Dependence Of The Poor On Commons

A 1999 NSSO study on the role of land, water and forest commons in the life and economy of rural Indians revealed that CPRs provide as much as 58% of fuelwood requirements and up to 25% of fodder requirements. It also provides evidence of large-scale depletion of CPRs, with CPR lands in rural India declining by almost 2% every five years. 

Published in 1999, the National Sample Survey Organisation’s (NSSO) study is the largest national-level assessment of size, utilisation and contribution of CPRs, with separate estimates for 12 agro-climatic zones. The report is based on a sample survey carried out across 5,242 villages, covering 78,990 rural households, and pertains mainly to the role of three CPRs — land, water and forests — in the life and economy of India’s rural population.

According to the report, 15% of the country’s geographical area is under CPR lands, excluding forests, though the latter in practice may be used as common property. The average landholding size stood at 0.84 hectares, while each household had access to 0.31 hectares of CPR land. The average area of CPR land available to households was highest among the northeastern states followed by Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, states which also have a high proportion of drylands. Most frontline Green Revolution states have a relatively smaller share of per household CPR land availability. Similarly, states with higher population density predictably reported lower per capita CPR land availability.

The report reiterates findings of previous studies on CPR land availability and utilisation across different agro-climatic zones. The percentage of geographical area under CPRs and per household CPR land availability is lowest for the Gangetic plains and highest for the Thar desert. Likewise, the extent of permanent pasture and grazing lands is highest in the western Himalayas, followed by the western coast and central plateau; it is lowest in the Thar desert. The eastern and western Himalayas have the highest proportion of CPR lands under village woodlots and forests, while the Thar desert and the Gujarat and eastern coasts have relatively lower CPR lands under forests.

The report produces evidence of large-scale depletion of CPRs in both size and productivity. CPR land in rural India is declining by almost 2% every five years. The maximum decline was observed in the middle and trans-Gangetic plains, while the loss was the least on the west coast, Gujarat coast, western Himalayas and the Thar desert.

To assess the contribution of CPRs, data on collection of various materials like fuelwood, fodder, manure, weeds, grass, edibles, and medicinal herbs from them, as well as other kinds of use by villagers, was collected from households in the sample. Nearly half of India’s rural households collect something or the other from CPRs; the average value of produce collected works out to Rs 693 per household, annually, which is about 3% of the average consumption expenditure of each household.

The study points out that CPRs provide 58% of fuelwood for domestic consumption and entrepreneurial activities. They also help meet up to 25% of fodder requirement for livestock, besides providing a variety of other products used as raw materials for household enterprises like rope-making and basket-weaving. On average, around 20% of households graze their livestock on CPRs. Interestingly, while agriculturally intensive states like Punjab and Haryana have proportionately less CPR lands, households in these two states collect the most from CPRs in value terms and the bulk of what they collect is fodder for livestock.

Although the degree of dependence on CPRs across landholding classes varies, no discerning pattern emerges. Two categories of holding size — less than 0.2 hectares and more than 1 hectare — show the least dependence on CPRs, while households falling in the intermediate categories collect more. Among all categories, dependence on CPRs is highest among rural labour households. This highlights the reality that the landless, agri-workers and households with the largest share of income coming from wage-paid manual labour rely most on CPRs for food and livelihood security.

Among the various agro-climatic zones, the average value of collection from CPRs is highest in the western Himalayas due to close proximity of villages to forests. The western dry region comprising the Thar desert has vast CPR lands that are barren and marginal and the average value of collection is the lowest among all zones. The Gangetic plains with their fertile agricultural lands have less CPR lands but the value of collection is extremely high, ranking next to the western Himalayas. In the Deccan plateau and coastal zones, though the number of households depending on CPRs is high, the value of collection is quite low.

Regarding fuelwood, a staggering 62% of rural households depend on CPRs to meet their energy requirements. On average, a rural household collects nearly 500 kg of fuelwood from CPRs each year, apart from drawing 45% more from other sources. The pressure on CPRs as a major source of energy for cooking will persist, despite their continued erosion, especially when various rural energy surveys point out that 90% of energy consumed comes from non-commercial sources.

