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Consequences of the loss of commons

Seeds, pods, buds, fruits, herbs and other produce collected from common property resources are consumed by communities to compensate for nutritional deficiencies during periods of acute food shortage. In fact, uncultivated food provides as much as 65% of food, and all of the fodder and fuel needs of very poor landless households. It is not difficult to comprehend the consequences when CPRs are closed, encroached upon, or access to them denied to local communities, says Bhaskar Goswami

"...The dwellers in the countless villages all over the country had, from time immemorial, obtained a great part of their daily needs from the jungles. First and foremost was the question of fuel with which to cook their food. Without that they could not live. Then there were small timbers for building without which they would have no shelter, ploughs without which they could not cultivate the ground, grazing without which their cattle would die, green-leaf manure for their fields, tanning bark for their leather, bamboos for a dozen different purposes. And these were vital to their wellbeing… And then an authority came into being which denied them what they had always looked upon as their rights. They fought most bitterly and indeed understandably, against the new tyranny."

These words from My Memories of the Forests of India by C C Wilson, Chief Conservator of Forests of Madras State during 1938-40, aptly sum up the close links between forests, which were once commons, and farming. Farming depends on other common property resources (CPRs) too, which are either dwindling or access to them curtailed. The implications on food production and food security at the local level are therefore serious.

Not only do CPRs serve as a source of farming inputs -- fodder, grazing land, irrigation water, manure -- they also supply fruits, tubers, honey, gum, small animals, fish, birds, leaves, leafy vegetables, products that are regularly used by rural households. They help supplement rural livelihoods and are a safety net during times of agricultural crisis. CPRs contribute to soil fertility through nutrient cycling, regulate the hydrological cycle, help conserve biodiversity and serve as sinks for greenhouse gases, all of which have a bearing on both food production and food security.

The state of three major CPRs -- forests, land and water -- and their links with the food and livelihood security of marginal communities is an issue that requires careful examination.

Aquatic vegetables procured by the people of Loktak Lake, Manipur


Forests are a major source of fuelwood and fodder, while decomposed biomass serves as manure for agricultural lands. During colonial times forests were closed, and the practice continues post-Independence. Depleting forest cover led to the creation of reserve forests that are out of bounds for local communities, barring a few exceptions. Increasing pressure on wild animals led to the creation of national parks and sanctuaries, where zones were demarcated as ‘no-go’ areas for communities living in the vicinity.

Faced with limited access to forests, rural households have been forced to use cowdung for cooking, thereby reducing its availability for croplands. This, in turn, led to a drop in nutrient supply to the soil resulting in a marked reduction in crop output. Less fodder from the forests affected livestock and disrupted an important source of food to marginal communities.

Timber and non-timber forest produce (NTFP), which constitute a major source of income for adivasis and the landless, have also been lost. The harvesting of produce like tamarind, tendu leaves, lac resin, and medicinal plants is strictly regulated. In many cases, there is evidence of forest department officials favouring contractors over local communities in the handing out of permits to harvest NTFP, which translates to huge profits for select businesses.

Much of this was expected to change after the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 came into force. The landmark legislation allows inhabitants of forests the “right of ownership, access to collect, use and dispose of minor forest produce, which has been traditionally collected within or outside village boundaries”. However, the reality on the ground has not changed.

Take, for instance, the case of bamboo which the forest department treats as ‘timber’, hence not an NTFP. While the FRA allows the right to collect and sell bamboo, the forest department has done little to educate communities about this right. In some states like Maharashtra the department acknowledges this right of forest-dwellers yet refuses to authorise its transportation, a prerequisite for any produce to move out of the forest (1). So a tribal has the right to collect and sell bamboo, but cannot take it out of the forest! It’s the same story with other important NTFP, despite legislation meant to enable forest-dwellers to exercise their rights over what has traditionally been theirs.

Dr N C Saxena, retired bureaucrat and presently a member of the National Advisory Council, in an interaction with the press, sums it up well: “Going by this (the FRA), around 60-70% of the forest area of 70 million hectares gets covered. Are we in a position to deal with the rights of people on 50 million hectares, more so when we have done this for only 20,000 hectares so far?” (2) This statement is a reflection of the cynicism that has set in with respect to expectations from the forest department and the associated/ affiliated bureaucracy that is tasked with enabling rights-holders’ access to forest resources.

Control of the commons by the state has adversely affected traditional and historical management systems. Local communities are unwilling to respect customary agreements for protecting, upgrading and regulating the use of common property resources. At present, the commons are exposed to access sans the reciprocal obligation to maintain them. The tacit cooperation built over centuries has been destroyed.

