Thursday, March 4, 2010

Guest Post: Some Uncommon Thoughts on the Commons

By Sabitha T P

The colours of Holi have settled down, unlike the dust in Delhi, being dug up furiously to somehow touch the finish-line before the Commonwealth Games to be held later this year. In some other parts of the country, however, the dust is not about to settle down in a hurry. I am referring to the sale of our hills to mining corporations, particularly in mineral-rich Central and Eastern India - Jharkhand, Orissa and Meghalaya for iron ore, bauxite and uranium mining. These mineral-rich, but cash-poor states answered the neo-liberal Indian state’s call to “open up” the resources with unpremeditated alacrity, and these state governments consider this the path to “development” (like the “development” of Delhi with all the construction activity). Let’s pause here. What are the ‘costs’ of such development? The costs are to be measured in environmental as well as human terms. And more fundamentally, what do we mean when we say the environment? Is it what is out there, somehow at a remove from us, or does it shape our very perceptions of the world and our place in it?

When I was reading about the furious mining activity that is going on as well as the proposed sale of large swathes of forest land in Orissa to international mining corporations (such as the U.K.-based Vedanta mining corporation and the South Korean company POSCO - whose stocks are now largely owned by American shareholders), I started asking the question – how can these state governments do this? How can they sell forests and hills to international corporations for their private profit even when there is large-scale resistance to the dispossession of the indigenous forest-dwellers and to the environmental implications on land and water? How can the state governments conduct these transactions as if they are merely financial, when livelihoods, lives, belief-systems of the tribals, as well as  our access to clean unpolluted water, unpolluted arable land and food security are at stake. These are very large stakes indeed. So then, the next question I asked was, if forests and hills and what is under the earth in these hills can be sold, who does this land belong to?

This brought me to the idea of the commons. These hills and forests are the commons. It belongs, at the same time, to all of us and none of us individually. What does it mean to say “the commons”? It is that which we may collectively own and use without taking anything away, since none of us individually has ownership of the commons. When Roman law divided things into Res Privatae (“private things”) that are individually owned and the owner has the right to possession of, Res Publicae (“public things”) that are state-owned – such as public institutions and public parks, and Res Communes (“things that are common to all”), it meant to create the category of the Commons as distinct from both private and public. Res Communes was comprised of those things that were extra patrimoiium (“incapable of being possessed”) and thus available to and necessary for all. Ergo, neither the individual nor the state has ownership of the commons. The environmental commons are land that is neither owned by an individual nor the state, water, and air. The steady enclosure of the commons by the British between the beginning of the eighteenth century and the end of the nineteenth, saw several protests by farmers, grazers, commoners, and well, poets. For a bit of a rest on this long common road, let us look at the poetry of John Clare, an eighteenth century British poet –

Love hearken the skylarks
Right up in the sky
The suns on the hedges
The bushes are dry
Thy slippers unsullied
May wander abroad
Grass up to the ancles
Is dry as the road

There’s the path if you chuse it
That wanders between
The wheat in the air
And the blossoming bean

Social historian J. M. Neeson reads these lines as a celebration of the commons. John Clare could absorb and take pleasure in the sight of the bushes, the bean and the hedges by the road because he had access to them since so much of the land was shared. John Clare’s nature poetry, she says, “is about this sharing, this access, this possession without ownership.” With the parliamentary enclosure of common lands, the villagers lost not just access to the land, but a way of perceiving the world and a way of life. John Clare writes in another poem, ‘The Mores’:

These paths are stopt – the rude philistines thrall
Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims where earth glows no more divine
But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
As tho the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go

These poems could very well be about the forcible taking away of any commons. Such alienation changes a very real way of life and smothers freedoms.

The commons are our collective heritage, nurturing and in turn, to be nurtured. However, instead of democratic and sustainable management of this common heritage, what we see in the sale of our hills and forests is not only the mutilation of the land (causing water contamination as well as a drastic fall in water table levels in the villages around the hills, thus affecting water security and farm yield), and the dispossession of the tribals for whom this land is their natural and cultural habitat; what we see in this sale of the commons for private profit is the very erosion of the idea of the Commons and a perversion of the principle of Greater Common Good. It is not only a political question of the original inhabitants’ right to land – which is more than land for them, it is their way of life, their gods – but also a question of the degradation of our environmental commons. Did we give our consent to the sale of the commons that belongs to all of us, sustaining us? Is it possible for the state to abdicate its role as a representative house and a protector of our inalienable rights, and instead turn predator on its citizens and their commons?