Regarding fodder, around 20% of rural households, both landless and landholders, depend on CPRs to graze livestock while 13% of households collect fodder from CPRs. A small 2% of rural households cultivate fodder on CPRs. States like Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa reported high levels of dependence on CPRs for livestock grazing. In Punjab, though collection of fodder from CPRs is quite high, grazing on CPR land is lowest possibly because it also has one of the lowest CPR land available per household. On average, around 275 kg of fodder is collected from CPRs annually by rural households across the country.

As in the case of fuelwood, households in the western Himalayas depend on CPRs the most both for grazing and collection of fodder. The eastern Himalayas follows with respect to grazing but collects relatively less fodder from CPRs, while in the Thar desert, a minuscule quantity of fodder is collected from CPRs although the incidence of grazing is quite high. The value of fodder collection was reported to be very high in the agriculturally rich Gangetic plains, while both grazing and fodder collection was relatively low in the Deccan plateau and the coastal regions.

Regarding common property water resources, the most important use was irrigation; 23% of rural households source water from CPRs to irrigate their croplands. Around 30% of households also depend on them to meet the water requirements of their livestock. The availability of common property water resources like ponds, tanks and lakes for non-domestic use was found to be the highest in the east coast plains and the hills.

The report clearly brings out the fact that CPRs have traditionally been a source of economic sustenance for the rural poor, and have played an important resource-supplementing role in the private property-based farming system. That the poor depend on CPRs as a means of livelihood and food security is clearly highlighted in the report.

(Bhaskar Goswami is associated with the New Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security)

Highlights of NSSO report on CPRs 

Broadly speaking, common property resources include all such resources that are meant for common use by the villagers. They include resources like village pastures and grazing grounds, village forests and woodlots, protected and unclassed government forests, wasteland, common threshing grounds, watershed drainage, ponds and tanks, rivers, rivulets, water reservoirs, canals and irrigation channels. In pre-British India, a very large part of the country’s natural resources was freely available to the rural population. They were largely under the control of local communities. With the extension of state control over these resources and the resultant decay of community management systems, CPRs available to villagers declined substantially over the years. Today, in almost all parts of the country, villagers have legal right of access only to specific categories of land and water resources. Nevertheless, it is widely held that CPRs continue to play an important role in the life and economy of the rural population.

Common property resources have been defined in a number of different ways in available literature. The element that is common to most of these definitions attributes primary importance to nature of access in the identification of CPRs. The conceptual approaches vary over a wide range. At one extreme there is an approach that treats all that is not private property as common property. The approach at the other extreme adopts a much more stringent view to distinguish between common property and “free rider” or “free or open access” resources. The latter category is characterised by the absence of any rules for management of resources. The proponents of this approach hold that “a resource becomes common property only when the group of people who have the right to its collective use is well defined, and the rules that govern their use of it are set out clearly and followed universally”. In their view, common property implies the existence of an institutional arrangement for management of the resources.

Traditionally, systems of community management of CPRs and forest land existed in various forms in many parts of the country till the end of the 19th century. A very large part of the country’s natural resources was common property, in the sense that a wide variety of necessary resources was freely available to the rural population. The process of extending state control over common resources, which began with the declaration of “reserved” and “protected” forests in the closing years of the 19th century, has essentially been that of excluding villagers from accessing common resources by law. As a result, systems of community management gradually disintegrated and are now virtually extinct.

Today, in almost all parts of the country, villagers have legal right of access only to specific categories of land like ‘pasture and grazing lands’ and ‘village forests’ which are under the jurisdiction of the village or village panchayat. All other categories of land not under private ownership, like barren and uncultivable land, culturable waste, land put to non-agricultural uses, and forests belong to the state revenue department or forest department.

India’s rural population, particularly the poor, depend greatly on goods and services available from these categories of land. Besides, although only those resources are treated as CPRs, to which no individual has exclusive property rights, there are systems of customary rights which support traditional practices, such as gleaning or grazing of cattle in the fields after harvest, which represent common rights on private property in certain situations.

