The commons can build things that work and serve real needs

According to David Bollier in “The Commons as a Different Engine for Innovation

The commons offers us some practical ways to build new types of participatory and transparent democratic structures. Although this is very much a work-in-progress, I see the commons as one of the few areas of life about which I am exceedingly hopeful. Why? Because it’s already taking off. When theory needs to catch up with practice, you know that something powerful is going on.

A couple of examples

This is a photo of Rajendra Singh, the founder of Tarun Bharat Sangh (or TBS, which stands for Young India Association). Singh has healed the local ecosystem in Rajasthan – where several rivers had completely dried up – by applying some near-forgotten indigenous Indian knowledge about hydrology. His idea was to treat the groundwater and rivers as commons, subject to community stewardship and participation, and to re-instill a sense of sacred obligation to the water.

By building small dams with water resources, TBS was able to bring the Arvari River and four other once-dry riverbeds back to life and to raise groundwater levels by 20 feet. The soil has become more fertile and wetter, too, which means that people who once abandoned the area are moving back to farm and start businesses.

I was in India in January, so I have another such story of how a self-organized commons can overcome free-market pathologies. In the small village of Erakulapally some two hours west of Hyderabad, a community of rural, poor women from the lowest caste in the country – so-called dalit – used to be bonded laborers working on a landlord’s farm. They earned only enough to eat one meal a day. Then they came up with the idea of searching for and regenerating dozens of traditional seeds, seeds that their ancestors had grown for centuries and brilliantly adapted to the semi-arid ecosystem and climate of Andhra Pradesh.

By finding and then sharing the seeds among themselves rather than buying proprietary modern seeds, the women were able to resurrect their more sustainable, nutritious agricultural crops. They were able to emancipate themselves from a market economy that was never going to serve their interests because they would never earn enough money. I might add, these women achieved food security without relying upon outside experts or government subsidies. This model has spread, and there are now some 5,000 women in 75 villages who share seeds and farming advice with each other.

According to Muto Ichiyo in 1990

The situation calls for the declaration of a new right of the people: to intervene in, modify, regulate and ultimately control any decisions that affect their lives, no matter where those decisions are made. This should be established as a universal right that recognizes no borders.

According to Bollier

R. Buckminster Fuller once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” That’s the real appeal of the commons. It can build something that works and serves real needs. It’s not just an ideological mantra.

Cicero also had a great line: “Freedom is participation in power.” The commons decentralizes power and invites participation. People are invited to contribute their creativity on a decentralized, horizontal scale, rather than become supplicants to the elites who manage a centralized, expert-driven, legalistic hierarchy, such as our regulatory system.

But neither should we underestimate what the government itself could do to help to leverage local participation.

In “Meeting India’s tree planting guru” Amarnath Tewary talks to SM Raju about how he organized the villagers of India’s poorest state to reforest, including planting almost a billion trees in one day.

Under NREGA – initiated in February 2006 as the government’s most ambitious employment generation scheme for poor people – the authorities are bound by law to provide a minimum of 100 days of employment a year to members of families living below the poverty line.

About 44% of Bihar’s population fall into this category.


“I told the villagers that they would get 100 days employment in a year simply by planting trees and protecting them. The old, handicapped and widows would be given preference,” he explained.

Every village council has now been given a target of planting 50,000 saplings – a group of four families has to plant 200 seedlings and they must protect them for three years till the plants grow more sturdy.

“They would get the full payment if they can ensure the survival of 90% of the plants under their care. For a 75-80% survival rate, they will be paid only half the wage. If the survival rate is less than 75%, the families in the group will be replaced,” the guidelines say.

Under NREGA rules, each worker has to be paid 100 rupees ($2) per day for 100 days in a year.


1 Comment

  1. “Buckminster Fuller put it best when he stated that you cannot change an existing system, that it’s better to create another one and make the old one obsolete.”


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