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Home / Columns / Allowing communities to manage common assets | Opinion

Allowing communities to manage common assets | Opinion

In India, village common land is an example of an asset which is theoretically common property, and should be managed by the community, but all too often, is not

columns Updated: Jul 18, 2020 20:30 IST
Mark Tully
Mark Tully
When common assets are not managed on a community basis of mutual trust, either the government or the market steps in to take them over (Representational image)
When common assets are not managed on a community basis of mutual trust, either the government or the market steps in to take them over (Representational image)(SHUTTERSTOCK)

The theme of a book just published in English with the intriguing title Humankind, written by the Dutch historian and writer Rutger Bregman is, “the radical idea that most people deep down are pretty decent.” If this realisation does represent reality, it could give new meaning to the slogan “minimum government maximum governance”. If we felt able to trust in each other’s decency, then there would be less space for governments.

The Commons are an example of trust in each others decency which Bregman has quoted. They are assets which are common property shared democratically and managed by a community. The American political economist Elinor Ostrom set up a database to establish the extent of functioning Commons throughout the world. Among those she found were shared pastures in Switzerland, cropland in Japan, communal irrigation in the Philippines and water reserves in Nepal. Her work was considered so significant that she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009.

In India, village common land is an example of an asset which is theoretically common property, and should be managed by the community, but all too often, is not. I once attended a meeting in a Rajasthan village organised by the non-governmental organisation, Seva Mandir, at which villagers were discussing getting together to reclaim their common land and manage it democratically. A local politician, in collusion with local officials, occupied much of the land, but it was proving difficult to persuade villagers to trust each other sufficiently to establish a Commons.

When common assets are not managed on a community basis of mutual trust, either the government or the market steps in to take them over. The market has no place for trust or the social equality that goes with it. The Covid-19 crisis, I would suggest, explains why the government so frequently does a bad job of managing common assets. The crisis calls for a united stand against the spread of the virus.

What are the politicians who are elected by the people to govern their common assets doing? They are dividing parties and undermining governments in pursuit of their interests. They do not even try to hide the selfishness which motivates them. Politicians are constantly shifting party allegiances to enhance their power. One such example is the search for appointments to corporations and State enterprises, which manage so much common property. It is a problem I discussed in this column two years ago with regard to the blatant nepotism of a politician chairing a state Khadi and Village Industries Board.

Jawaharlal Nehru was committed to the cooperative movement for managing Commons, but he insisted that party politics be excluded from cooperatives. Unfortunately, politicians not only got involved, they took the movement over and that is one of the main reasons the cooperative movement has not achieved its potential. Politicians have ensured that the people who should have run cooperatives on the basis of mutual trust, the weavers and farmers for instance, have been excluded.

The Covid-19 pandemic has once again shown that we do indeed need less government if that means taking more government out of the hands of self-seeking politicians. But that does not mean Commons based on trusting each other’s decency are always the best form of governance. Bergman quotes the historian Tîne de Moor’s fitting summary of the place for trust. She calls for “institutional diversity” and goes on to say, “while markets work best in some cases and state control is better in others, underpinning it all there has to be a strong communal foundation of citizens who decide to work together.” Communal, of course, here means shared by all members of a community.

The views expressed are personal
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