Did you know (I didn’t!) that last year’s Nobel Prize for Economics was shared by Elinor Ostrom who has been championing the cause of the commons?  Over decades Ostrom has studied and documented how different communities manage common resources – forests, grazing lands, water for irrigation, fishing – sustainably and equitably over long periods of time. Her award was seen by the Commons Movement as a debunking of the popular notion that private property has effectively prevented resources from being depleted or misused. It is indeed significant that the world’s most prestigious Economics prize was awarded to a champion of equitable and sustainable communal sharing of resources. Over the last few years commons movements have been gathering momentum, movements that argue and work for the protection of what we share together – from natural resources to public parks, to biodiversity and the internet. You can read about some of them (including the Pirate Party in Sweden – don’t we all want to support it!) here.

The tribals are communities who live by the principle of the commons - the only sustainable model of human inhabitation on earth - leaving the commons as they found it without taking anything away, leaving it intact for the future generations of passers-by. Their subsistence-level cultivation, collection of honey, and fishing can be considered largely unharmful, minimal intervention that is also at the same time protective of the commons. If the commons belong to you and me, we have the responsibility to safeguard it sustainably. Sustainable development can only be possible when it is founded on the principle of the commons. And we have much to learn from the shared ways of life and belief-systems of the indigenous forest dwellers. We owe not only the survival of the forests to their environmentally respectful ways of life, but also the hope of learning sustainability and an inherent respect for our environment from them, so that we too, like them, may leave unnoticeable footprints on the commons we are passing through and are passing on to our children and grandchildren.

Sabitha T P teaches English literature to undergraduate students in Delhi University.  Her poetry has appeared in many places, in both English and Malayalam.


  1. Lovely snippets of poems!

    Most importantly I think is that one cannot sell the commons merely because no one "produced" it or "bought" it in the first place.

    So the person who takes it the first time and sells it is essentially stealing - even if that person is the government.

  2. Bhagwad--interesting point about ownership.

    This post makes me think that we really need to think about the commons as a way of understanding our world. Much of the time, when I see the word "commons" it is associated with the term "tragedy of the commons", which is often used to describe over-grazing, over-fishing, de-forestation. I think we need to consider whether the "tragedy" in the "tragedy of the commons" comes from the commons or from some other dynamic. After all, commons have worked well in many parts of the world without tragedies!

    This is a big idea I'd like to see us all think more about. As we confront climate change, the idea of the "atmospheric commons" becomes more pressing; we are paying now for the fact that the historical polluters have encroached on something nobody owns: the air! Does the "polluter pays principle" hold for the greenhouse gases that rich countries have been dumping into our atmosphere?

  3. I tried to look into the economics of this issue in my blog post about the real cost of natural resources.

    I wonder if I can get some new insights regarding that.

  4. Hari, Bhagwad,

    The real significance of the commons is that it allows us to think beyond capitalist paradigms. Here's an example of the "cost" on the world's resources and here's a response to it on a commons website.

    However, what both these kinds of analyses must warn us about is that when environmental cost is calculated, like in the Guardian piece, in monetary terms, it is a bit unsettling that we still haven't learnt to think out of the box. And HB as you say, the commons is in fact a paradigmatic frame for thinking about the environment and our place in it, rights to it, and responsibilities towards it.

  5. @Bhagwad, Sabitha,

    Thanks for the links; they are interesting. There are a lot o issues here that I'd like to come back to.

  6. Air, water, earth including forests and mines,culture, knowledge: all these belong to all, the first three also to beasts and birds and trees, thus taking it not only beyond 'capitalist' but also beyond anthropocentric, 'humanist' thinking . This is, or should be, the solid material-spiritual basis of any egalitarian struggle and idea: here again socialism is an important yet incomplete concept , as, one, it is concerned mainly with the equal distribution of wealth and two,it is not concerned- at least it is ambivalent about- the environment including the whole organic chain of interdependent beings.


What do you think?