ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Un-making the 'Commons'

Shifting Landscapes: The Making and Remaking of Village Commons in India by Rita Brara; Oxford University Press, New Delhi;
J J ROY BURMAN Rapid depletion of forests, destruction of the natural resources and the burgeoning environmental crisis has of late drawn the attention of the academics, environmentalists, activists, development workers and the NGOs world over. The present treatise under review provides a reflection of the same. Rita Brara, the author is immensely concerned about this. She stresses at the outset that the environmental concern is not to be limited only in physical terms. It needs to be looked through the edifice of social constructs. Her prime concern is about the

Un-making the ‘Commons’

Shifting Landscapes: The Making and Remaking of Village Commons in India

by Rita Brara; Oxford University Press, New Delhi; pp 321, Rs 625.


apid depletion of forests, destruction of the natural resources and the burgeoning environmental crisis has of late drawn the attention of the academics, environmentalists, activists, development workers and the NGOs world over. The present treatise under review provides a reflection of the same. Rita Brara, the author is immensely concerned about this. She stresses at the outset that the environmental concern is not to be limited only in physical terms. It needs to be looked through the edifice of social constructs. Her prime concern is about the “commons” – which needs to be treated as social spaces. Placing this in context the author vents her annoyance towards the anthropologists, who, though have carried out village studies, their euphemism was more on the social interactions, culture areas and material culture.

Brara acknowledges that though many anthropologists have covered the forestbased economy, hunting practices, animal husbandry and pastoralism, the importance of common lands in the construction of the social and symbolic concern in the villages have been significantly left out. In this book she attempts to put together the history of village commons from relational and partial points of view in the post-independence period, focusing upon both the social framing of village commons and its coexistence with divergent practices and constructions. The study is mainly based on primary data from the arid zones in the state of Rajasthan.

The ‘Commons’ History

At the very inception Brara criticises the trend to view commons as objects produced by the livelihood practices of inhabitants in interaction with statutory processes and practices. The commons provide resources for fuel and fodder – for subsistence outside settled agriculture. Next, the author does not accept the concept of “common property resource” or “common pool resource” and prefers the term “commons” – so as to be able to capture the multiple meanings of shifting representations of the commons both within an ecology of agropastoralist practice in a delimited region and through the codifying practices of the state. Village commons include pastoral tracts, tracts set apart for cremation grounds, defecation spaces, ponds, animal shelters, etc. But Brara focuses mainly on the common pastures in this study. She avers that the size and nature of commons may vary and that every village has some common areas – big or small. There are many intricacies involved in creating and sustaining the commons. The commons emerged on the scene, the moment lands began to be privatised. It established a transmissible right to cultivate a demarcated tract of land. This practice was a marked discontinuity from modes of livelihood that were based on the appropriation of nature from the commons as in hunting, fishing, gathering, pastoral economies, and /or shifting cultivation.

The commons, by and large, became the main source of livelihood for the landless and marginal farmers. With increasing population pressure, there developed through feudal exploitation a pressure on the uncultivable commons as well. Plots of lands were sold off for settled cultivation, in the form of tributes. Taxes began to be levied on the number of livestock raised or the amount of grass utilised from the commons. The author goes on to depict the emerging dynamics linked to the commons through case studies in two areas; (i) Sikar (with heavy livestock) and (ii) Lachmangarh sub-district (with very little irrigated agriculture). While Sikar was a part of the princely state of Jaipur, Lachmangarh was part of a feudal estate. The charges seen during the preindependence and post-independence periods have been examined through ethnographic studies of these two villages.

Weaving through various sources, the author brings forth ways in which the boundaries of the grazing lands were demarcated after independence on the basis of codified laws and authority from the legislative acts of the government of Rajasthan. The concept of terra nullius was adopted to demarcate the commons. But most villagers did not understand the legal provisions that were intended to protect the customary grazing rights. This was taken advantage of by many elites and ex-feudal lords. In places buffers between cultivated lands and grazing lands were abrogated by the state. The commons got further reduced because of acquisition of commons in the name of “Public Good”

Economic and Political Weekly April 29, 2006

– for constructing schools, dispensaries and playgrounds. It is noteworthy that the agricultural areas increased subsequently at the expense of the commons.

The tragedy of the commons further escalated with the privatisation of the tankbeds, ravine lands and tracts deemed inaccessible for revenue purposes. It turned worse with lands being dispatched for constructing brick-kilns and lime kilns. The woe of the people became unmanageable with the allotment of “unoccupied” lands for the development of private forests. The framing of the Rajasthan Forest Act, 1953, became a much greater threat as large chunks of the pasturage were brought under the control of forest department (FD). The FD decided the period of grazing and charged money per livestock.

Role of Village Councils

The criterion for transference of common lands to the statutory village council or to the state was never spelt out. The role of the councils also became suspect when dealing with litigations involving individual encroachments on commons. The role of the state comes under scrutiny as well where zamindari system was abolished; very often the control of the ex-zamindars over the commons remained as intact as before.

