Jaya Prakash Rao
Fellow Since 1994
This description of Jaya Prakash Rao's work was prepared when Jaya Prakash Rao was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1994.
Anthropologist Jayaprakash Rao is using his advocacy skills to develop a citizen-based strategy for sustainable forest protection in India. His work towards an intelligent use of forests redefines the parameters of forest management and proposes new models of administration.
The New Idea
While the idea of joint forest management is not new or original, what makes Jayaprakash Rao's idea different from other unsuccessful attempts is its demonstration of a new way of dealing with the politics of forest use and reforming forest use management in light of this re-visioned politics. JP, as Jayaprakash is universally known, is working to mobilize citizen groups to gain control over their forest resources, its protection, regeneration and intelligent use through activating traditional tribal and non-tribal social management structures (tribal councils, panchayat village committee, the village head, and so on).Fully aware that this in isolation will not help the situation, JP has carefully designed and demonstrated creative mechanisms and management systems that address changing political and economic equations in the process of institutionalizing infrastructure and resource sharing between people's forest management committees and the government's Forest Department. JP's core idea is based on the principle that ultimately, the community is best equipped to protect and manage forests. His trick is to shift the priority for forest use from industry (for timber or fuel) to the locals who live with the forest. His method is to build a series of local level institutions that can advocate successfully for local, sustainable forest use management.
The problems regarding forests are at many levels and at various stages. Chief among them are policies and practices on the protection, regeneration and conservation of the forests by the government machinery that considers forests as its exclusive property, while totally excluding the human factor in the environment scenario. For example, since the first ever conservator was appointed in 1806, forests were considered a primary resource for industrialization. As a result of the consequent exploitation, forest communities have been excluded from management of the forest and it's resources. Forest produce-based industries (such as paper mills) receive raw materials at subsidized prices while the forest communities receive very little support or incentive in their efforts to protect the forests. At the implementation level, the National Forest Policy paper of 1988 acknowledged the inability of the Forest Department to promote protection. Forest officials at the field level have always colluded with smugglers to pilfer fine quality teak and other timber. Militants of outlawed separatist movements based in the forests also participate in the smuggling of forest produce. National policy has encouraged joint forest management with active participation by local communities and the Forest Department, but in reality previous attempts have been unsuccessful because of the inability of both sides to build up a working relationship. The difficulties in building a relationship turn in part on differences in culture and outlook. Forest Department bureacurats are reluctant to "share" power and responsibility with people who are visibly different in outlook, and ethnicity, from themselves. Tribal peoples do not think about forests in the way that bureaucracies do. For example, tribals do not have a concept of "accumulation"; their understandings of sustainability and conservation are embedded in their culture, in who they are. Ironically, it is not visible to Forest Department officials until it is pointed out to them that, for instance, the "forest areas" in many districts of the state of Andhra Pradesh that still have trees correlate with where tribals live. In spite of the fact that tribals cultivate in forests (mainly shifting cultivation practice), destruction levels are less in the areas inhabited by forest communities than where they are not present.
JP's key strategy has been to identify allies and antagonists to the grounding of joint management of forests and working out successful models that will ultimately institutionalize the process of sharing the forest among the various actors. He begins by pushing a community and the local Forest Department to a threshold level of preparedness for joint management. JP works with the Forest Department, other relevant government departments, nonprofit organizations and the government at large to bring them out of their inertia by applying pressure on all sides. He concentrates particularly on the forest people, as they are potentially the most important vested interest in the chain. At the level of building citizen initiative and capacity to manage forests, JP is working through existing traditional social structures in tribal and non-tribal communities towards creation of an organizational base for policing the forests and for building the strength to bargain with the Forest Department. In the first year, JP is working towards establishment of some 30 legally recognized village forest management committees that would not merely protect their forests and share profits, but would also mange the forests sustainably, for example by deciding on the species to be protected. At present, JP isworking with over 250 villages in five districts of Andhra Pradesh covering over 100,000 hectares of forest area. He is planning to work with local youth in training them to participate in the process as micro planners. He encourages them to see the local Forest Department as a "resource" rather than as an adversary, thereby allowing the Department to build a better relationship with the people and to deal with their changing role without fear of being undermined. At the level of the Forest Department, building on the strength of the leverage afforded by alliance with some Department officials, JP is working towards providing them with a new and more respectful role in the changing economic and political scenario. He is advocating their taking up technical and advisory roles in forest management that the people can use. He is confident that this will redefine the role of the foresters as not mere revenue agents for the state exchequer but also as a dynamic and important partner in the new management model. He is also working with other citizen based organizations, government officials and departments (namely, rural development and tribal welfare) to spread the idea beyond the primary and secondary forest areas where he is currently working. JP is sure that once the joint forest management concept is "grounded" and successfully demonstrated, people will start taking an active interest in other related issues affecting the communities and forests.
JP is at a personal crossroads of change in career, having decided to make the shift from teaching to a full time interest in forests. Even as a teacher at university, JP always had an active involvement with the issues related to forest management. As an anthropologist, besides an academic and research interest in tribals, JP feels strongly about the way they have been marginalised and alienated from forest management. He was particularly interested in the tribal students that helped him build an unusually strong network and credibility among them. He also provides a link to the outside world and is a figure that institutional and bureaucratic authorities could not ignore. Two instances in his past highlight his entrepreneurial bent. One was the establishment of an anthropological museum (of the experiential learning kind) for students who had no access to materials. In a second instance, he organized several forums and discussion groups to re-establish his university's falling standards and reputation.