Forests provide food and a number of other products, relieving agriculture of this burden. Deprived of access to forests, farmers encroach on what was theirs by right: the commons. As a result, community woodlots have been degraded to such an extent that hardly anything worthwhile can be got from them. A lot of NTFP can no longer be collected free of charge, which usually means that instead of food more land in being used to grow cash crops and the money earned to purchase essential NTFP.

Common lands

Common lands, a non-forest CPR, also face a bleak future. According to the National Sample Survey Organisation’s 54th Round data on CPRs, published in 1999, CPR land is declining by around 2% every year. This translates to a loss of 166,660 hectares yearly -- that’s around half the state of Goa! What is worrisome from the point of view of agriculture is that the rate of loss is highest in the middle and trans-Gangetic plains, arguably the most fertile lands in the country.

Loss of CPR land is not a recent phenomenon. It started back in the 1950s when land reforms, as promised by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, began taking shape. For Nehru, “spoilt children of the British government” -- the taluqdar and zamindar -- were anathema to what independent India stood for. He set up the Kumarappa Committee that proposed land ceilings, to be implemented by the states. Any land exceeding ceiling limits was to be treated as surplus land to be distributed among the landless.

While Nehru’s intentions may have been noble, the impact on the ground certainly was not, as states failed to deliver. The policy may have been okay, but the political will to implement it was lacking. In response to the states’ failure, the Bhoodan Movement, initiated by the Gandhian, Acharya Vinoba Bhave, began with a target of 50 million acres but ended with a donation of around 5 million acres. This shortfall is not a milestone that remained unattained because the government itself fell short by many millions of acres more; it still does.

No lessons were learned, nor were laws enforced. After failing to acquire land exceeding ceiling limits, an easier path was adopted: instead of seizing croplands from the rich, states poached on CPR lands that the poor depended on and distributed it among the still poorer. These lands were sub-marginal at best, suitable only for growing shrubs, bushes and trees. When cultivated, productivity was a mere quarter of what was obtained from other croplands. Clearly, this could not compensate for the biomass that was produced from the land in the past.

Farming on marginal CPR lands has helped the spread of inappropriate Green Revolution technologies. Citing poor soil fertility, state agriculture departments pushed the case for application of higher doses of chemical fertiliser through their extension machinery. This further eroded the already fragile natural resource base, and indirectly led to greater pauperisation of the poor.

For many rural households across the country, mid-March to mid-June and mid-September to mid-November mark the most food insecure periods. They also coincide with low availability of casual employment. CPRs have traditionally provided food during these times of distress.

Take, for instance, arid Rajasthan where a recent study (3) by scientists from the Indian Council of Medical Research listed 13 famine foods, most of which are sourced from CPRs. According to the study, seeds from grasses, pods from trees, buds from bushes, fruits from herbs, etc, have been traditionally consumed by communities to compensate for nutritional deficiencies during periods of acute food shortage. Depletion and loss of CPR lands therefore deprives dependent communities of a vital safety net during periods of food insecurity and agricultural crisis.

In her foreword to a 2007 publication (4), economist Bina Agarwal writes: “Flourishing in the interstices of the cultivated and the uncultivated, the public and the private, the field and the forest, are innumerable leafy greens, fruits, tubers, roots, small fish, grasses, and other forms of food life hidden from our gaze that constitute the daily diet of numerous villagers across South Asia.”

This highlights the importance of food and nutrition derived from the commons.

The aforementioned publication throws up interesting figures for India and Bangladesh: the authors found that uncultivated food provides around 65% of food weight, and all of the fodder and fuel needs of very poor landless households; the figures for better-off households are also fairly high. The figures reiterate the findings of NSSO (1999) and similar studies across the country carried out by other scholars: products derived from CPRs constitute not only part of the coping strategy during periods of shortage but are part of everyday sustenance and are key sources of nutrition.

It is not difficult to comprehend the consequences when CPRs are closed, encroached upon, or access to them denied to local communities. While the statistics point to 15 lakh infants below the age of 5 dying on account of malnutrition every year in India, the studies referred to above also highlight the fact that apart from food insecurity, loss of CPRs contributes to nutritional insecurity among rural communities. Still no one in power will ever acknowledge the role of CPR depletion in this silent genocide.

CPR lands have also been lost on account of community forestry projects implemented across the country. One such disaster is the Karnataka Social Forestry Project. The state government leased out over 28,000 hectares of degraded, reserved forest land in villages to Karnataka Pulpwood Ltd, a joint venture between the government and the Birla-owned Harihar Polyfibres, in 1984, to raise eucalyptus plantations. Predictably, the venture ignored the claims of local villagers who depended on these lands to meet their basic needs.

