As we discuss the ways in which we can achieve sustainable development balancing economic, environmental and social aspirations, we are increasingly faced with the inescapable question of institutional choice.

When we talk environmental protection, who do we think should be in charge?

The Ministry of Environment and Forest, the Government of India?

The Forest Departments of the various states or the structures created by them?

Local governmental structures like Panchayti Raj Institutions and/ Municipal Corporations?

Environmental NGOs?

Local people?

All of the above?

Clearly, the answer is not straightforward. While we may talk about stakeholder participation, we know that it is easier said than done. Bringing these multiple actors on a common platform is not just difficult but often impractical.

There is often a conflict of approach as the different stakeholders conceptualize nature in different ways. The state represented by its ministries and departments often want to have some kind of an ‘ownership’ and control over the natural resources (and be the de facto owner even when some de jure community based structure like Forest Protection Committees are formed). The environmental NGOs (though any such generalization is problematic as there are many kinds of NGOs with varying ideologies) often view nature as a pre-social category that leads to the exclusion of the people, local institutions are often not empowered enough to balance access with conservation. So the question remains tricky.

Numerous studies including those by the Institutions and Governance Program, World Resources Institute have shown that countries and agencies claiming to support democratic decentraliza­tion often fail to empower democratic local governments. Instead, powers are transferred to a plethora of institutions, in­cluding non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private associations, which can be detri­mental to the legitimacy of local democratic institutions. The answer instead needs to be searched for in the context of institutions that empower the public do­main in conservation and the im­pact on the issues of representa­tion and accountability.

Which are the appropriate institutions for conservation of natural resources?