Forests used to be an important source of revenue for the government of India, which is no longer the case because of large-scale deforestation. Proper forest management is needed to regenerate degraded forests, yet the government is powerless when people refuse to participate. However, there might be conditions that are more conducive for people's participation in forest management and this paper draws lessons from practical settings in which people do participate. Participation was initiated by government employees, a local leader, or through a strong community. A comparative analysis between three institutional settings in different states of India demonstrates the importance of empowering people in managing forests. There is a clear role for the state, which is to facilitate the people and to motivate their participation. The related fieldwork was carried out in about ten villages per state. On average 13 households were interviewed in each village. This led to a data set that is analysed in this paper with two techniques. A factor analysis is performed on ten to 12 participatory indicators of each household. In each institutional setting, social indicators turn out to be the main consideration in participation. Economic indicators follow as the second most important consideration. A regression analysis is carried out using the primary data. The main conclusion is that a high dependence on the forest and good forest quality enhances voluntary people's participation. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science B.V.