India

Gender and the Commons in India

The following is an interview with Soma Kishore Parthasarathy from the website of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) on June 6. The interviewer was Ana Abelenda, and the piece is called “Reclaiming the Commons for Gender and Economic Justice:  Struggles and Movements in India.”  It is republished here with permission.

AWID spoke to Indian independent researcher and scholar Soma Kishore Parthasarathy[1], who has been studying and negotiating the concept of the ‘commons’ from a gender perspective and how women in rural India are contesting this reality by proposing a shared management of common resources.

AWID: How would you define the “commons"?

Soma Kishore Parthasarathy (SKP): There are varied conceptualizations about the commons. Conventionally, it is understood simply, as natural resources that lie outside the private domain and are intended for use by those who depend on its use. But, it is not just natural resources, it is also knowledge resources, heritage, culture, virtual spaces, and even climate plays a role. The concept of the commons pre-dates the individual property regime and provided the basis for organization of society. Definitions given by government entities today limit its scope to land and material resources. Attempts to release commons from the shared domain into the market, pose a serious threat to the commons as we know them, and to the way of life associated with the sharing principle embedded in their access and use.

It is about the cultural practice of sharing livelihood spaces and resources as nature’s gift, for the common good, and for the sustainability of the common.  But today commons are under increasing threat as nations and market forces are colonizing the commons.

AWID: Can you explain what you mean by colonization of the commons? How does it affect women in particular?

SKP:Colonizing the commons implies a predatory usurpation of the commons by parties in positions of authority and power, who impose their own set of rules and terms for the access, use, and regulation of the commons to serve their own needs, with little concern for rules and organizational principles that existed earlier and  with little respect for the needs and rights of those who have been dependent on the commons for centuries, ignoring the rights of traditional small users and gender and equity issues.

We have so internalized the logic of neoliberal economics and modernity, even those of us who would like to think otherwise, that we don’t really appreciate how deeply our minds have been colonized.  It is easy to see homo economicus as silly.  Certainly we are not selfish, utility-maximizing rationalists, not us!  And yet, the proper role of our emotions and affect in imagining a new order remains a murky topic. 

That’s why I was excited to run across a fascinating paper by Neera M. Singh, an academic who studies forestry at the University of Toronto.  Her paper, “The Affective Labor of Growing Forests and the Becoming of Environmental Subjects” focuses on “rethinking environmentality” in the Odisha region of India.  (Unfortunately, the article, published in Geoforum (vol. 47, pp. 189-198, in 2013) is behind a paywall.) 

How do people become “environmental subjects” – that is, people who are willing to apply their subjective human talents, imagination and commitments and become stewards of some element of nature?

Singh wanted to investigate why villagers were willing to regenerate degraded state-owned forests through community-based forest conservation efforts.  She found that “affective labor” is critical in managing a forest.  The term comes from Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, who use it to describe the role that reciprocity, empathy and affect play in shaping human behavior and action. Indeed, other people’s affect influences what kind of “self” we construct for ourselves. 

This whole topic is important because standard economics has its own crudely reductionist idea of who human beings are.  We are “rational, self-interested” economic actors, of course, and most public policy is based on this (erroneous, limited) notion.  Most economists frankly have no interest in exploring how people come to formulate their “self-interest.”  They simply take those interests as given. 

But what if participating in commons produced a very different sort of human perception and subjectivity, and indeed, produced human beings as self-aware subjects/agents?  What if this process could be shown to be essential in integrating human culture with a specific ecological landscape?

Gandhian Economics and the Commons

In a recent post on her blog, Fearless Heart (a post that also appears at Psychology Today), Miki Kashtan, cofounder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication, brought forward some fascinating connections between Gandhian economics and the commons.  She focused on two key themes – the satisfaction of human needs and the idea of trusteeship for things that exceed our needs.  Kashtan writes: 

The fundamental basis of Gandhian economics is a commitment to universal well-being. Like so many who are interested in universal well-being, Gandhi was led, inexorably, to looking at the difficult question of need satisfaction, since physical finitude makes it clearly impossible for everyone to have everything they want all the time. Like many others, he attempted to address this challenge by supporting a shift from the multiplication of wants to the fulfillment of needs. 

