Promoting a responsive state: The role of NGOs in decentralized forest governance in India
Community Forest Resource (CFR) Rights recognized under India's Forest Rights Act transfers collective rights and responsibilities to forest dwelling communities for sustainable use of their customary forests. However, just like any other decentralization reform that adopts a rights-based approach, the implementation of the Forest Rights Act has been poor, as the rights and responsibilities are transferred without ensuring communities' capability to exercise those rights and carry out the responsibilities vested in them. This raises the question of what role the state needs to play to actualize this rights-cum-responsibilities based decentralization. We found that in such a scenario, non-state actors, primarily Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) working on tribal or rural development issues, act as a bridge between the community and the state to enable the transition to responsive forest governance. We compared processes occurring in villages that lack NGOs’ support with those that are supported by the NGOs. We found that the awareness about community rights and responsibilities in the two types of villages was completely different. The reason for this was the efforts of the NGOs on three fronts: mobilizing and building the capacities of villagers to exercise their rights, enabling market engagement, and ensuring the state's responsiveness. We argue that this experience of NGO engagement in Forest Rights Act implementation can be used to understand what necessary steps might be required to ensure that the promise of decentralized forest governance is translated into practice.