The government’s efforts did not always go unchallenged and in many villages, the jat upper castes, in particular, came forward and the village councils started asserting more control over natural resources. For instance, prosopis leaves were sold and the funds were, especially, utilised for the maintenance of the village stud-bulls.

Brara feels that the efforts to hand over the commons to the statutory panchayats have further complicated matters. This refuses to acknowledge that every village has its own jurisdiction and customary rights – while every statutory panchayat usually comprises a number of villages. (Moreover each village has its sacred spaces and the first settling clans enjoy some privileges.) In many places the gram sabhas (village assemblies) were periodically held at the headquarters of the statutory village council and ordinary inhabitants of other villages were not easily able to participate in the assemblies as the physical distance proved to be a deterrent. The situation gets even more complicated as the de jure pastures were vested with the statutory panchayats, village-level pastures were entrusted to the village-level committees. As a first principle, the residents of the village alone were considered to be the rightful decision-takers in regard to the produce of the commons. Even where FD had undertaken plantations, the right to fodder and natural produce would belong to the villagers.

The author, passes a caveat that village committees need not be too much romanticised as the elements of class and gender discrimination is even now ostensible. She, however, avers that though the composition and practices of the village committee could certainly be construed as oligarchic and patriarchal in the categories of social science discourse, caste, class and gender differentiations, the village took a common posture vis-a-vis outsiders.

The author notes several changes that are gradually percolating down to grassroot levels. While upper caste people would have earlier hardly raised any livestock, presently they have started doing so. (But a majority of them have large landholdings.) Consequently, the hierarchy bases on pollution purity has also diluted significantly. They are not only rearing milch cattle but also sheep in large numbers. The rich farmers with large livestocks make seasonal out-migration irrespective of their caste affiliation. Agro-pastoralism has also alleviated the status of women and given more access to the family income.

Goat-rearing too has gone up, particularly among small landholders. This importantly has led to a caste-class superimposition. The larger landholder, being less pressed to raise food crops, was able to command significantly more private pasture.

The study towards the end raises a very important issue related to the management of “wastelands”. To the author the notion of “wasteland” is dubious. Non-revenue yielding lands were abrogated by the colonial state and the system prevails as yet. The state refuses to accept that these tracts still afford a regenerative vegetation at critical junctures in the fodder provisioning pattern of small landholders and multiple other uses that coexist with grazing. The wastelands met their needs of fodder, timber, and fuel needs, besides providing other raw materials for sustaining their livelihoods. The “scientific” policies were far removed from the principles that sustained both the nature and society. The state’s moves to encroach on the commons did not go unopposed. At times people did resist. Though employment was generated, people resented the curtailment of pasturage critical in the dry seasons.

Brara asks that, if the commons constitute representations that contradict or repress the dominant representations of private property, what are the material surfaces on which the commons are rendered visible in the daily round of life? How are the commons constituted and transformed over time in the spaces of villages, the nation state and beyond? How are we to understand the making of meaning in village commons within the arena of specific discourse and practice?

The Future

In conclusion, the author avers that various turns and twists have shaped up the forms of the commons in the postindependence period. But things have mostly gone against the interests of the subaltern. Administrators and natural scientists collaborated to produce new schemes for grazing lands and have planted trees and grasses without reckoning with the value of the pasturage lost by enclosures. When the management of commons was left to the non-statutory village-level committees, discrimination against lower castes and women seem to taper down in the hands of non-statutory village-level committees. But these committees at times appear to function as appendage of the state, like it sought to raise matching grants from the villagers of the government schemes – enabling feeding the common stud-bull or maintaining the grazing commons. To Rita Brara the village commons are life-sustaining assemblages composed of the social relations between people, flora, fauna and circumstances at the margins that are as transient as shifting sands.

The book under review is certainly a path-breaking effort to illustrate the social dynamics behind physical spaces like the commons. The commons are regarded as even sacred spaces. But the social scientists have by and large failed to grasp this and have often considered villages as atomised into households, oriented to caste considerations and distribution of private lands and consequently discourse on the commons and emergence of a public sphere in the villages has not been written about intensively. However, the study ostensibly misses out certain major disconcerting acts of the Rajasthan government which have had a far-reaching impact on the commons. Firstly, social forestry

Economic and Political Weekly April 29, 2006 programmes have been undertaken on many of the common lands belonging to statutory panchayats. Similarly, joint forestry managements have been undertaken by the FD on such lands and Indian Forest Act, 1927 has been made applicable without the necessary legal procedures. Next, organisations like Foundation for Ecological

Lakshmi Subramanian, From the Tanjore Court to the Madras Music Academy: A Social History of Music in South India; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp viii + 196, Rs 545.

Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny; Allen Lane (an imprint of Penguin Books), London 2006; pp xx + 216, price not indicated.

Anthony P D’Costa,The Long March to Capitalism: Embourgeoisment, Internationalisation, and Industrial Transformation in India; Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2005; pp xviii + 242, £ 55.00

Harold James, Family Capitalism: Wendels, Haniels, Flacks, and the Continental European Model; Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2006; pp viii + 433, price not indicated.

