Common Property Resources, Past and Present

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COMMON PROPERTY RESOURCES, PAST AND PRESENT In the early decades of the nineteenth century, extremely limited areas of land were used for cultivation. The rest of the land remained uncultivated and was used as grazing and forest land by villagers and sometimes by nonresident pastoral people. In this sense, the uncultivated land can be considered a common property resource. In addition to uncultivated land located near villages, large tracts of land and forest, remote from villages, were open to common access by pastoral people and forest dwellers.

The use of uncultivated land, in particular land attached to villages, was generally controlled by communities of landowning villagers. In North India control of such "common land" was exercised by village proprietary bodies. In South India contemporary documents claim that mirasidars (influential landowners) had the right to use common land. Villagers who did not own land were not completely excluded from grazing cattle on common land or collecting firewood from it, but they could use this land only under the regulation of the dominant villagers.

Decrease in Uncultivated Area and Deforestation

After 1860 a drastic decrease in the extent of such uncultivated areas (called "wastelands" by British colonial officers) occurred, as well as a decline in other common resources. The British administration demarcated village boundaries. This demarcation of settlements cut across open-range grazing previously used by nomadic pastoralists, reducing the area available for grazing outside villages, and shortened long fallow in open ranges by establishing sedentary cultivation on them. The British Raj declared all the land beyond those boundaries the property of the state. Hence in the montane districts of North India, a large tract of "state property" was carved out of waste and forest land after the enactment of the Indian Forest Act of 1878. The resulting shortage of grazing land made it very difficult for the pastoral people to survive. Many nomads were obliged to seek wage labor, and some became part-time peasants. Others concentrated on trading, though some struggled to continue their earlier pastoral activities.

Eager to increase land revenue, the British promoted an expansion of the cultivation of wasteland. Furthermore, the commercialization of agriculture and its increasing profits, as well as an increase in population, induced more farmers to transform village wasteland into cropped land. The result was a radical shrinkage in the extent of uncultivated land by the end of the nineteenth century. In South India the initiative to convert was taken by the dominant landowning villagers, who had asserted preferential rights to village wasteland. A report from a district in South India has shown that the area of wasteland in the unirrigated area decreased from 42 percent to 26 percent between 1880 and 1911. In the Punjab the population grew between 1855 and 1881 by 24 percent and, responding to irrigation from canals, cultivation increased by 50 percent between 1868 and 1921, with a considerable decline in uncultivated areas.

This process was accompanied by a rapid deforestation of woodland. Under the 1878 Indian Forest Act, the government classified a large tract of woodland as "reserved forests" and "protected forests." People's customary rights to use forests came under the strong regulations and restrictions set by the Raj, against which local people protested. In spite of the declared policy of "scientific" management of forests, a large amount of wood was cut for the construction of railways, shipbuilding, and other imperial interests, resulting in serious deforestation. Developing urban areas also demanded a large amount of wood for construction and fuel.

Changes in the Management of Common Property Resources

The trend to divide and privatize common land was accelerated by a weakening of cohesion among land proprietors and a decline in communal control over common land, as reported from the Punjab. The government regulated the user rights of tenants and service groups on common land, leading to conflicts between landowners and other residents. In South India a growing number of high caste landowners started moving to urban areas to seek white-collar jobs, weakening their control of village common resources.

Another trend was witnessed in South India from the end of the nineteenth century. A large number of landless agricultural laborers started to migrate to overseas estates. Migration not only provided them with alternative job opportunities but also stimulated the growth of their sense of independence. A new phase in the occupation of wasteland appeared in the 1920s when Dalits (untouchables) and other landless people began occupying wasteland for cultivation, partly under grants from the government. After independence, the Tamil Nadu (Madras) government continued to expand cultivation by encouraging the reclamation of wasteland and assigning wasteland to Scheduled Caste (untouchable) and landless people. Maharashtra witnessed a similar pattern of development. Since the 1960s, Dalits have encroached upon village common land to establish private ownership, and from time to time their encroachment has been regularized by the state governments.

Surveys of village common properties point to differences in the impact of land-assigning policy by region, revealing that villagers, in particular the poor, depend heavily on village common land as a source of fodder, fuel, and food. In most areas, the poor met 66 to 84 percent of fuel requirements and about 80 percent of fodder from common land. Village common land has, however, been increasingly privatized, and a large portion of land once assigned to the poor was either sold or mortgaged and acquired by the rich. The extent to which the lower strata of village society have attained socioeconomic independence from elite groups is an important factor in areas where there have been movements by the lower classes; encroachment has been an expression of their independence that, with its regularization, reinforces their bargaining power.

In more egalitarian villages with less differentiation by class structure, all segments of the village population participate in controlling and preserving village common resources. An acute class differentiation in the local economy, on the other hand, creates apathy among the landless toward reserving common resources. The empowerment of the landless and other subordinate groups, and their greater participation in the control and use of the village common resources, can be seen as a positive development in terms of environmental preservation. Recent cases of joint forest management and other community-based management of natural resources in various areas in India suggest the growth of such environmental protection, as exemplified by a case in Midnapore district, West Bengal, where small farmers and agricultural laborers of tribal and Dalit origins took initiatives in developing forest protection committees.

In addition to the changes in the local managing system, other factors also have influenced village common resources. The rapid expansion of farm forestry since the 1980s has led to an increased supply of wood, lowering market prices of fuel woods. The main energy sources used by urban households have switched from fuel wood to liquefied petroleum gas, kerosene, and others, leading to a reduction in urban demand for wood and contributing to a decline in the incentive to collect fuel wood from village forest lands. The spread of yield-increasing technologies in agriculture has lessened the pressure to expand cropped areas; the expansion of nonagricultural employment opportunities also has mitigated the pressure on agricultural expansion. Together with the rapid expansion of joint forest management all over India, these factors have contributed to preventing a rapid reduction in the total extent of forest land since the 1980s, and to mitigating the decline in common property resources.

Haruka Yanagisawa

See alsoEnvironmental Consciousness since 1800


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