In 1968, Garret Hardin, who was a noted ecologist at The University of California, Santa Barbara, published an article titled ‘Tragedy of the Commons’.  Having firmly lodged its position as one of the most read and cited articles in environmental and political science, ecology and economics, it continues to inform environmental policy-making across the world. It has been particularly instrumental in shaping an understanding of what commons are and how they should be ‘managed’. A rather standard (Western) conception defines commons as resources that have been customarily used for generations by a certain community or multiple communities. Among others, this includes forests, ponds, lakes, pastureland, coastal waters, etc. The resources, in this case, belong equally to all members of the community. 

In India, however, commons are not merely material resources that are shared by a community, rather, they also indicate institutions and practices through which people negotiate their use. Their boundaries are not inherently fixed and easily identifiable. They are constantly negotiated and (re) created. Religious beliefs and practices, socio-political institutions, economic considerations and human-animal relationships, all play an important part in constantly (re)constructing the commons in India. For instance, commons like rivers, ponds, mountains, and forests are not mere resources that have an economic use value, many of them are also considered to be sacred, with long-standing social and religious customs dictating their use. Access to and preservation of such commons is thus contingent on navigating a complex of socio-religious-ecological factors. This makes them a subject of passionate claims, contestations and debates in the country. 

Hardin argues that each individual being ‘naturally’ self-maximising will exploit the commons for their own individual benefit, ultimately leading to its ruin. He illustrated this with an example of common pasture land to which several hypothetical herders had access for grazing their cattle. According to him, an incentive for profit would lead the herders to keep adding more cattle to their stock, ignoring the impact this would have on the quality of the pasture and their fellow herders, ultimately leading to the ‘depletion and eventual destruction of the pasture’. Hardin, thus, makes the following assertion – “Freedom in a Commons brings ruin to all”. 

Hardin made two arguments in his article, both of which continue to consciously and unconsciously inform the way Commons are understood and regulated in India. First, he explicitly linked population growth to ecological destruction and depletion of the commons. Second, he advocated for a privatised or a state-centric model for the governance of commons instead of a grassroots community governance model. The influence of these arguments can especially be seen in areas of forest governance and the rights of forest-dwelling communities.

How Has Forest Governance Been Impacted by Hardinian Thinking?

British India governed forests with the aim of revenue maximisation, as evidenced by the Indian Forest Act 1878. The Act created three categories of forests- Reserved Forests which were completely under the state government, Protected Forests with selected rights granted, and Village Forests for communities (which were never implemented). The British utilised Western ‘scientific’ methods to demarcate forest boundaries, and unilaterally decided what would constitute a forest. Colonial arrogance failed to understand that forests in India were not merely resources for the communities dependent on them but rather complex socio-ecological entities. From jhum (shifting) cultivation in the North-East to gathering and collection of timber and non-timber products in the South, forests were conceptualised and used differently across India. With the British assuming control over the forests, there was a ban on traditionally practised shifting or jhum cultivation, imposition of grazing fees on grasslands and the introduction of monoculture at the cost of biodiversity of the forests.

Post-independence, the approach to forest governance, as environmental researcher Sharachchandra Lele puts it, was “Continuity, rather than de-colonisation”. The newly independent state continued to focus on commercial forestry, looking at forests as sources of revenue and raw material, all the while ignoring community rights. The National Forest Policy of 1998 was the first to recognise the “symbiotic relationship between the tribal people and forests, a primary task of all agencies… should be to associate the tribal people closely in the protection, regeneration, and development of forests.” This formed the basis of JFM (Joint Forest Management), an attempt at a shift toward a more decentralised approach. This shift, however, remained on paper due to the lack of statutory backing, imbalance of rights between communities and forest officials and the lack of enthusiasm on the latter’s part to give communities any actual decision-making power making JFM programmes a red herring. 

In reality, a community-versus-environment framing of forest conservation continues to operate in India. Following Hardin’s metaphor, State authorities and wildlife conservationists look at forest-dwelling communities as ‘encroachers’ on forest land, who are ‘exploiting’ common resources. Therefore, strictly regulating their access has been adopted as the de-facto approach. In 2002, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) ordered all states in the country to evict ‘encroachers’ from forest land. The term ‘encroachers’ was arbitrarily and wrongfully applied to millions of forest-dependent people without carefully reviewing circulars pertaining to various disputed claims to forest land. This led to a period of brutal evictions of forest-dwelling communities across the country, and over 152,000 families were evicted between 2002-2004. Endangered Symbiosis, the only documentation of the 2002 evictions, recorded how the evictions were often carried out without prior notification by the forest department and were accompanied by gross human rights violations.

