commons are crucial for a sustainable future


Long time ago, Akbar and Birbal, known for having game of one-manupship,   are known to played a game to find out how cooperative the people in the kingdom were. A tank was dug up and an announcement was made that everybody would put a pot of milk in it before sun rise. What was  the outcome?

When both went to see the tank, it was filed with water instead of milk. Most people thought that since others would put milk, their own pot of water might not be visible. It is similar to the prisoner’s dilemma game. Individual rationality in such cases is seen to be not only compatible with but even lead to collective irrationality.

That is what seems to be happy in many areas of collective resource management situations. And education does not seem to make a difference and if it indeed does, it is often negative. The cities have greater neglect of commons than rural areas and within rural areas, developed regions have more than the less economically developed regions. It is one case where laggard of green revolution, for instance are the pioneers. Individualization is good for promoting certain kind of entrepreneurship but not for others.   Externalities of individual action can be internalized through collective action. If drainage of a field is not utilized as irrigation water by another downstream farmers in hill areas, the terrace system would not  survive. Each farmer can not manage the irrigation kuhls (the surname Kohli emerged from those who used to manage irrigation kuhls or channels in hilly or other areas).

The parking space, overhead water tank, common facilities, and lot of other common facilities in urban societies are issues which make or mar the viability of these settlements. Some of the externalities of individual action such as releasing untreated sewage or industrial effluents in Sabarmati river or water storage structure was sought to be handled very ably by the municipal authorities  through a collective action. Lot of volunteer citizens contributed their individual time for a collective good. Can this be done more regularly.  Can we teach in schools and colleges that a civilized society demands such contributions from individuals for collective goods regularly?

Installing drinking water points inside for common use is desirable but making these points accessible to  common people walking on pavements outside the wall is necessary for survival of civic values in society.  We don’t teach our children only in schools but also on streets and parks in w which they see how individuals, the elderly, sometimes even educated ones,  behave toward common duties.

Commons are involved when we deal with our waste, biodiversity in our fields, or garden, fighting emergencies such as fires and riots and safety of our children and women. Almost all these problems are aggravated when tackled at individual level. The public authorities, even if super-efficient, can not do without management of commons and open access public goods.

We need to also realize that when we wish to have better facilities for one community or region, than others, we sow the seeds of social discord. We no more work towards a shared earth, shared sky and shared destiny. We assume that it is humanly possible to build  a peaceful and happy society by keeping the world divided, some sections and spaces neglected and not working toward strengthening the spirit of commons.  

Managing commons is at the heart of a civilized, cooperative  and compassionate society. We should organize special contest for social innovations which promote caring of common unmet needs of urban and rural areas. We need to have conversation in homes not just about how we manage our individual destinies but also about common good. We will then see a difference in the quality of life for everybody including non-human sentient beings, the birds, squirrels, dogs and cats.


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place