Dharma And Punya: The Ninth And Tenth Principles Of Polycentric Systems

Dharma And Punya: The Ninth And Tenth Principles Of Polycentric Systems Women near Messarkund Bugyal meadow near Munsiyari, in the Pithoragarh District of Uttarakhand (Wikimedia Commons)
  • How traditonal systems can ensure the conservation and sustenance of 'commons' better than academic models and NGO-mediated efforts.

In 1968, there appeared in Science, an article that would soon become a cult-classic for ecologists, environmental economists and environmental activists of the Western green movement.

Titled The Tragedy of Commons, it was written by biologist Garrett Hardin. The article argued about the degradation of what it called the commons — like the hypothetical common grazing grounds which get destroyed because it is common to a large section without any formal legal regulations and restrictions.

It was not something new to the Western worldview. The statement ‘what belongs in common to the greatest number, receives the least looking after’ is attributed to Aristotle, who lived about 2,300 years ago.

The tragedy of the commons, then, leads to accelerated degradation of environment and hence, has to be checked. The ‘tragedy’ could be averted either by state control or by making the commons private — either the socialist or the capitalist way.

Hardin himself leaned towards ‘state control’, while subsequent Western theorists have moved towards privatisation as a solution. The statement made by Hardin that ‘the freedom in the commons brings ruins to all’ attained the status of an environmental law over the period of time.

Despite widespread appreciation for Hardin’s article, which made the term ‘commons’ quite a focus of innumerable academic studies, the paper shows remarkable Western bias in approaching the problem.

Consider the following lines in Hardin’s article:

Using the commons as a cesspool does not harm the general public under frontier conditions, because there is no public; the same behavior in a metropolis is unbearable. A hundred and fifty years ago, a plainsman could kill an American bison, cut out only the tongue for his dinner, and discard the rest of the animal. He was not in any important sense being wasteful. Today, with only a few thousand bison left, we would be appalled at such behavior.

The combination of the ‘frontier’ myth and the accelerated hunting of buffaloes by the Euro-Americans with scant regard for the innate spiritual restrictions which governed Native American hunting was actually a means to subjugate the Native Americans in the fast-spreading empire of the European settlers.

Environmental historian Andrew C. Isenberg, in his introduction to his authoritative work on the destruction of the bison, rightly points out that before embarking on the preservation of the bison when they became completely endangered, the 'Federal authorities supported the hunt because they saw the extermination of the bison as a means to force Indians to submit to the reservation system' effecting a near-destruction of 'the Indians' primary resource.'

Dr. Isenberg explains:

Whether religious or secular, the injunction against overhunting prevented exhaustion of the game on which the nomads relied. The rules against overhunting were also entirely consistent with the nomads’ communalism. The Indians extended their ethic of cooperation to include the bison, believing that the animals, like individuals within the group, sacrificed themselves for the good of the human community.

He quotes an Euro-American fur trader to note that for Native American communities 'the bear, the deer and the cow were the kind of genii that take pleasure in this form and lead this wandering life through kindness for the Savages, in order to furnish subsistence for them', which in turn, made 'the Savages hunt only with consideration and with a sort of religious respect.'

In short, the commons are located in a completely Western way of understanding them as a common property of natural resources seen purely in terms of costs and benefits. The integrally and inseparably intertwined cultural and spiritual dimensions of the commons in a non-Western, non-Protestant tradition are completely ignored. In fact, even subsequent criticisms of Hardin are mainly for the Malthusian aspects of his work and not for its Western-Protestant centrism deeply embedded in his work.

Then came the refreshing work of Elinor Ostrom in 1990. In her work Governing the Commons, she wrote in the very first page:

What one can observe in the world, however, is that neither the state nor the market is uniformly successful in enabling individuals to sustain long-term, productive use of natural resource systems. Further, communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time.

Terming the commons as ‘Common Property Resources’ (CPR), she approached the CPR in what she considered as the strategy of a biologist who studies poorly understood complex processes by 'identifying for empirical observation the simplest possible organism in which a process occurs in a clarified, or even exaggerated, form.'

And this organism for Ostrom is CPR, which ‘is itself located within one country and the number of individuals affected varies from 50 to 15,000 persons who are heavily dependent on the CPR for economic returns.’

She studies the meadows and forests of Switzerland to the fishing communities of Sri Lanka and the negative impact of government taking over the forest from communities in Thailand, Nepal and India among others.

From all these studies, she comes with a new term for the way the commons are governed — a ‘polycentric system.’

