The term "tragedy of the commons" was coined originally in 1883 by William Forster Lloyd, a political economist at Oxford University, who was looking at the recurring devastation of common (not privately owned) pastures in England. The explanation was simple. Each herdsman guided by his own gains keeps adding to his herd to maximise his personal gains, knowing full well that if everyone else does likewise, they all stand to lose the common grazing land. Despite this knowledge, he still does it and so does everyone else because for each one, "the privatised gain would exceed his share of the commonised loss."
In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin explored this social dilemma in his article "The Tragedy of the Commons", published in the journal Science. This later became the basis for the debate on sustainability and provided a rationale for the neoliberal drive for privatisation of public assets.
At the receiving end are society and ordinary citizens, making it a tragedy of the commons and for the commons.
What is "commons" was first codified by the Romans in 535 AD as air, water and fish. However, with more of nature coming under the ambit of human economic activity, new items became economic resources like forests, wild animals and land, the most precious of all. The state was responsible for evolving rules and regulations for the orderly exploitation of these resources in an equitable and sustainable manner.
However, in India, where the state is primarily representing crony capitalist interests, where the bureaucracy is indolent, the police machinery is complicit and the judiciary is overworked, the privatisation approach to avoid a tragedy of the commons results in scams like "coal gate". What is more tragic is that for many less visible resources even such neoliberal market-based solutions are given short shrift. What seems to be the practice is theft and extra-judicial coercion which eventually results in a situation similar to the tragedy of the commons -- only in this case, the responsible party is not common folks but a politically backed mafia. At the receiving end are society and ordinary citizens, making it a tragedy of the commons and for the commons.
Let's take the case of the sand on our riverbeds.
Illegal sand mining is prevalent nationwide, and with a spurt in housing and infrastructure projects it has become a greater scourge than ever, thriving beyond the ambit of formal economy and law and order. Sand is everywhere and so is the sand mafia. This all-pervasive illegal activity is the dark underbelly of our infrastructure corporates and building industry, posing a severe threat to the environment and claiming hundreds of lives.
Unlike coal, diamonds or gold, which are classed as major minerals, sand is considered a "minor mineral", the extraction of which is left with state governments. An essential construction material, sand is difficult and heavy to transport so builders prefer to source it from nearby areas. This investment-free exploitation of public resources involving only labour and transportation costs has become a quick-buck-making industry - a favourite enterprise for politicians and their underlings, with local police always at hand to oblige.
There still remains the eternal conundrum: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who shall watch the watchers themselves?)
No wonder the industry is flourishing in every state of India with devastating consequences to the environment. Such ravaging of our riverbeds causes erosion of our riverbanks, floods and is a threat to biodiversity. The prolonged closure of Chennai Airport is due to the fact that the one of the runways is constructed on the Adyar River despite initial opposition by environmental groups.
There are no official statistics available, but there are clear indications that the sand mafia has caused the injury or death of many conscientious officers, NGO workers, RTI activists and ordinary men and women.
Recently in Maharashtra, a police sub-inspector Ashok Sadare committed suicide after six months of suspension. He clearly stated in his suicide note that he was under pressure from his superiors. His wife alleged that the local sand mafia was involved, also implicating state BJP heavy weight Eknath Khadse. The case got some traction because of the competitive politics within BJP and the steadfast follow up by the state unit of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). But unfortunately, the widow had to withdraw her allegation, supposedly under pressure. For the time being, it is business is as usual for the sand mafia and its political bosses.
This brings us to the larger issue of sharing and managing the common resources of society, and whether the Indian State ever be trusted with its safekeeping. As the Congress president recently stated, quoting Dr BR Ambedkar, "No matter how good the Constitution is, if the people who implement it are bad, then the Constitution will also turn out bad." The present state of affairs in the sand mining industry does not inspire much confidence about the quality of our ruling class.
Today, there is much better understanding and a greater concern for common resources than there was in Victorian England. There are several examples of local villagers coming together and addressing local issues and sharing local resources in a cooperative spirit. Anna Hazare's Ralegan Siddhi is one such project and there are hundreds of others in various parts of the country. Certainly, human society has left behind the naked competition of the early industrialisation period in England. Hence, neither state management nor privatisation can be treated as the universal solution to the problem of equitable and sustainable use of common resources. Because in the end, there still remains the eternal conundrum: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who shall watch the watchers themselves?)
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