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Common cause with the commons

The Economics Nobel and India’s rural institutions....

Written by Minoti Chakravarty Kaul |
October 16, 2009 12:37:24 am

The 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to Oliver Williamson and Elinor Ostrom. This award confirms a turning point in the history of economic thought,which began with the recognition in 1990 of Ronald Coase’s theory of firms and transaction costs,and continued with an award to Douglass North for his work on the importance of institutions,among others.

Elinor Ostrom’s contribution goes beyond a scholarly landmark,as she and her husband Vincent Ostrom pioneered an entrepreneurial venture for knowledge-building where the rule of conscience was key. The Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis in Bloomington was founded by them on the campus of Indiana University. Here they have invited scholars from the world over to come and contribute what they know,and take back what they think is valuable to them. They

established a link to a roving biennial conference of scholars who study the commons: the IASC. This is a self-governed association reflecting the aspirations of those people who battle with the growing scarcity of natural resources against uncertainty and risk,both natural and man-made.

The contribution of Elinor Ostrom is of special importance to us in the developing world,for she is a champion of consensual democracy as opposed to majoritarian tyranny. She has given attention to the much-neglected,if not vilified,village community based on proven efficacy of self-governance within communities who govern their “common pool resources”,a term which she has used to avoid ambiguity. She has invested in a huge database of the commons from almost all countries of the world. The one on Nepal,in particular,has inspired research on the historically

resilient farmer-managed irrigation systems in the Himalayas; these systems are in some cases more equitable than those the government managed! In fact,in several regions in India,the riparian systems of cultivation and pastures along rivers of the Punjab,and irrigation systems like warabandi and osrabandi,did a remarkable job.

The recognition of “Lin” Ostrom’s award has several ramifications in India. It is first of all an endorsement for the commons as a heritage institution,and recognition of the accompanying wisdom of diverse systems of allocation suited to local ecological conditions. Second,timely though this is,nevertheless it may be difficult to reverse some of the institutional erosion that has already taken place,either through enacted laws or through the legal system overriding the operational customs. Thus the conditions of governance based on reciprocity and trust in operating the commons,like village common lands and land-use in rural India,have changed; but it is nevertheless important to recognise the principles embedded in them.

A few examples here will illustrate that it may not be too late to recognise that Delhi,for example,is losing its heritage. Water bodies which served Delhi’s urban and rural needs for over 2000 years have been lost simply because the ecological principles of building on recharge channels were ignored. Further,the need for drinking water for transhuming pastoral livestock which pass through Delhi from Gurgaon to the Doon Valley has been ignored. These livestock can no longer be accommodated in rural Delhi,as the villages are fast losing their common woodlots and pastures,known as shamilat-deh. These are lost because rules protecting common lands have been nullified and they have been distributed,allowing conversion to other uses. As the amount of pasture decreases,the remaining village pastures of urban Delhi get eroded by over-grazing.

Other pressures,to homogenise breeds for example,are leading to the loss of indigenous breeds of cattle capable of withstanding climate change,even when fed on very poor herbage,in Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. Farther from Delhi,pastures are lost to poorly-planned developments which allow no consideration for organic resilting of riverine areas,disturb long-distance eco-systemic grazing,and push hapless shepherds into more fragile alpine areas of the Himalayas. Finally,the most important pressure is on the institutional capacity of humans,driven to free-ride in competitive mode,dispensing with any respect for mutual need or collective action as a mode of governance.

Perhaps the most important area of concern which is addressed by the corpus of ideas espoused by Elinor Ostrom is the question of agency for institutional change — especially where bio-diversity of living and natural resources is concerned. The passage of laws cannot be an end in itself. This is evident in the case of land reforms enacted immediately after independence,which were instrumental in eroding the village commons — because of an assumption that all common lands were necessarily feudal! Then the recent legislation giving de jure rights to tribal people and forest dwellers took little account of who was to police the rules and who was to sanction the infringement of the rules. Who indeed?

The writer is a founder-member of the International Association for the Study of Commons. She lives in Delhi

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