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Rajasthan's cutting-edge public policies to promote land commons

If only the rest of the world could emulate the Government of Rajasthan in India in adopting public policies to promote the commons! As the Times of India reportsRajasthan has become the first state in the country to have drafted a policy underlining the importance and the need to preserve and secure common land (commons) in rural areas.”  There may be other such government policies around the world, but they are few and far between.  The Rajasthan policies are a real breakthrough.

The Rajasthan government is in the process of identifying which grazing lands, common ponds and their catchment areas, playgrounds and other resources shall be treated as commons. Its new policies aim to decentralize governance, encourage conservation and proper ecological stewardship, assure fair access to and use of the lands, and facilitate public participation in all aspects of managing commons. 

There are many forces that have propelled Rajasthan leadership in this area.   Perhaps the most important is the region's livestock-based economy, which makes it politically attractive to resist the various commercial encroachments of grazing and farm land that are now occurring.  (Aha – so this is one way that Hardin's tragedy of the commons is averted!)

Another catalyst was a landmark Indian Supreme Court ruling in 2011 that explicitly recognized customarily used ponds, land and other natural resources as commons.  The Court declared enclosures illegal, authorized the eviction of encroachers, and stressed the need to restore existing commons. (More about this on my previous blog post here.) The Supreme Court ruling resulted in the eviction of a real estate developer who had filled in a village pond to build a development.  It also declared that long-standing encroachments doesn't confer ownership rights on the encloser.

Another force pushing the Rajasthan government forward -- and collaborating with it -- has been the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), a respected policy advocacy group in rural India.  FES has launched a major “Commons Initiative” to validate the commons paradigm and to seek policy support for it. For more on this initiative, see its statement on “Commons and Community Institutions.”  I recommend the special blog that FES has established, “Claim for Commons"  which is intended to gather “all possible information related to the [Supreme Court's commons] judgement.”

At a workshop in Jaipur hosted by FES in 2011, the minister for rural development and panchayati raj (the village governance structures), Bharat Singh, decried the fact that money, muscle and political power were enclosing common land, with adverse consequences for commoners who depend upon those lands.

It is hard to know how the draft government policies for land commons will ultimately come out and how well they will be enforced.  But the Rajasthan government's policy approach is quite serious and sophisticated.  It provides an institutional umbrella for recognizing the commons, a programmatic focus, an enabling policy architecture, and funding.

The policy seeks to revamp existing institutions at the local level in order to strengthen decentralized governance of natural resources.  And it aims to harmonize various local institutions with the Gram Panchayat level of governance – the village and small town unit of governance in India.

The Rajasthan policy framework is admirable in its holistic perspective; it does not appear to be beset by the bureaucratic silos and piecemeal statutes that afflict so much conventional regulation. 

The policies explicitly seek to promote ecological restoration by empowering “the poor and marginalized to assert their claims and entitlements on common lands" and to “involve the local community [in playing] a central role in determining the governance and development of common lands.”  The policy framework also aims “to enable the capacities of the community by facilitating the process of strengthening institutions for collective action around the Commons and build spaces that enable the poor and marginal groups.”  Impressive!

The Hindu newspaper has written that “Vice-Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapeeth Sudarshan Iyengar spoke on the Gandhian emphasis towards collective action. The commons had a major role in preserving the fertility of the soil, he noted. For the sustenance of both agriculture and the agrarian lifestyle it was important that the common lands survived, he stated."

Here are some section summaries that suggest the Rajasthan government's progressive understanding of the commons:

A holistic view to “greening” has been adopted wherein the scope of greening goes beyond trees and plantations. Emphasis is laid on natural regeneration and restoration of Commons, for example, grassland, pastures and other forms of common lands that are available. This will not only strive to restore degraded common lands, but will also contribute in restoration and regeneration of ecosystem functions and services. (Section 4.4)

‘Vulnerability’ and ‘potential’ shall be the criteria for intervention. Common lands shall be identified on the basis of their significance from the ecosystem functions and services such as biodiversity and hydrological services. (Section 4.5)

The Policy fosters an integrated approach using inter-sectoral convergence (e.g., livestock, forest, agriculture, rural development, and energy). (Section 4.6

A comprehensive, robust and effective monitoring framework at four different levels has been designed to monitor the development of common lands in the state.  (Section 4.7)

Speaking at a FES-hosted workshop in 2011, Dr. M.S. Rathore, an academic, noted that the draft policy consists of “improving the legal tenure, nesting governance of common lands within panchayats, maintaining village records on commons and limiting change in landuse, restroing common lands and water bodies with a programmatic focus, employing a scientific approach in restoration that is conducive to different ecosystems of Rajasthan, and setting up monitoring mechanisms to periodically update the status of commons.” Funds to implement the Rajasthan policies will come from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

As an outsider to the Rajasthan policy process and political culture, I am not the best authority on this topic.  And I am aware of previous shortcomings of previous governments in managing common lands (see, e.g., Rita Brava's “Commons' Policy as Process: The Case of Rajasthan, 1955-1985” in Economic and Political Weekly, October 7, 1989, pp. 2247-2254 -- unfortunately, behind a paywall.)

However, the Indian press and the FES are quite positive about the new Rajastan commons policies – and for good reason.  The lessons of the past – and the risks of investor-driven market encroachments – seem to have been learned.  And the multiple opportunities for positive change enabled by the commons -- incredible as it may seem -- will soon be enshrined in law.  

Image:  The Bhopa family of Rajasthan.  Photo by Gianncarlo Duran, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license, via Flickr.

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