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Radha D'Souza © 2002


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It is everywhere these days, this idea of a global commons. It started with the environment, now it has spread to all sorts of other issues. It is an idyllic idea too -- one humanity, one world, one nature. It erases troublesome differences and intractable histories, just like heaven. Like heaven, it is not a new idea. It has been around for a long, long time, as long as the East India Company, the New Zealand Company and others; yet it continues to resurface with a spanking new look whenever there is turbulence in the world.

Historically, the idea of commons is closely bound together with the idea of a community : people bound together by time and place, a common history and geography. Capitalism destroyed communities bound to time and place, tied to history and geography. Instead it created communities that were based on "interests" located within wider market transactions. Trade Unions for example are communities of workers, whose interest is in the labour markets, consumer organisations are communities founded on people with interest in the products they consume, industry organisations are communities with a common interest in maintaining conditions for industries and so on. For communities formed on the basis of market interests their primary allegiance is to the "interest" that constitutes them into a "community" and not to place or their histories. Their histories deal with economics and politics not ancestors, place and genealogies. The idea of commons as it is used in the NGO parlance does not examine the community that seeks commons .

In pre-colonial India, the village was the basic social unit that formed the building block of society. The village was the unit of taxation, the unit where resource allocation including land, labour and water took place besides social codes of conduct. The British saw it differently. In their view the village was the "owner" of land and therefore land was communally owned in India. Through the Ryotwari Acts, the colonial government substituted itself for the community and all land, forests and water became commons that the state could regulate in the interest of the community. And, of course since the British had come to India to stay they were now part of the community -- and presto!

Historically, de-linking the idea of commons from a critical understanding of communities underpins colonisation. Since the advent of colonisation, the ideological rationale has always been in a universalistic language. Such a language avoids dealing with the causes of the problem, whether it be natural resources or the human conditions. It holds out the false hope that those causes can be swept under the carpet, and the problems can be dealt with without reference to where they come from and whence they come from. The politics of commons therefore denies self-determination of oppressed people because it assumes that the oppressors and the oppressed form a community that can live together without dealing with their histories or geographies.

For Northern NGOs, the idea of commons is appealing because it avoids self-critical reflection on how they are better off than the rest of the world. Worse still, it avoids the even more difficult spectre of having to confront the reality that they will continue to do better than the others as a result of the "commons". Above all the idea of a global commons does not call upon the civil society of the North to renounce or give up anything, least of all power. Tigers and sheep graze in the commons, but they do so only in God s wonderland.

There is a Tamil proverb that captures the idea of partnership in the following way: you contribute the flattened rice, and I will contribute the husk, and the two of us can sit by the riverside, watch the sunset, blow the husk from the rice and eat it together. To those of us who are products of colonisation, that is just what the idea of commons sounds like.




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