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All that we share

Common property resources are owned, held in trust and managed by an identified set of people – as against private or government ownership. Today, writes Kanchan Chopra, the commons are threatened by market forces, infrastructural and industrial development, and archaic rules of land acquisition. The concept of ‘community trusteeship’ of resources such as land or water which commons are built around must become relevant to sustainable development if we are to ensure that future generations are as well-off as we are

The commons in many parts of the world continue to represent a management and policy challenge, indeed a dilemma. The following questions are often asked: What is the nature and magnitude of the commons? Are they primarily rural in nature? What are the compelling scientific and social reasons for their continuance? Why can they not be subsumed under ‘public goods’? Or privatised completely? Is it because this form of natural resource management fulfils a particular need for the sustainable supply of some kinds of ecosystem services? Or then, conforms to the norms of social justice? In a dynamically changing situation, can policymakers depend on some underlying principles to provide guidance to an appropriate mix of private, state and common property?

The commons in land and land acquisition policy

What we refer to as ‘the commons’ or common property resources (CPRs) are resources subject to a form of property rights as real in some parts of the world as private or government property. According to the standard definition, “CPRs are owned by an identified set of people, who have the right to exclude non-owners and the duty to maintain the property through constraints placed on use”. Their continued existence depends as much on social norms and traditional law as on coded and written law. We have pastures, sacred groves, gochar lands, and so on.

Since the 1980s, scholars have tried to estimate the magnitude of the commons using various methodologies. They came up with estimates based on village surveys, reclassification of land use categories, etc. Interestingly, at that time, these estimates fell within a reasonable range, with states with advanced agricultural systems having 5-7% of land in this category, and those supporting rainfed agriculture or pastoralism as major livelihood categories recording a percentage of around 25-32%. The average for the country fell from 25% to 21.25% (1). The only national-level survey to estimate this category (conducted in 1998 by the National Sample Survey as part of its 54th Round survey) concluded that these resources account for 15% of geographical area and amount to about 0.31 hectares per household. The percentage of rural households that rely on access to the commons for grazing is 20%, for water 23-30%, and for firewood 45%. Yet, the general predilection until recently was to let public agencies or even private parties displace local customary institutions. Regrettably, the NSS did not consider it important to follow up with another survey that would have enabled a study of changes taking place.

Another point of consensus in the literature is that the commons are indeed threatened. They are threatened by market forces, by infrastructure development and industrial projects, and by archaic rules of land acquisition. Land has now become the resource in short supply as we surge ahead with accelerated infrastructural and industrial development. In recent times, protests over land acquisition have garnered considerable media attention and a new land acquisition policy is on the anvil. But too much of the current discourse concentrates on private land and security of tenure with respect to it, ignoring the reality of common property rights.

It is appropriate to hypothesise that a part of the public protest is perhaps due to the abrogation of traditional rights and concessions on the land being acquired. There is no way to confirm or refute this as very little information exists on the magnitude and nature of these rights, hence their non-recognition. The issue can be dealt with at a decentralised level in the following manner:

Land acquisition policy and practice should include explicit recognition of areas of land being ‘the commons’ and of the existence of rights, privileges and concessions to these lands. Prior to acquisition of specific land areas, a detailed assessment of all kinds of rights on them should be made. A time period of six to eight weeks can be fixed for this, and all sources such as revenue records, district gazetteers and government notifications studied to identify the nature of these rights. This will enable project proponents, government agencies and other stakeholders to know the exact nature and quantity of income and livelihood loss brought about by changes in land use. Once this has been done for a few projects, the nature of the spectrum of rights in existence, which individual scholars have been documenting for small areas, will also become clear (2).  Introducing such documentation as an integral part of the process of land acquisition will pre-empt some of the conflicts witnessed in the recent past over land acquisition. It will also promote transparency.    

Interdisciplinary approaches, trusteeship and governance

Research on the commons in the last two decades has highlighted areas of possible interest in relation to governance issues in development policy. Economists and anthropologists have tried to come together to study the commons from this perspective (3). The economist’s focus on ‘management’ of common property resources and ‘crafting’ of institutions is often accompanied by the neglect of an understanding of values, power and symbolism that are embodied in the use and conceptualisation of the commons. In a large number of societies, use of the commons has traditionally been built around notions of the community and its trusteeship of resources such as land and water. The notion of ‘community trusteeship’ of these resources is implicit in their use. Such notions of trusteeship also find mention in the law and in constitutional documents. The notion of ‘development’, on the other hand, focuses on the individual, in particular his/her income and employment opportunities. 

