How the PESA has boosted forest conservation in India

The Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act empowered the Scheduled Tribes as political actors; and as they needed to protect trees for their livelihoods, it made them hostile to commercial timber and mining

Updated - June 25, 2024 09:42 am IST

Published - June 25, 2024 08:30 am IST

Women from the Singapathy tribal settlement collecting firewood for fuel at the foothills of the Western Ghats in Coimbatore in 2023.

Women from the Singapathy tribal settlement collecting firewood for fuel at the foothills of the Western Ghats in Coimbatore in 2023. | Photo Credit: PERIASAMY. M

Gulzar, Saad, Apoorva Lal, and Benjamin Pasquale (2023). ‘Representation and Forest Conservation: Evidence from India’s Scheduled Areas’. American Political Science Review (2024) 118, 2, 764-783.

The policy approach to conservation in India has long grappled with two kinds of conflicts: conservation versus resource extraction by local communities, and conservation versus ‘economic development’. The state has tended to follow a piecemeal approach, at times leaning one way, at other times the other, with the direction determined by competition between sections of the political elite at the national, state, and local levels.

In such a scenario, it goes without saying that greater the centralisation of political power, the greater the say of the national and/or state elites, which, predictably, would foster a privileging of the interests of big capital over that of local communities. In other words, deforestation driven by mining, power projects, commercial timber, big dams etc. could prevail over conservation and/or livelihoods of forest communities — a noticeable phenomenon in India. Where conservation initiatives do take off, they often follow a top-down approach, leading to situations where local communities lose access to traditional forest lands critical for their sustenance.

Is there a policy approach that might reconcile these contradictions? There is, says this paper. The authors, Saad Gulzar, Apoorva Lal and Benjamin Pasquale, argue that providing mandated political representation to marginalised communities boosts forest conservation while securing, at the same time, their economic interests. If that is so, the next question would be: what kind of political representation?

This article makes the case for a combination of decentralisation and democratisation, where marginalised local communities — living in, or in proximity to, forests — enjoy not just token political representation but have actual say in both decision-making and resource management.

The methodology

How do the authors arrive at this conclusion? They draw on a data-driven study of an institution mandated to provide precisely the kind of political representation they propose: the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA). Passed in 1996, PESA extends local government councils to Scheduled Areas. Under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, regions with predominantly tribal populations are categorised as ‘Scheduled Areas’, a territorial designation thatrecognises the customary rights of the Scheduled Tribes (ST).

Though the 73rd Amendment, passed in 1992, formalised local self-government through the three-tier Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) in the non-Scheduled Areas, it did so without “mandated representation for STs”. PESA, however, took it a step further. It “introduced an electoral quota that requires all chairperson positions, as well as at least half the seats on each local government councils to be reserved for ST individuals.” Incidentally, in States where PESA has not been implemented well, as in Gujarat, for instance, the most common failure has been the absence of mandated ST representation in gram sabha committees.

This variegated governance landscape has one virtue. It offers comparable data sets of local self-governance and forest cover that differ in geography and over time for villages: with local self-government in Scheduled Areas (with mandated ST representation); for villages with local self-government without mandated ST representation; and also, villages which adopted PESA earlier, and those that did so later. In tracking these different sets of villages for rates of deforestation and afforestation over time, the authors adopt what they call a “difference-in-differences’ framework. As they explain, “We use the staggered adoption of PESA institutions across States, and within-state variation in Scheduled Areas versus non-Scheduled Areas, in a difference-in-differences framework that enables us to isolate the causal effect of ST-mandated representation on forest outcomes.”

Unlike earlier studies of this kind, which relied on field work in small communities to track local changes in forestation outcomes, this paper uses “remote-sensing microdata that have recently become available from satellites such as LANDSAT, Sentinel, and DMSP.” They use two such datasets — the MEaSURES Vegetation Continuous Fields (VCF), and the Global Forest Cover (GFC) dataset for 2001-17.

Equitable representation

Tracking the increase and decrease of tree and vegetation cover over time and across the forested areas around these different sets of villages, they found that “boosting formal representation for ST led to an average increase in tree canopy by 3% per year as well as a reduction in the rate of deforestation.” The effects were also larger for areas that had more forest cover at the start of the study period. The study also showed that the rise in tree canopy and fall in deforestation only began to happen “after the introduction of PESA elections that mandate quotas for ST.” In other words, the mere presence of PRIs or local self-government — which were introduced from 1993 — “without mandated representation for the ST, had no conservation effects.”

This was not a case of correlation but causation. When empowered as political actors, the STs had an economic incentive to protect trees, which they needed for their livelihoods centred on sale of non-timber forest produce and daily caloric intake — a dependency that made them hostile to commercial timber and mining, two deadly drivers of deforestation. As the authors sum up, “under PESA, ST are able to better pursue their economic interests which in turn leads to better forest conservation, a mechanism we call ‘forest stewardship’.”

The paper also provides qualitative and quantitative evidence for a second mechanism instrumental for improvement of overall forest health: opposition to mining interests, “where the increase to ST representation enables ST communities to resist mining and other large-scale commercial operation.” The paper finds that prior to PESA, areas close to mines experienced higher rates of deforestation. But the introduction of PESA elections led “to a greater reduction in deforestation for PESA villages close to mines”. Interestingly, they provide evidence that the introduction of PESA also “increased the incidence of conflict around mining”.

On democratic decentralisation

The study further compares the impacts of PESA with that of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA), a legislation that aimed to bolster ST rights to forest lands. It found that FRA had “no discernible additional impacts” on conservation “beyond those caused by PESA.” The paper makes a key theoretical distinction between administrative decentralisation (where the priority is efficient execution) and democratic decentralisation. It is possible to have village-level governing councils empowered with budgets for execution but lacking discretionary power on resource management. That won’t do. “Unlike administrative decentralisation, democratic decentralisation ‘refers to representative and downwardly accountable local actors who have autonomous, discretionary decision-making spheres, with the power and resources to make significant decisions pertaining to people’s lives.’”

In conclusion, if mandated political representation for marginalised communities is one institutional mechanism that can yield better results in conservation, a second, one, according to the study, is “vesting powers in a single umbrella institution — for instance, a political institution that empowers marginalised voices.” A single institution — rather than multiple ones vested with different mandates — is critical because it would be “better at recognising how to balance the dual policy objectives of development and conservation; and it can “consolidate power into a more substantive and meaningful democratic authority.”

Forest-dwelling ST communities are one of the most impoverished and politically marginalised populations in India. Fresh evidence, as seen in the findings of this paper, of complementarities between achieving conservation goals and economic development of vulnerable populations is good news for policymakers, who are duty-bound to protect their rights and ensure their welfare.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.