Theft of the Commons
by Girish Mishra
August 31, 2006

For quite some time two news items have been dominating the media in Delhi. The first relates to the intervention by the higher judiciary to remove commercial establishments and other kinds of encroachment from the residential areas and public land. The second item concerns the controversy whether the drinks marketed by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo contain pesticides whose level is 24 times or above the safe limit. The Centre of Science and Environment has come out with concrete facts and figures in this regard.

On the surface, these two items seem quite unrelated, but a moment’s reflection shows that it is not so. In fact, they reflect one and the same phenomenon, i.e., the growing attacks on the commons since the beginning of modern capitalism. To understand this, one has to go a bit in the meaning of the commons and the growing attacks on it.

This term as collective noun is used in singular. It includes all kinds of concrete and abstract that are used and owned by the people collectively. It includes water resources, forest resources, rare birds, endangered species of animals, air, minerals, mountains, parks, recreation facilities, public educational institutions, libraries, museums, zoological gardens, public hospitals, roads and railways, air space, historical monuments, sculptures, paintings, music, dance forms, literary works beyond the purview of copyright laws, children and their health, traditional knowledge and so on.

The first successful attack on the commons began soon after industrial capitalism came into being. It was enclosure. To quote Michael Turner, “The term enclosure mainly refers to that land reform which transformed a traditional method of agriculture under systems of co-operation and community in communally administered holdings, usually in large fields which were devoid of physical territorial boundaries, into a system of agricultural holding in severalty by separating with physical boundaries one person’s land from that of his neighbours. This was, then, the disintegration and reformation of open fields into individual ownership. Inter alia enclosure registered specific ownership, adjudicated on shared ownership (for example by identifying and separating common rights), and declared void for all time communal obligations, privileges and rights. Enclosure also meant the subdivision of areas of commons, heaths, moors, fens and wastes into separate landholdings and again involved the abandonment of obligations, privileges and rights.”

The enclosures created a large army of cheap labourers who were pushed out of rural areas and compelled to work in the newly established factories. With the disappearance of village commons and buying out of small peasants, landlessness and pauperization increased.

Till the establishment of the British rule in India, the village community owned land and it was not subject to sale and purchase. While a cultivator had the right to use the land, he did not have the right to sell. That is why, to distinguish it from European style feudalism, Marx called it Asiatic mode of production. The British rule converted land into a commodity and private ownership was established on it. Along with this, grazing grounds, forests with its resources, fishery, toddy tapping, river crossing, the right to fish, minerals of all kinds, water resources, etc. were brought under the domain of private ownership and their use was prohibited unless paid for. Peasants, especially tribal population, were deprived of their customary rights of freely grazing their cattle in the forests and taking timber, roots, nuts, fruits, leaves and fuel for their use without payment. There were a number of agitations by the tribes as well as rural people and they were violently suppressed.

Now-a-days vigorous attempts are being made by the corporate sector to grab the commons. Tribal population is being deprived of their customary rights. They are being told not to graze their cattle in the forests and not to take fuel, and the timber to build their huts. They are being prohibited from taking roots, nuts and fruits to sustain themselves. Plants of medicinal value are being entrusted to pharmaceutical firms for exploitation. Tendu leaves, used for rapping bidis, are being auctioned off to the highest bidders. The poor tribals cannot earn their living by gathering and selling tendu leaves. They are being evicted because the government wants to make forests attractive for tourists so that foreign exchange is earned and business activities can prosper.

Besides, corrupt forest officials, the police and politicians help smugglers take out and export timber, hides of animals, rare birds, feathers of peacock, medicinal plants, etc. These smugglers are quite powerful. Not long ago, the sandalwood smuggler Veerappan had become a terror and could be eliminated by putting in a great deal of effort. In different parts, one can see hundreds of historical buildings being grabbed by the powerful. One and a half decades ago, a mob of Hindu communalists demolished a historical mosque in Ayodhya. Statues and idols, rare manuscripts and paintings are still being stolen from museums and temples to be smuggled out of the country. Not long ago, the dress worn by the last Moghul empress of India, Jeenat Mahal, was stolen from the Red Fort and Gandhi’s spectacles from a museum in New Delhi. Only recently, Rabindra Nath Tagore’s medals and other valuables were stolen from a museum.

Not only in Delhi, but elsewhere also, there seems to be a competition among the rich and powerful, besides the vendors of spiritual wisdom, to grab public space. They encroach upon parks, roads, reserve forests and start their activities. New gods and goddesses have emerged and are being utilized for grabbing the public land. Most of these activities are moneymaking. There is seldom any attention given to maintenance of parks and other commons. From the celebration of marriages to religious functions freely take place in parks or by enclosing the roads, unmindful of the inconvenience to the people at large. Politicians, officials and the local elite grace these functions. The local elite takes its dogs to the parks and makes them dirty. The watchmen and other maintenance staff seldom do their duties. The walls of parks, educational institutions and other public buildings are plastered with posters and writings without any hesitation.

In Delhi the local government has built a number of sports complexes on public land. In the beginning, the local population was allowed morning and evening walks free of charge, but, now, this facility has been withdrawn and prospective walkers are being told to pay hefty fees. Similarly, the government has set up a number of parks, one of them near the historic Qutub Minar where the entry fee is Rs 10 per head and there are expensive eating and other shops inside. Thus, these parks have become out of bounds for most people. The free entry to most historical monuments has been abolished. Entry is restricted to those pay. Even the entry to rail museum is barred to the children from the poor segments of the society because they cannot afford to pay. Similarly, the public hospitals are becoming day by day expensive because of the imposition of fees on one pretext or the other. The result is that the services of the hospitals built on public land and maintained at the expense of the public exchequer are being diverted to the better off. Private hospitals and educational institutions with land and other facilities at concessional rates were supposed to give preference to the weaker sections of the society. They have breached this stipulation with impunity. Thus they have grabbed a portion of the commons without any obligation.

Private shopkeepers have been trying to encroach upon the public land for their trading activities and they are unmindful of inconvenience they cause to the residents. Most of them have no parking space and their customers park their vehicles in front of the houses and gates of local residents. The national and international corporate entities compete with them in grabbing public space for private use. The malls are coming up in a big way in metro cities. They not only grab public space, but use water and electricity also in disproportionately large amounts while the people at large suffer from scarcity and rising rates. Air and noise pollution is on the increase. But who cares?

Cola companies, as has come out, care a damn for the health of the customers, especially the children. Demonstration effect of the West and the high voltage propaganda with the help of the film and sports personalities on the electronic media have a tremendous impact on the children. What David Ballier, the author of Silent Theft, says in this regard needs some serious thinking. To quote: “Having discovered that children are one of the most under-exploited market segments, marketers in the 1990s developed all sorts of ingenious ways to persuade impressionable youngsters to become avid consumers. Marketers have identified a “primary market”… an “influence market”… and a “future” market (the lifelong spending that kids will do based on brand loyalties they develop while young).” In other words, if you own a child at an early age, you can own it for all time to come. Earlier the corporates were satisfied with grabbing a share in the market, but now they want to grab the minds of the prospective customers. They want to dominate the personal attitudes and loyalties of the children for all time to come. “This motivation to insinuate brand names in the formation of children’s identities has brought commercials into every imaginable aspect of a child’s daily life.” As we have noted in the beginning, the children are an integral part of the commons and the future of a society depends on them. One may very well see where the society may head if this silent grabbing of a very valuable part of the commons is not stopped.

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