The tragedy of the commons
Singh's is a rare case of encroachment that reached the SC earlier this year. In rejecting the village leader's appeal, the apex court's bench of Markandye Katju and Gyan Sudha Mishra swung the limelight on encroachment and sale of village commons by local panchayat honchos, politicians and babus, noting that encroachment as in Rohar Jagir is rampant across the country. So much so that many states are left with "not an inch of such land left for the common use of the people of the village, though it may exist on paper. " The SC rejected Jagpal Singh's appeal that sought to quash an earlier high court order that his house was on illegal land.
Singh is one of thousands, likely more, who encroach upon land area and water bodies that are not owned by any individual but where entire villages put their cattle to graze and drink water, and collect firewood and fodder. With little to govern the use of these areas, encroachment has been steadily increasing. Village commons make up about 15 per cent of India's total area (50 million hectares). The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO, 1999) estimates that the annual decrease in the amount of common lands is currently 0. 38 per cent.
In recent years, both private parties and governments have been eyeing these lands and commons. These have been diverted for bio-fuel cultivation sites, wind farms, corporate contract farming and also Special Economic Zones.
Following the Supreme Court's direction to state governments to map the commons around the country, those fighting to save these areas and water bodies from exploitative use are hopeful that, at last, the issue will be looked at seriously. As it is, commons lived under a misnomer for a long time, tagged as wastelands. "They were called wastelands during colonial times -being 'common' land that belonged to a village, they could not be taxed and hence were declared 'wasteland', " says Jagdeesh Rao of the Foundation of Ecological Securities, which helps villagers maximise the use of their commons.
It was only when the Wasteland Development Board, set up in 1985, got down to work that it was realised the areas under scrutiny for 'development' were, in the large part, not degraded land. "We realised that these areas play a huge role in sustaining a village's needs, right from inputs for farming to grazing grounds and watering holes or ponds as water source for both livestock and use at home, " says Rao, adding that food and water insecurity are sharpened in the absence of such lands.
Not that managing commons is easy. Rao knows this first hand. Popular approaches to optimising the use of such land for the benefit of villagers - whether it was about using the waterbody for fish farming or 'marketing' the produce from the grassland - were individualbased. That is, says Rao, there was no way to distribute the profit made from the commons equally. From cooperative models to the 'straight-to-market' model, efficient management practices ended up being most unfair to the most dependent.
The benefits of nurturing commons do not lie in revenue generation, and neither can their value be captured in monetary terms, says Aarthi Sridhar, co-editor of Common Voices, a newsletter on the commons initiative. "Cultural relations are poorly captured in any kind of cost benefit. Unfortunately, Indian governance relies on cost-benefit or impact assessment. For instance, within fishing communities, the identity of fisher folk is integrated with their marine space and knowledge. It is a non-negotiable, noncomputable benefit. " Plus, there are the benefits of maintaining water table levels, ecological balance and so forth.
The violation, especially of water bodies, results in unexpectedly problems. Recounting her experience of sourcing water, a village woman near Bhilwara said in a Jal Biradari session that as the small pond in her village "no longer existed" because of construction, she had to source water for her cattle from the village's hand-pump.