Reporting from the Hyderabard Commons Conference: assessing the comparative threats from market and state

The IASC conference marked significant progress on numerous fronts. With the appearance of environmental ministers from India and El Salvador, Ostrom’s Nobel Prize, and several instances of the commons movement gaining audiences with government leaders and key policymakers, it’s clear the commons movement has grown from a largely intellectual and academic station to playing a significant role influencing policy and practices on the ground.

Excerpted from the report by Christopher G. Cook for Shareable magazine:

“America’s bitterly divided discourse about government and the public sector is all but absent here at the global commons conference in Hyderabad, India where criticisms of government seem driven more by an impulse to protect communities from state-corporate takings of common lands than by the urge to eliminate taxes and regulation.

The question of who can best preserve common resources — and defining what these ‘commons’ are — is a prevailing theme here, with widespread criticism heaped on governments in India and other ‘developing’ nations for prioritizing GDP and large-scale industrial growth over community-based economic survival.

In the Tamil Nadu province in India’s south, for instance, the Adivasi forest tribes have battled government agencies — often representing private industrial interests — for their survival in traditional forest harvesting areas. “The state forest department has systematically undermined traditional rights and uses,” explained Kunjam Pandu Dora, a forest tribes activist presenting at the conference.

Indian pastoralists and forest tribes have been summarily kicked out of new national parklands, and their traditional harvesting has become illegal, creating new pressures for tribes to enter the agrarian economy while spurring clashes with other pastoralists and farmers.

Such contested terrains and colliding interests are everywhere; how, for instance, does India supply power, technological and industrial development to its ever-rising middle-class (and even peasant communities) without radically scouring and imperiling its resources and increasing its carbon footprint?

Throughout the conference, I asked participants this: How can India, China, and other nations ‘develop’ U.S.-style, with ever-expanding growth and industrial production and consumption, without plunging the planet deeper into climatologic and social-economic chaos. And what role can the public sector play in preventing rather than encouraging this downward spiral?

India’s erudite and controversial Minister of Environment and Forests, Shri Jairam Ramesh, has endured “severe criticism and opposition” for blocking major hydro projects that would dam the upper Ganges River, and lamented that, in India, merely implementing the law creates big, splashy headlines and trouble. He told a rapt conference crowd, “It is time for India to accept that 9 percent economic growth has ecological consequences. There is a trade-off.”

Ramesh added, “The first thing standing in the way of implementing our laws is the development imperative.”

Yet in the same speech, Minister Ramesh cited an “army of regulators who have become part of the problem” getting in the way of sustainable, community-based development. He asked the crowd, “Do regulations require regulators?”

While Ramesh is considered somewhat of a hero for environmental and common lands protection, the minister said he also encountered “huge resistance by civil society groups” when he released a paper advocating market-based approaches to environmental management.

“Our laws are based on institutional monocultures,” Ramesh told the commons crowd. “We need to allow for different ways.” India is “enormously diverse” both economically and ecologically, “yet we still insist on the primacy of the state.”

In my sampling of numerous workshops and dozens of interviews, the commons conference appeared to emphasize more criticism of the public sector than the private. Several delegates I spoke with expressed frustration about this tilt. One attendee remarked, “I’m surprised we hear nothing about capitalism here, nothing about the larger underlying forces.” This sentiment was repeated several times in discussions with delegates.

“Too often we focus on getting the rules just right, but we don’t focus on the larger political environment and context,” said Ben Cousins, a land reform expert and activist in South Africa.”

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