been present in the way in which participation, decentralization, and devolution have been framed as problems and acted upon in development projects with a clear resource focus.

Conflicts around natural resources and the tendency of political parties in many countries not to take up environmental and resource issues as a political problem also reflect the political aspect of resource issues in India. Should resource problems then be politicized, in the sense used by Amartya Sen in relation to education, and become part of electoral debates and issues for parliamentary democracy? The role of NGOs, aid agencies, development institutions and global civil society have to some extent depoliticized resource issues. They are more often treated as micro-level issues which can be addressed in a participatory or technocratic way, rather than through normal political processes. At the same time, a legal approach to resource conflicts and problems of access and equity may have made it easier for such problems to be dealt with in a non-political way.

However, academics and activists tend to frame these issues using a political lens, especially because of high caste, class, gender, and power inequalities in India. This is true of resource conflicts at micro, meso, or macro levels relating to water, pasture, forests and land. Local elites, middle class environmental activists, and ‘omnivores’ (Gadgil and Guha’s (1995) term covering rich farmers, urban middle classes, industrialists, and bureaucracy), are widely seen to control and influence environmental policies and the use of and access to resources in India. Political leaders and the state play supporting roles by using economic, development or legal approaches to justify specific resource-related policies, laws and institutions. Resource conflicts or struggles over access, management and control are addressed through legal enactments, setting up specific tribunals or authorities, or are simply privatized or handed over to government agencies using efficiency arguments. For instance, water conflicts between states have led local political actors to mobilize around these issues, but at the federal and national level, conflicts are addressed through courts and tribunals, rather than seeking political solutions for accommodation and adaptation to resource scarcity problems. While one can legitimately ask how resource issues can be made an aspect of larger democratic politics, and processes of democratization in general, it is pertinent to ask whether such a strategy is desirable, will work, and is what communities excluded and marginalized from resource bases actually want.

Struggles, judicial rulings and state responses reveal a complex picture with reference to the role of politics and the strategies that can constrain or enable more equitable access to natural resources. In the case of forestry in India, the long struggle to make resources accessible to dependent communities culminated in the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006. In cases with and without political support, it is the failure of state institutions to respond positively and innovatively that is seen as a key reason for failure, rather than political apathy. This is most evident in the failure and success stories of local communities to access resources using the FRA, such as the famous Lekha Mendha case. As such, despite the very clear politician-corporate sector link in appropriating resources for private benefit, and the failure of the political class to implement innovative judicial measures on equity in access to forests and mineral resources (eg. the Samata judgement on giving indigenous communities more say in resource extraction), it is the institutions that oversee access to and management of resources that need urgent reform.

A case can be made for the argument that under pressure, the political class and the judiciary have created a clear framework for addressing problems of equity and access to resources, but that institutional changes and innovations have not accompanied these legal changes (again forestry is a good example, as is pasture and grazing). The 73rd amendment to the Indian Constitution gives village committee access to local resources, but appropriate institutional mechanisms have not been created to resolve conflicts between villages over pasture or bodies of water. In such a context, there is skepticism among the resource dependent poor whether politics can make a difference, as indicated by cases where those who are excluded from resources are now beginning to think of working with NGOs, governments or aid agencies to co-benefit from new projects (eg. indigenous communities preferring to work with NGOs in foreign supported forestry projects in the state of Orissa). On the other hand, those opposed to development projects which expropriate resources are also in a dilemma about their futures, and this is seen in the multiple perspectives, ideologies and allegiances that can be observed in struggles around natural resources.

Lastly, opposition to the political resolution of resource issues arises from some of the problems related to a larger politicization of issues. In the case of fisheries in Mumbai for instance, activists complain of the exclusion of broader environmental issues when problems are framed narrowly in terms of development or livelihood by politicians and activists. The new Coastal Regulation Zone, where industrial activity is prohibited, gives greater import to housing and urban development than protection of mangroves and coastal ecosystems. Second, rural and urban resource dependent poor (Guha’s (2006) ‘ecosystem people’) complain that bringing politics back in results in more outside stakeholders such as the World Bank and DFID claiming a legitimate right to be part of political and economic decision making about resource use, access and distribution. And finally, communities protest the loss of autonomy entailed in bringing politics back in. This is the case even where the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments have decentralized decision-making, providing greater control over resources. The issue then is not one of bringing politics back in or taking it out, but the conditions under which issues are politicized, and the way in which activists and academics conceptualize problems of power. The issue of autonomy seems to be central in any discussion about democracy and politics when it comes to development policies, and this requires new institutional frameworks as much as the political will by elites to recognize and address concerns of equity and access. Ultimately, people wish to make decisions under chosen circumstances, not under those created by others, which are bound to be biased and inherently inegalitarian.


Gadgil, Madhav, Ramachandra Guha (1995), Ecology and Equity: The use and abuse of nature in contemporary India. Routledge.

Guha, Ramachandra (2006), How much should a person consume? Environmentalism in India & the United States. University of California Press.