Common property land resources (CPLR)

  • Percentage of common property land resources in total geographical area: 15%
  • Common property land resources per household (ha): 0.31
  • Common property land resources per capita (ha): 0.06
  • Components of common property land resources

Community pastures and grazing land: 23%
Village forest and woodlots: 16%
Other: 61%

  • Reduction in CPR land during last five years (per 1,000 ha): 19 ha

Collections from CPLR

  • Households reporting collection of any materials from CPRs: 48%
  • Average value of annual collections per household: Rs 693
  • Ratio of average value of collection to average value of consumption expenditure: 3.02%

Nature of use of CPRs

  • Households reporting grazing of livestock on CPRs: 20%
  • Households reporting use of common water resources

Irrigation: 23%
Livestock rearing: 30%
Household enterprise: 2.8%

  • Share of fuelwood in value of collection from CPRs: 58%
  • Percentage of households reporting use of fuelwood: 52%
  • Households reporting collection of fuelwood from CPRs: 45%
  • Average quantity of fuelwood collected from CPRs over 365 days: 500 kg
  • Households possessing livestock: 56%
  • Households collecting fodder from CPRs: 13%
  • Households cultivating fodder on CPRs: 2%
  • Average quantity of fodder collected from CPRs over 365 days: 275 kg
  • Households reporting irrigation using common property water resources owned/managed by:

Village panchayat: 1.1%
Community: 0.8%
Government: 1.8%
River/Government canal, etc: 10.3%

(Reprinted from the NSSO Report on Common Property Resources in India, December 1999)

Commons contribute more to poor households than anti-poverty schemes 

In a study conducted in 81 villages across 21 dryland districts across seven states in rural India, pioneer of commons research in South Asia N S Jodha measured the dependence of poor communities (small farm households and the landless) on CPRs. The commons in these districts included village pastures, community forests, wasteland, common threshing grounds, waste dumps, watershed drainages, village ponds and tanks, rivers, rivulets, riverbeds, etc, and the area under commons ranged from 9 to 28% of total village area.

The data revealed that 84-100% of poor households derived benefits such as food, fuel, fodder and fibre from common lands. By contrast, only 10-28% of large farmers used CPRs, and the benefits they accrued were fewer.

Per household income from CPRs ranged from Rs 530 to Rs 830, depending on the region. Small, poor households benefited more than larger, richer households; common lands also serve as a safety net for the poor during periods of crop failure and uncertainty. Since returns for individual users from degraded lands are not much for the rich, the poor, who have surplus labour and fewer opportunities, accept these low-paying options more readily.

Harvesting of seasonal products and the opportunity to benefit from unskilled labour are additional factors that make the commons more attractive for the poor. In fact, the results indicate that CPRs contribute more to poor households than anti-poverty schemes in some of the areas that were evaluated. An analysis of monetary data from this study also suggests that CPRs play a role in reducing inequalities in income between classes. The results call for their inclusion in poverty alleviation and rural development exercises.

One of the key findings of Jodha’s work has been the documentation of the decline of CPRs. This refers not only to physical loss in terms of area, but also recorded declines in productivity and changes in status, ownership and governance. In the three decades following India’s independence, the area under common lands declined by 26-63% in the dryland districts that were assessed.

While population growth had a role to play, this decline was largely attributable to privatisation for the benefit of the poor as part of various welfare programmes. However, 49-86% of privatised lands ended up being allocated to farmers who were better endowed. In a majority of instances where land was given to the poor, they did not have additional resources to develop the land, nor were they provided any support to do so. As a result, much of the land was sold, mortgaged, remained fallow, or was leased on a long-term basis. The remaining common lands were overexploited resulting in declining productivity. These developments also have adverse consequences for drylands which are typically fragile ecosystems and hence prone to greater degradation and poor resilience. The decline in CPRs is often very closely paralleled by a decline in social capital (especially traditional institutions and mechanisms of governance).


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