Effective poly-centric systems have eight features which are today famous among the community of environmental scholars and activists as the eight principles of such a system — defining the boundaries of CPR; rules which are adapted to the local needs and conditions; possibility of participatory modification of the rules, not tokenism; simple, easily accessible, cost-effective, time-efficient conflict-resolution; internal system for monitoring in-group behaviour; penalizing those who violate in an informal manner which ultimately may end in excommunication from the use of CPR; acceptance — mostly informal and hence flexible — of the conventions of the CPR by outside power structures; the CPR being nested within larger systems with similar, not identical, characteristics.

Elinor Ostrom received the Nobel Prize in 2009 for her work on the commons.

It is not hard to see that the polycentric system that Ostrom expounds contains in it many features of the village Panchayat system of the Hindu tradition. Unfortunately, instead of approaching them with the sensibility of learning their core principles and adapting them as holistic tools for the challenges of economic growth and ecological protection, post-independent India has either brought in partisan party politics or allowed them to deteriorate into kangaroo courts with a predatory vulture press reinforcing Western stereotypes.

Quite interestingly, long before Ostrom, the problems the commons would face and the exploitation — both that of the natural resources and the forest dwelling communities that may come in with urban power concentration — have been brought out by one of the doyens of Kannada literature Maasti Venkatesha Iyengar (1891-1986), who in his play Kakkanakote, brought out all the dimensions of what later Ostrom would called polycentric-governance of the commons.

The relation between the forest dwelling community and the Mysore royalty, the internal governance of the forest dwelling community, the possibility of exploitation and the inevitable resistance, the never ceasing movement of values, culture and genes between the forest dwellers and urban-rural communities — all have been brought out by Iyengar in a telling way.

India has sacred forests and a forest-revering cultural tradition. However, ‘academic studies’ of these commons projected an 'invading Aryans versus the aborigines' narrative on them.

Such stereotyping and simplistic reframing of reality earns many academics tenure in Western universities and publication through prestigious journals, but injures reality and harms sustainable development.

They ultimately demand destruction of traditional links and networks of communities that have evolved over millennia, replacing them with NGO- facilitated relations of alienated tribal societies to a mechanistic State.

Dr. PS Ramakrishnan, Professor of Ecology at the School of Environmental Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, emphasises the importance of spiritual elements in the management of ecologically vulnerable commons.

Citing instances like the conservation of ‘only a small patch of the relict Avicennia marina … as part of a sacred grove’ in the Banni region of the Rann of Kutch, he wonders at the possibility of these socially selected species playing an important role in such systems.

Discussing 'the missing links' in ecology, economics and ethics, Prof. Ramakrishnan gently points out the incompatibility of sustainable development with respect to both 'planned development in the traditional economic sense through a series of five-year plans' and also the 'blind faith in the Western models of development'.

Instead of getting replaced, the current Western paradigm of development, ‘needs to be appropriately integrated into the Gandhian model.’ A similar approach was also suggested by Hindutva thinker Ram Swaroop in his lecture on Gandhian economics.

This essentially means providing ‘resilience to the biosphere by strengthening the internal buffering mechanisms against the uncertainties of the environment.

The Professor of Ecology from JNU writes what this necessitates:

This brings us to the cosmic tree, which is rooted in Brahman, the ‘ultimate’ and has been described by the ancient seers of India in the Upanishads. Tat twam asi (that thou art) in a literal sense, means that the individual is part of the creation; ecologically speaking, the individual is projected as part of Nature. This would imply humans are well integrated into ecosystem functions, implying compassion and fellowship extended to the whole biosphere — the concept of sarvabhutadaya in Buddhism.

Thus, in India, the common grazing lands are venerated because the cattle are sacred. The forests are sacred groves where the Goddess abides in infinite forms — from the fragrance of forest flowers to the tree trunks to the sound of the cicadas, as the Rig Veda itself speaks of the Goddess of the forest.

The water bodies should be maintained and celebrated by communities responsible for them. Creating a waterbody is Punya. Maintaining a water body created by the ancestors becomes one’s Dharma — in fact, Dharma of the village as well as the particular clan.

And all these are loosely monitored by Panchayats, but more importantly, sustained by the twin Hindu concepts of Punya and Dharma — exactly the principles lacking in the study of Ostrom.

Given Prof. Ostrom’s authoritative sources on India, her Indian collaborators and academic informers, it is next to impossible that these terms would ever enter their active vocabulary.

Nevertheless, Dharma and Punya should then be the ninth and tenth principles of the poly-centric mode of ‘governance’.

In fact, they are the basis; the other eight principles, as Hillel said, are just commentary.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.


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