Common property resources crucial for livelihood of poor’

By Mohammed Shafeeq, IANS
Tuesday, January 18, 2011

HYDERABAD - Protection of common property resources, or commons, is becoming critical not just because of the pressure of increasing population but also because of the higher level of consumption people want, according to Ruth S. Menizen-Dick, president, International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC).

“The challenge before India and many other countries is whether the common should be sacrificed for the growth. The question is do we recognise the value of commons for the environment, for poor people and for overall well being. While we draw lot of things from the commons, it is not accounted in our cash economy,” Ruth told IANS in an interview.

Ruth, who was here to attend 13th biennial conference of IASC held Jan 11-14, called for public awareness and also for a change in thinking on protecting commons. “When you have a developer who wants to do mining or jatropha plantation very often it is commons which are put forward because it is easier. When you think it is waste land, it is the first thing you want to give to the developer. The British called them waste lands but they are important for livelihoods of poor,” she said.

Her comments assume significance in view of the ongoing debate in India over handing over of commons like forests to the corporates for iron ore mining. Even the open lands, often wetlands, are being given away for setting up electricity projects or other industrial units, triggering protests from the local communities. In fact mining in forests is one of the issues taken up by Maoists on behalf of people living in and depending on forests for their livelihood.

She called for change in the thinking of the people in the forest department, who are suspicious about the ability of local communities, especially women groups, to manage the forests.

“One of the challenges is to give them the confidence that under certain conditions community can take care of resources. Giving them control will not deplete them is something is hard to get across,” said Ruth.

“A step for much stronger commons in India will be the awareness among average people and not just academics. An average person should feel my life will be better if there are better commons in neighborhood. That was influential in UK passing Commons Act. People there said commons have to be protected and they are part of our cultural heritage.”

She pointed out India has laws to protect the commons but they are in bits and pieces. “The acts are at federal and state levels and then each state is different. There are forest acts, different water acts, land acts and acts that sometime are contradictory about the same thing. They are passed at different times. Legal studies are being done to identify discrepancies and gaps,” said Ruth.

“While there is willingness on part of the government to engage in dialogue as senior government officials attended the conference, unfortunately we don’t have a simple formula to give them. What works in one place not necessarily work in the next. It has to be tailored to local conditions,” she observed.

Nearly 700 delegates from over 69 countries participated in the four-day conference on “sustaining the commons, sustaining our future” and discussed issues related to physical commons such as water, forests, grazing land, coastal resources and new commons such as digital commons, knowledge commons and climate change.

Ruth, who studied tank irrigation in India for masters thesis, is concerned over the fast depletion of water tables in the country. “There are huge problems with ground water depletion. It is not effectively managed. Then you have tanks disappearing. The tanks work in chain with streams connecting and those streams blocked by development and the tanks are being encroached,” she said.

IASC, started two decades ago, believes that the “tragedy of commons” is not inevitable.

The association brings together not only economists, anthropologists, political scientists, and ecologists, different academic disciplines but also practitioners and even policy makers. It collects set of impact stories around the world and shares the information.

(Mohammed Shafeeq can be contacted at

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