Benjamin M Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth; Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2005; pp 570, price not indicated

P Sundarayya, Telangana People’s Struggle and Its Lessons; Foundation Books, New Delhi, 2006; pp x + 458, Rs 695.

Usha Jumani, Empowering Society: An Analysis of Business, Government and Social Development Approaches to Empowerment; Foundation Books, New Delhi, 2006; pp 263, Rs 495.

Werner Menski, Comparative Law in a Global Context: The Legal Systems of Asia and Africa; Cambridge University Press, 2006; pp xx + 674, price not indicated.

Anupam Goyal, The WTO and International Environmental Law towards Conciliation; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp xxvi + 424, Rs 695.

South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, Introducing Human Rights: An Overview Including Issues of Gender Justice, Environmental, and Consumer Law;Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp xvii + 261, Rs 195.

Irfan Habib, Indian Economy 1858-1914; Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2006; pp xii + 160, Rs 300.

Omar Khalidi, Muslims In Indian Economy; Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2006; pp 240, Rs 575.

Security (FES) too have been acquiring village commons and handing them over to shareholders of the Tree Growers Cooperatives. Lastly the study does not delve much on the details on the customary laws, e g, indicating instances where individual rights exist over trees standing on other’s lands or the right to graze on

Books Received

Dilip Halder, Urban Transport in India: Crisis and Cure; Bookwell Publishers, New Delhi, 2006; pp xxxii + 278, Rs 645.

Tariq Ali, Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties; Seagull Books, 2005; pp x + 403, Rs 525.

Ronald Inden, Text and Practice: Essays on South Asian History; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp 372, Rs 695.

Ninan Koshy, Under the Empire: India’s New Foreign Policy; Leftword Books, New Delhi, 2006; pp 331, Rs 450.

Parvinder Chawla, Versatile Vaccines: A Chance for Every Child; National Book Trust, New Delhi; 2006, pp 165, Rs 95.

Tariq Ali, Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq; LeftWord Books, New Delhi, 2006; pp xviii + 262, Rs 195.

Gangadhar Gadgil, Prarambh: The Beginning, National Book Trust, New Delhi, 2006; pp xiii + 638, Rs 240.

Patricia Jeffery, Roger Jeffery,Confronting Saffron Demography: Religion, Fertility, and Women’s Status in India; Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2006; pp 161, Rs 200.

Zaheer Baber, Secularism, Communalism and the Intellectuals; Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2006; pp 99, Rs 125.

Margit Koves and Shaswati Mazumdar (edited), Resistible Rise: A Fascism Reader; LeftWord Books, New Delhi, 2005; pp xiii + 325, Rs 450.

Jayanta K Nanda, Management Thought; Sarup and Sons, New Delhi, 2006; pp xii + 315, Rs 700.

V P Luthra, Poverty and Economic Reforms; Ivy Publishing House, New Delhi, 2005; pp xii + 399, Rs 750.

Chandreyee Niyogi (edited), Reorienting Orientalism; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2006; pp 295, Rs 580.

Govinda Chandra Rath (edited), Tribal Development in India: The Contemporary Debate; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2006; pp 340, Rs 450.

individual’s lands by others in the postharvest periods. On the whole the treatise makes for an excellent and interesting reading and is a must for development workers, environmentalists, social workers and academics.



Navnita Chadha Behera, Gender, Conflict and Migration (Women and Migration in Asia, Vol 3); Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2006; pp 310, Rs 395.

Dalia Chakrabarti, Colonial Clerks: A Social History of Deprivation and Domination; K P Bagchi and Co, Kolkata, 2005; pp xviii + 158, Rs 300.

Nandita Prasad Sahai, Politics of Patronage and Protest: The State, Society and Artisans in Early Modern Rajasthan; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp x + 276, Rs 595.

Patricia Uberoi, Freedom and Destiny: Gender, Family and Popular Culture in India; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp xx + 309, Rs 695.

Ashis Nandy (in Conversation with Ramin Jahanbegloo),Talking India;Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp xii + 149, Rs 395.

Rafiq Dossani, Henry S Rowen (edited),Prospects for Peace in South Asia; Orient Longman, 2006; pp vi + 424, Rs 500.

Radha D’Souza, Interstate Disputes over Krishna Waters: Law, Science and Imperialism; Orient Longman, 2006; pp xxiii + 572, Rs 1150.

Ian Scoones, Science, Agriculture and the Politics of Policy: The Case of Biotechnology in India; Orient Longman, 2006; pp xii + 417, Rs 795.

Mustansir Mir, Makers of Islamic Civilisation: Iqbal; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp xii + 156, Rs 195.

Bharati Puri,Engaged Buddhism: The Dalai Lama’s Worldview; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp viii + 255, Rs 495.

World Bank, India: Unlocking Opportunities for Forest-Dependent People; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp xxvii + 95, Rs 395.

3iNetwork, India Infrastructure Report 2006: Urban Infrastructure; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp xv + 258, Rs 475.

John Brisco, R P S Malik, India’s Water Economy, Bracing for a Turbulent Future; Oxford University Press, New Delhi(for World Bank), 2006; pp xxiii + 79, Rs 295.

Economic and Political Weekly April 29, 2006

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top