How relevant is the notion of ‘trusteeship’ to development? I would like to argue that it is relevant when we refer to ‘sustainable development’. We wish to maintain our capital intact, to ensure that future generations are as well-off as we are, and so on. All this implies ‘holding resources and the environment in trust’.

The importance of trusteeship also comes up in the context of governance. Good governance implies ensuring that laws are implemented in the spirit in which they are enacted. It also implies that incentive structures set up by markets function efficiently. All this involves moving beyond the individual as the unit of decision-making to conceive of the ‘citizen’ and her role in the attainment of societal goals with respect to inter-personal and inter-temporal wealth transfers. Very little societal welfare can be achieved without moving beyond individual income maximisation. A great deal of traditional welfare economics is about this. Today, this understanding is being reinforced by the focus on good governance. 

Recent developments in policy such as the employment-oriented National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) have put village communities and resources, viewed in their entirety, at the centre of implementation frameworks. Can this lead to a more unified trusteeship and value-oriented discussion of the use of the commons as a driver of development of the village community? Could it provide a counter to the privatisation of the commons as an irrevocable by-product of ‘development’? In this cross-cut between development and the commons, through schemes such as the NREGS, it is clear that studies on implementation issues can be looked at through two different lenses:

  • Efficacy in the creation and maintenance of natural capital such as tanks, water harvesting structures, leading to income-generation.
  • Success in the introduction of trusteeship in governance of natural assets for development.

If evaluation criteria for NREGA-related projects give equal weight to both kinds of impacts, development in rural areas can build institution- and value-creation into natural capital augmentation and assist in moving towards long-term sustainability.

The new face of the commons: Urban and global   

Meanwhile, our understanding of what constitutes ‘the commons’ and their role is emerging in newer forms. Growing urbanisation means that newer kinds of urban communities are coming up. These are often referred to as ‘gated communities’ with access to their assets and common spaces being restricted to residents who are also responsible for their maintenance. The emergence of these urban CPRs has come about as a consequence of the felt need for some common services by way of security, green areas, and waste management. In some cases, we have fairly successful management. Beyond the minimum level of common interests, these communities also run into problems of diversity of interests, etc, of stakeholders. In the context of increasing urbanisation and migration, it is important to see what makes these communities work. It also brings home the point that ‘the commons’ and issues related to them will continue to emerge as long as humans live in close proximity and share resources and the environment.

The atmosphere constitutes, in a sense, the global commons, owned by all the inhabitants of planet earth. At the start of the 21st century, the nations of the world are seeking solutions to the damage inflicted on the global commons by greenhouse gas emissions. In this case, we have inequity (across nations), we have prior history, and we have very few global institutions whose writ is accepted by all. In other words, as nations of the world, constituting the so-called ‘global village’, interact on issues of limiting greenhouse gas emissions that endanger the global commons, we find many similarities with village communities. Will the ‘global village’ be able to exhibit similar foresight and wisdom in solving its problems? The challenge will require the construction of a new international institutional structure, focusing on efficient design rules for efficiency and drawing on shared values and trust for long-term sustainability. Whatever be the outcome, the conceptualisation of the ‘commons’ as shared spaces between societies, nation-states, and international corporations will continue to be significant. Simultaneously, navigating interacting global changes and preparing for future uncertainty will continue to present the challenge of setting up a co-evolving set of globally focused, collaborative institutions. And what we learn from the village commons and the national commons will continue to be relevant.

(Kanchan Chopra is former Director and Professor, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi)


1 See Chopra Kanchan, G K Kadekodi and M N Murty (1990). Participatory Development, People and Common Property Resources, Sage Publications. For a later review see Shah Amita ‘Rights to Land and Water, and Watershed Development’ in Chopra Kanchan and Vikram Dayal (edited) ( 2009), Handbook of Environmental Economics in India, Oxford University Press 
2 The lacuna in data collection on land will also be filled simultaneously. Probably because of the mix of qualitative anthropogenic elements with quantitative approaches, the Indian statistical system does not readily provide documentation of the spectrum of property rights on land
3 Two volumes that merit attention in this context are Ghate R, Jodha N S, and Mukhopadhyaya P (edited) (2008), Promise, Trust and Evolution: Managing the Commons of South Asia, Oxford University Press,  and Bardhan Pranab and Isha Ray (edited) (2008). The Contested Commons: Conversations Between Economists and Anthropologists, Blackwell Publishing

Infochange News & Features, March 2011