13 years later, in 2019, the Supreme Court, prompted by a petition filed by wildlife conservationists and former forest department officials, issued an order to state departments to evict ‘encroachers’ or ‘illegal’ forest dwellers. Around two-million forest dwellers faced the threat of eviction, once again. Although the apex court later stayed its initial order, the episode revealed the precarious position forest dwellers have been repeatedly put in by the State in lieu of preserving the commons. 

Could Privatising Forests Put An End to Governance Woes?

While forest-dwelling communities have been consistently looked upon as ‘encroachers’ endangering forest resources, the post-colonial State on the other hand has been steadily transferring huge swathes of forest lands to large corporations for non-forest purposes under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980,  like mining, quarrying, irrigation projects, etc. For instance, in the state of Karnataka, 82,893.61 ha of forest land has been diverted for non-forest purposes from April 2016-March 2021. Regulation of access through privatisation was another ‘solution’ to the tragedy of the commons advocated by Hardin. While Hardin believed that it would prevent the tragedy of commons, the on-ground reality is considerably different. 

Corporate infrastructure projects- both sanctioned as well as illegal projects under political patronage have had severe impacts on the forest land as well as the communities dependent on them. For instance, the MoEF in 2011 granted clearance to Adani Private Ltd., for an Open Cast Coal Mine Project in Hasdeo Arand, which was once a no-go area for mining to ensure the protection of the high-density forest cover in Chhattisgarh. The project has been responsible for contributing to increasing dust pollution and severe contamination of common water sources affecting the local ecology as well the livelihoods of the local community, 90% of whom are dependent on agriculture and forest produce. This is not an isolated case. Across the country, corporate projects have wreaked havoc on forest cover and the surrounding commons. Yet, the Central government continues to dilute laws like the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 to bypass local Gram Sabha consent and facilitate corporate takeover of forest lands. 

Madhya Pradesh has even contemplated the outright privatisation of a third of its forests. Citing reasons like “limited public funds” and “low investment, resulting in poor productivity and serious ecological consequences”, privatisation is increasingly looked at as a viable solution to the preservation of forests despite experts and activists warning otherwise.

The assumption is based on the notion that a community-driver and bottom-up governance of commons like forests simply doesn’t work and contributes to its degradation. Hardin’s metaphor was not merely advocating for privatisation and exclusive state control, it also sought to delegitimize community governance models. 

Models of Community Governance 

Prior to the publication of Hardin’s article, political scientist Elinor Ostrom had already published studies of collaborative systems of sharing scarce resources in different parts of the world, from Japan to Switzerland. These were tailored to local needs and were best for managing environmental problems instead of a highly centralised system like the one advocated by Hardin. She noted that while human beings had the potential to wreak havoc on the commons, such an outcome was largely due to a lack of adequate institutional resources and collaborative opportunities. In India, instances of community governance of forests sharply corroborate Ostrom’s findings. 

The Nishi tribe in East Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh has established forests around lakes and mountains (sineiak), forests in the vicinity of villages (myoro tom), and forests in niches and along drainages (changtam bote). They have also been responsible for protecting species of plants and animals that are considered sacred. In Meghalaya, the villagers of Mawphlang, who have 400-year-old sacred forest traditions, are building on it by ordaining new forests in 18 other villages; in van panchayats, a type of community-managed forest of the central Himalayas formed in the 1930s, the rate of forest degradation is lower or the same as state managed forests. Additionally, the van panchayats achieved forest conservation benefits at costs much lower than that of the state forests. The examples do not intend to make a sweeping statement that community conservation works everywhere, all the time; it does not.

Research has indicated that in a country where negotiation and use of commons like forests involve multiple stakeholders with multiple needs, and differing identities in terms of caste, class, religion and gender, community management is not as straightforward or ideal as it might appear. However, what the examples seek to highlight is that contrary to Hardin’s unfounded opinion, community governance is not solely responsible for the apocalyptic tragedy of the commons he envisioned. In fact, as Trupti Parekh and Parth J. Shah, renowned advocates of community forest rights remarked “Bringing these [forest] resources under state control actually created the tragedy of open access rather than solving it, as local communities lost all incentives and interest in the proper management of forests”. 

