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Understanding The Concept Of Commons: A Shared Responsibility

By Marianne de Nazareth

04 February, 2011

How many of us who sit in the comfort of our homes typing or surfing the net on our computers in one of the bigger metropolises in the country, are aware of the ‘commons’. What ARE the commons was the question that came to my mind when I first heard about the IASC Conference held in Hyderabad in January 2011. What did the term commons actually mean to us the common man?

Listening in to several key note speakers and panel discussions during the IASC conference, realisation dawned that the commons are areas which include forests, water bodies and grazing lands which sustain the large rural community in our country. I heard erudite speakers like Elinor Ostrom the American political scientist who was awarded the nobel laureate for Economics in 2009 say in her keynote address that “ In forests across the world people who use the commons, monitor it better than government agencies. One can find a synergy between the local people and the great job of carbon sequestration by the forests. If they are made responsible to handle the rules governing the forest, it will work.” She felt Collective Action theory was at the core of social sciences and policy making. Collective Action Theory seeks to understand how groups of people are able to cooperate to overcome social dilemmas.

Several panel discussions focussed on certain areas in the country where traditional pastoral communities reared cattle, sheep and goats depending on the commons like forests, revenue lands, agricultural fallows and tanks and lakes for grazing and feeding their livestock. However when land is now becoming scarce with surging population figures our cities have begun to burgeon outwards into rural areas bringing with that, several new laws that are coming into force throwing out of balance old customs and practices which supported rural communities.Ghotge Nitya S and Pandharipande Kaustubh of Anthra shared their paper called ‘Unequal rights on Common lands’ from which I have been able to glean a lot for this piece about the commons.

“While owner ship of land is most often central to the agricultural debate many migratory and nomadic communities including migratory pastoralists do not necessarily subscribe to the concept of private ownership of land or the fact that the earths natural resources or nature can be owned. This being quite in contrast to the attempts in recent times to privatize our water ways and even the air we breathe. When these opposing values come face to face they lead to conflicts over use and abuse, rights and responsibilities and iniquities surface,” they state.

In their paper interestingly Ghotge and Pandharipande go back to Mughal times when the practice of the land tenure stystem which the British strenghtened by creating the Land Acquisition Act enabled them to transfer any land they desired to the British Crown. This was discontinued after independence, but the government has been unable to help these nomadic pastoralists who constitute 7% of the population, graze and manage their live stock on common land.

Interestingly the nomadic pastoralists provided agriculturists with animals and animal produce, which were used to plough the land and manure it as well. Non pastoral nomads whom we are more familiar with in our towns, “ provided salt , trinkets, medicinal plants , spices ,animal manure and even entertainment and sometimes cash. Most of these communities did not own private land , they migrated annually using resources otherwise considered waste or useless by others such as land unsuitable for agriculture , dry lands and fallows ,wet lands and swamps and dried up rivers beds,” explain Ghotge and Pandharipande.

As each decade passed new development plans and programmes were initiated by the government blurring the lines between revenue, forest and waste land. India’s population has grown alarmingly and with it, agriculture has expanded and encroached on what was considered common property thereby reducing open lands.
The paper went on to say that with the growth of so many more mouths to feed, the fallows which traditionally served as village commons to graze animals earlier, were turned into agricultural holdings and crops began to be grown on them, keeping the pastoralists out. Then new irrigation schemes came about and to feed a growing population, and the birth of the green revolution led to an enormous increase in agriculture.

That was not all - to contol droughts the government formulated the DPAP or the Drought Prone Area Programme which was initiated as a land and water conservation programme which evolved into the Watershed programmes. With this programme, bans were imposed on grazing on the fallows which for centuries were used as the village commons to graze animals.

With the water shed programmes coming into force,bans also were imposed besides on grazing , on the cutting of firewood and fodder as well. Thus, those communities who were land less and depended on the commons migrated out of these water shed areas. The government also began to green barren areas thus bringing village forest lands under social forestry programmes.This move cut out the pastoralist completely as the fast growing species, which were planted did not have any special value as fodder or firewood and grazers were kept out of these areas. Eucalyptus was the species widely planted which benefited the paper industry but destroyed the ground water table and native species of plants. To combat desertification in Rajasthan and Gujarat the forest department planted Prosopis juliflora or the babool which is a very thorny species which lifestock find hard to eat.

Over time, the wildlife protection act of 1972 and Project Tiger also further displaced these marginal communities, pushing them below the conservation efforts of biodiversity. Certain tribes who were hunters by tradition were forced out of the lands they found their sustenance from.This turned them into poachers making them ‘criminals’ in the eyes of the law. Instead their hands on awareness of biodiversity and wildlife in the forests could have been used profitably by the government to understand complex eco systems of the jungles.

However it is all not negative and there is a possibilty of both the government and the pastoralists working together as Sagari Ramdas explained in her talk , “Working for the common good’ at the IASC 2011. Her presentation focussed on the shepherds and other livestock rearers of the Rishi Valley Special Development Area in AP. The region had been notified by the government of Andhra Pradesh as the Rishi Valley Special Development Area (RVSDA) and was given to the Rishi Valley Education Centre to re-vegetate this drought prone and dry area in 2008. This order covered 33 hamlets in the area. These pastoralists according to Ramdas were harassed by the Forest Department to pay fines of Rs 2 lakhs to enter the Horsely Hills with no receipts given for the payment. Gopaligutta was identified as the alternate hillock where they could graze their animals but the access route was blocked by the RVEC and the sarpanch holdings. After discussions, in March 2010 a five foot acess route was given to the herders. Since June 2009, Anthra and organization that Ramdas works with in association with the RVEC have begun to work on a common property resource (CPR) management in the area to support the herders. Using the FRA 2006 (Forest Rights Act), Anthra has been able to confirm the pastoralists grazing rights in forests. Now along with NREGS support the hillock Darimindigutta is being protected and re -vegetated according to the shepherd’s community plan which includes local plant species.

So therefore, for ecological sustainibility of these grazing lands and the future of the communities that depend on them, Anthra suggests a more inclusive approach where the communities are included in the protection of the area for the future. Alienating the pastoralists has proved counter productive, so the government must look at age old grazing and watering practices to develop a shared and evolving strategy for the overall development of the commons which will lead to a win- win situation for both the commons and the environment.

(The writer attended the IASC2011 as a media fellow of the FES and is the former Assistant Editor of the Deccan Herald and teaches Journalism to Mass Media students in St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore)




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