Faced with sustained agitation by locals and pressure from the courts, the project was scrapped in 1991. However, permanent damage had already been done to farmlands by the surrounding eucalyptus plantations. There are many such cases of land alienation and the planting of misfit species under community forestry programmes. Yet no analysis has been forthcoming from the government on what went wrong.

In recent times, the attack on CPR lands has been renewed with the newfound wisdom of cultivating bio-fuels. Chhattisgarh, for instance, has set a target of 1 million hectares under jatropha plantation by 2012; every inch of the land used arguably qualifies as CPR. In Rajasthan, various government agencies are collaborating with the private sector to implement a 2007 rule that allows 1,000-5,000 hectares of village CPR, termed ‘wasteland’ in the state’s records, to be leased out for 20 years to the bio-fuel industry. In the northeast, tea major Williamson Magor has diversified into bio-fuels and has already brought 1.32 lakh hectares under jatropha plantation through contract farming; it is encouraging gram panchayats to leverage funds under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) to promote the venture. Many such ‘well-meaning’ bio-fuel projects that end up depriving local communities of their rights have been implemented across India.

Perennial plantations on so-called wastelands sever the close link between common lands and pastoralist communities. It is widely acknowledged that livestock rearing and dairying are the most pro-poor sectors in the rural economy of developing countries as they include not only farmers who own land but also landless labourers and agri-workers. Thanks to encroachment of the commons, or putting them under alien plant species, the latter are left with little land on which to graze their animals, while the former are forced to divert their already meagre landholdings to produce fodder.


Traditional water harvesting systems have been the backbone of irrigation in India. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, around 40,000 tanks dot the rural landscape, contributing to a third of irrigated agriculture in the state. The ahar-pyne irrigation system in Bihar and the johads of Rajasthan are more examples of common property water reservoirs and irrigation systems that have existed for centuries. Over time, however, the state has disrupted pre-existing common property relations and usurped remnants of customary rights. This, in turn, has led to the degradation of traditional water harvesting systems and encouraged large-scale encroachments in catchments. Farmers have been left with little choice but to sink borewells and run underground aquifers dry.

Common property water resources also face huge pressure for industrial application and use. While irrigation has the potential to increase crop yields by almost 30%, barely 40% of the country’s agricultural land is irrigated. This limited irrigated land contributes to over half the food produced in the country.

Unmindful of the impact on food productivity, industries are being granted permission to directly source water from rivers and reservoirs. This has given rise to conflict situations in regions where irrigation in the command area of reservoirs has not been met and yet industries are being allowed to draw water. The Godavari river and the Hirakud reservoir is a case in point. There are no existing laws to prevent overexploitation of groundwater. As a consequence, underground aquifers across vast swathes of the country are running dry (5).

It is ironical that in the past, when a bulk of the benefits were cornered by a few privileged communities, CPRs were better managed than they are today, when pursuing the cause of social justice has all but killed traditional values. While it was important to break traditional vested interests in CPRs, institutional and management systems ought to have been designed with an emphasis on preserving and nurturing CPRs whilst allowing access to them by marginal communities. This did not happen, hence the tragic state of our commons today.

As it is, vast tracts of fertile agricultural land are being stripped of crop cover and diverted for non-agricultural use across the country. The remaining croplands are under tremendous pressure to increase production to meet the demands of a burgeoning population. Depletion, erosion and loss of CPRs are impacting food production and adding to the woes of farmers and adivasis who depend on them. Traditional and cultural inter-linkages between farms, farming and CPRs are being trampled upon, something that can never be undone. The concerns being voiced on food and livelihood security of millions are genuine.

(Bhaskar Goswami is associated with the New Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security)


1 See ‘Is Bamboo a Tree or Grass?’ in December 1-15, 2010, issue of Down to Earth
2 ‘Giving Tribals Jobs Could Have Saved Vedanta’. The Financial Express, December 23, 2010
3 Singhi, Manju and Ramesh Joshi (2010), ‘Famine Food in Arid Rajasthan: Utilisation, Perceptions and Need to Integrate Social Practices by Bio-Resolutions’. Studies on Ethno-Medicine, Vol 4 (2), August 2010, p121-124
4 Mazhar, Farhad, Daniel Buckles, P V Satheesh, Farida Akhter (2007). ‘Food Sovereignty and Uncultivated Biodiversity in South Asia: Essays on the Poverty of Food Policy and the Wealth of the Social Landscape’. Academic Foundation: New Delhi
5 For more on poaching of water meant for irrigation see Bhaskar Goswami (2008). ‘The Nuts and Bolts of Appropriating Agriculture Land’, in Agenda, April 2008 (accessible here:

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