Revisiting India’s forest bureaucracies II: situating individuals in the making of political forests

Type: Virtual Panel
Sponsor Groups: Asian Geography Specialty Group, Cultural and Political Ecology Specialty Group, Political Geography Specialty Group
Organizers: Jared Margulies, Anwesha Dutta
Chairs: Anwesha Dutta


Following an earlier paper session on this subject, Drs. Sudha Vasan (University of Delhi), Mahesh Rangarajan (Ashoka University), Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan (Yale), Forrest Fleischman (Minnesota), and Paul Robbins (Wisconsin) will participate as panelists in a roundtable discussion panel on "Revisiting India’s forest bureaucracies: situating individuals in the making of political forests." The panel will respond in part to the papers and topics that emerge during the earlier session.

It has been approximately 20 years since several key works on Indian forest bureaucracy in relation to forest conservation were published (Robbins, 2000; Sivaramakrishnan, 1999; Vasan, 2002). Despite the intervening decades, important questions remain unanswered in relation to how the decisions of individual actors operating within India’s forest bureaucracies (at the individual state and Central Government level) both affect the management of political forests and create new kinds of conservation problems, as highlighted by Fleischman (2015). While some issues, such as everyday corruption and illicit resource extraction, remain very much the same in shaping Indian forest management (Robbins 2000), other issues, such as human-wildlife conflict and militarized responses to conservation incursions have intensified (Dutta, 2020; Margulies, 2018; Simlai 2015).

It has been established that forest administration agencies are key functionaries in translating conservation policies into action, which is particularly true for most of South Asia, a region which witnessed a systematic transition of jungles into political forests (Rangarajan, 1996). Yet, a two-fold fixation on process (how conservation should be carried out) and outcome (what is the end result) continue to drive policy and practice with less attention to the actual individuals who carry out the day-to-day activities of forest management. Despite the foundational importance of research that elucidates why attention to forest bureaucracies is essential to understanding how conservation of forests occurs in India (Fleischman, 2014; 2015), when it comes to researching social dynamics in conservation, the starting point of much scholarship remains a focus on communities negatively impacted by conservation practice and policies.

Attending to matters of social relations within the forest hierarchy holds the promise of more deeply understanding not just why foresters make the decisions they do, but how such decisions are operationalized through a broader network of relations and in response to individual and collective responsibilities. Intricately linked to this question of process in bureaucratic forest management are questions of inter-relationships and power dynamics between and across conservation bureaucratic hierarchies. For example, decisions made and enforced by bureaucrats of the forest department are implemented on the ground by lower level personnel like forest guards or temporary staff such as forest watchers, many of whom face insecurity and informality in their positions.

We believe that it is imperative to continue to study the behavior of the people carrying out conservation at all levels of forest management in order to understand processual conservation failures even as they might reflect bureaucratic ‘successes.’ Through a discussion of this disjuncture between failure and success we foresee this joint session and panel giving attention to how to achieve more positive conservation outcomes oriented towards multispecies justice with a particular emphasis on the rights of indigenous forest dwellers, adivasis, rural people whose livelihoods depend on forests.

Towards this end, this joint paper session and panel aims at discussing the following questions: what do conservation actors/forest bureaucrats actually do? How do they make both mundane as well as ‘important’ decisions, as these are fundamental in deriving outcomes? How do interrelationships operating within Forest Bureaucracies mediate the production of political forests? How do forest bureaucrats navigate institutional arrangements laden with power asymmetries while making decisions? These lead on to broader questions such as the implications of studying forest staff and bureaucrats for policy-making, society and environment that go beyond matters forestry.

Dutta, A. (2020). Forest becomes frontline: Conservation and counter-insurgency in a space of
violent conflict in Assam, Northeast India. Political Geography, 77, 102117.
Fleischman, F. D. (2014). Why do foresters plant trees? Testing theories of bureaucratic
decision-making in central India. World Development, 62, 62-74.
Margulies, J. D. (2018). The conservation ideological state apparatus. Conservation and Society,
16(2), 181-192.
Rangarajan, M. 1996. Fencing the Forest. Conservation and Ecological Change in India's Central
Provinces 1860-1914. OUP, New Delhi.
Robbins, P. (2000). The rotten institution: corruption in natural resource management. (4), 423-
Simlai, T. (2015). Conservation ‘Wars’. Economic & Political Weekly, 50(50), 39.
Sivaramakrishnan, K. (1999). Modern forests: Statemaking and environmental change in
colonial eastern India. Stanford University Press.
Vasan, S. (2002). Ethnography of the forest guard: Contrasting discourses, conflicting roles and
policy implementation. Economic and Political Weekly, 4125-4133.


Type Details Minutes
Panelist Sudha Vasan 15
Panelist Mahesh Rangarajan 15
Panelist Forrest Fleischman University of Minnesota - Twin Cities 15
Panelist Paul Robbins Nelson Institute for Environmental StudiesUniversity of Wisconsin 15
Panelist Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan Yale University 15

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