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 What exactly are ‘commons’? What resources should come under the umbrella idea of commons? Who owns them? Who should govern and regulate them? Who should it benefit and what has been the practise so far?

All these are extremely complex questions involving a layered and extensive understanding of history, societal context, political and economic dispensation, and more. Academic scholarship has extensively dealt and debated with it and tomes have been written on all these aspects over the years. Some of these theories have had decisive influence in shaping public policies regarding access to commons, across the globe.

Yogi Agarwal, in his recent bookPlunder of the Commons, does not delve into any of these erudite expositions.  Instead,starting from a disarmingly simple definition of commons- ‘resources that do not belong to any one individual but to all people who are free to use them’, explores the systematic usurping of varied kind of resources by powerful corporations with the explicit support of the state machinery and elected governments. He chooses to expand the definition of ‘commons’ to include diverse kind of resources (some which conventionally do not fall into the idea of commons) like land (forest, wetlands, agricultural land , urban spaces), coal, other minerals, rivers and water bodies, gas, 2G spectrum, medicine and software, etc.

The principle premise of the book is that ‘natural resources’, which cannot be produced by humans and have historically been established as common resources of the entire society, has been cornered by a few powerful individuals and corporations. The democratically elected State, which has been entrusted the responsibility of preserving the commons and ensuring that the benefit accrues to the entire society through legislations and regulations, have completely failed in their role. In fact, on the contrary, the government machinery has been flouting its own laws and has abetted the loot of the enormous wealth which belongs to the people – the present and the future generations. The book focuses on India and bases itsargument on a few celebrated cases, which came to fore because of popular resistance movements and forthright reports by government agencies and some by other non government agencies.

The main strength of the book is its easy and accessible language and pace – it is aimed to engage with non-specialist reader and it does that effectively. Agarwal’s long years in journalism is evident in the engaging text which flows smoothly and is not punctuated by unnecessary references. The short reference list at the end is sufficient for an uninformed reader. Divided in eight chapters, the book is in the form of a collection of essays – each of the chapters could be read independently. The first chapter elaborates on the idea of commons and summarises the book, the second is on land grab, the laws governing it, displacement, resistance and the ongoing struggles around it. The third and probably the most coherently written one, is on coal and its auction to private players and the loss of revenue to the State which could have been used for actual development of the people. The fourth chapter is on a series of scams which have hit our economy in the recent times – the 2G scam, gas pricing scam and the aviation sector scam. The fifth is on rivers – allocation of water, unbridled damming and unregulated dumping of wastes and its implications. The sixth chapter deals with the loot of the rich mineral resources of our country and its implications on the indigenous people who belong to those areas, also their heroic resistance to the powerful corporations and the state. The seventh chapter deals with the urban land grab where not only government land is passed on for a song to the builders and the rich instead of providing decent living spaces for the poor working population, but even the slum land of the poor are forcibly cleared and gifted to the powerful. The final chapter brings out the effect of this systemic and widespread plunder – an enormous and ever increasing inequality in the distribution of wealth in the population.

Amidst the deluge of news involving the extravagant lives of celebrities, the hate mongering promoted by politicians and leaders, the ridiculous tweet battles, mob lynching of the poor and the weak, and so on, the most important issues get drowned into oblivion. Issues that involve the pillage of our common natural resources by the powerful and the complete non accountability of the State machinery and our elected representatives which function as an accomplice to this loot. These resources could have been harnessed to address the essential necessities of our people,and even quell the widespread strife, which has engulfed the entire nation in recent times.This book sieves through this chaos of news to bring out the essential news which should concern all of us. There is some scope of improvements though – the chapters are not evenly written, some seem to go all over and hence do not make the point as effectively as others. The chapters could have been ordered differently and there are repetitions which could have been accommodated in the same chapter – for example the book starts with the land issue and ends too with the land issue (urban), it could have been clubbed. Further the book does not make an overall argument in spite of bringing out the common pattern in the grab of all the resources. If the perpetrators, accomplices and the end result arethe same in diverse kind of resource grab then it indicates to a fundamental flaw in the system rather than a loophole which can be plugged. Further an important resource on which most of these explorations are based is government data and reports (most prominently the excellent and scathing CAG reports), without them none of these could have been investigated. The present dispensation seems to be keen on clamping down on any kind of data gathering and information sharing  – it has discontinued several national surveys and are keen on limiting the RTI Act too. This would have serious impact on any kind of independent enquiry.

To conclude, commons have survived and thrived for thousands of years of human civilisation through collective monitoring and normative rules. Capitalism began with massive land and resource grab all over the planet including the commons, and legal institutionalisation of private property.  This system brought in its own theories, justifying and naturalising its doctrine, epitomised in individual self interest rather than collective interests. One of the most influential doctrines of capitalism is the ‘tragedy of commons’a term coined by Gareth Hardin in his article The Tragedy of the Commons (1969). Simply put it contends that all collective resources are going to be over exploited and ultimately destroyed because of individual greed. The idea being that to preserve natural resources it needs to be taken away from public access and made into private property of powerful corporations and wealthy individuals.  This has informed policy makers and legislators for over a hundred years, despite of ample scholastic and academic evidence to the contrary – sustained and intensive corporate plunder has brought the very existence of the planet and its eco-system to the brink. Maybe it is about time the debate is brought to the common people to push for a more emphatic positive change -after all it concernstheir(and their future generations’) common resources. The book under review is a laudable effort in this direction.

Plunder of the Commons

by Yogi Aggarwal, The Write Place, 2018, pp x-228, Rs 299

Manali Chakrabarti is an independent researcher

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