While state officials, conservationists, and corporates have largely adopted a Hardinian approach when it comes to forests and adjoining commons, there have been legislative attempts at giving local communities more power. The Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas Act enacted in 1996 extended provisions of local self-governance in fifth schedule areas, primarily inhabited by Adivasi communities. Further, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 sought to grant, recognize and protect both individual and community rights of forest-dwelling communities while providing them with considerable decision-making powers in terms of use and management of forest resources. Individually and together, these legislations have been crucial in asserting the voice of the local forest-dwelling communities. For instance, the Supreme Court in its landmark judgement of Orissa Mining Corporation vs MoEF upheld the power of local Gram Sabhas to decide whether Bauxite mining can take place when it violates their right to worship. Further, it also allowed communities like the villagers from Kamtana in Odisha’s Kandhamal district to resume traditional conservation practices and revive decaying vegetation in the surrounding forests.

However, despite these promises, the major roadblock has been their proper implementation. In the case of PESA, the lack of proper authority to frame rules under the Act and a proper timeline within which the rules should have been adopted has diluted its statutory powers. For instance, out of ten states to which the Act extends, Orissa and Jharkhand are yet to enact it. In the case of FRA, there has been steady resistance on the part of the forest bureaucracy to effectively implement the provisions. A high number of applications for forest rights face rejections without being notified as to why; mandatory documents needed as proof for making claims remain inaccessible for many without sufficient alternative provisions; amendments to parallel legislations like the new  ‘Forest Conservation Rules’ under the Forest Conservation Act 1980, which are supposed to be in compliance with FRA, instead end up diluting the powers of the local bodies.

Commons Regulation and Population Policy

Finally, a temptingly simple and linear link between population growth and environmental destruction has been injected into the popular imagination and supported by Hardin’s theory. India, according to a U.S. National Security Council memorandum from 1974, was considered to be a key State where intervention was deemed necessary. Couched with the moral rhetoric of environmentalism, donations and aid in hefty amounts flew from powerful organisations in the Global North as financial incentives to recruit Indian elites and policymakers to their cause. The World Bank, for instance, loaned India around $66 million, between 1972 and 1980, to finance measures for population control. The moral and financial pressure to adopt such policies assumed a shockingly coercive form during the Emergency period of 1975-1977. 

Around 11 million Indians were made to undergo forcible sterilisation by the State. In fact, such “coercive devices” were enthusiastically advocated by Hardin. In what was nothing less than an ethical jolt, he remarks in his 1968 article, how the “freedom to breed is intolerable” and should be met with “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon”. 

This link between population growth and environmental destruction is a compelling narrative that continues to be present in the country and has had a tremendous influence on the way commons are understood. For instance, a 2018 petition filed by Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, the Delhi leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, sought more measures on population control. He claimed that “every year the population is increasing but the number of natural resources to sustain this population is diminishing.” Focusing on a reductive understanding of population-environmental linkages drives attention away from perhaps the most formidable environmental challenge- unequal consumption and inequality that translate into differential carbon footprints, both within and across countries. In a recent report by The Observer Research Foundation, it was disclosed that in India, the bottom 50% of the population generated about one tonne of CO2 and the top 10% of the population generated almost nine tonnes of CO2 per person in 2019. Yet, in a Hardinian spirit, India’s environmental policies keep holding the marginalised culpable. 

Hardin’s metaphor was not backed by empirical evidence but instead was based on cynical and dangerous speculations about human nature. Conscious and unconscious adoption of his ideology while explicating population growth or navigating forest conservation in the country has pitted ‘environment’ against ‘community’ to the detriment of both, failing to recognize the profound interdependence between the two. 

Featured image of a tribal woman in a forest, courtesy of Survival International.

Pamela is a post-graduate anthropology student at The University of Oslo. She is currently conducting fieldwork in Dharamshala, India, on the political economy of plastic pollution and waste management. Her interests include the political economy of climate change, land and forest rights, and grassroots environmental activism, with a regional focus on South Asia.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.