Kashtan notes that this is a highly complex issue, however.  What is a need?  How do we answer this question individually or collectively, and actually allocate resources to meet our needs?  It first bears noting that much of Gandhian economics is based on his particular circumstances and those of India in the early 20th century.  Still, certain fundamental principles such as simplicity, localism and decentralization should remain a beacon for us today.

When Gandhi wrote, “The spinning wheel and the spinning wheel alone will solve, if anything will solve, the problem of the deepening poverty of India,” he could have been talking about the commons.  His point was that we need to devise new collective forms of self-reliance and self-sufficiency that will let us disengage from oppressive forms of provisioning and invent more humane and satisfying alternatives. Isn’t that precisely the lesson of the free software, local food and hackerspace/maker movements (and countless other commons)?

Reading Around: Common Voices and Stir

New issues of two of my favorite journals have come out.  Time to check out some fascinating articles on commons-related themes.  First, an introduction to the two publications, Common Voices and Stir to Action.

Stir to Action – with the tagline, “Anger.  Analysis.  Action” – is a scrappy, fiercely smart quarterly that prowls the cultural and political frontier that few other publications cover.  Stir is published and edited by Jonathan Gordon-Farleigh in the UK.  Stir understands, citing Nathan Schneider, that “politics is not a matter of choosing among what we’re offered but of fighting for what we and others actually need, not to mention what we hope for.”  While established political journals handicap the horserace with smarty-pants/cynical commentary, Gordon-Farleigh has shown just how much fresh, uncovered political innovation there really is out there.  It's not just that "another world is possible," he writes, but that "another world is happening."

Stir deliberately avoids “the disproportionate fixation on Washington and London [that] produces mere spectators who can only rely on financial and political elites to save them and who can only be disappointed and failed by them.  This read-only political culture dominates our experience of our options and choices, and the German comedian Klaus Hansen expresses this reversible point in terms of commercial sport — “Football is like democracy: twenty-two people playing and millions watching.”  As Stephen Duncombe says in his interview, “It’s not enough to change people’s minds.  You have to change the social, political and economic structures in which they live.” 

So Stir gets out of London, avoids the venerable pundits and pols, and gets out on the street, and even ventures abroad.  In the latest issue, cultural anthropologist Marianne Maeckelbergh has a thoughtful piece about the horizontal decision-making process in the Occupy movement.  Maeckelbergh, who has participated in such processes in Barcelona, New York and Oakland, describes the history of participatory decisionmaking models and the rationale for them at Occupy gatherings.  She writes:  “In order to create new political structures we actually have to let go of certain economic relations which we take as given. For example, horizontal decision-making does not work when we assume a) that resources are scarce, b) that we therefore need to compete with each other and c) ownership is an exclusionary relation – a proprietary relation.”

If only the rest of the world could emulate the Government of Rajasthan in India in adopting public policies to promote the commons! As the Times of India reportsRajasthan has become the first state in the country to have drafted a policy underlining the importance and the need to preserve and secure common land (commons) in rural areas.”  There may be other such government policies around the world, but they are few and far between.  The Rajasthan policies are a real breakthrough.

The Rajasthan government is in the process of identifying which grazing lands, common ponds and their catchment areas, playgrounds and other resources shall be treated as commons. Its new policies aim to decentralize governance, encourage conservation and proper ecological stewardship, assure fair access to and use of the lands, and facilitate public participation in all aspects of managing commons. 

Two new special reports on the commons just came out, and both are chock-full of interesting presentations and essays. The first is published by Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO), a decentralized collective that promotes social justice economic alternatives. The latest issue of GEO is devoted to “Collective Action: Research, Theory and Practice: Celebrating Elinor Ostrom and Her Work.”

The editors of GEO write:

An important shift is underway in academia and it seems to be building momentum. It is a spreading inter-disciplinary interest in empathy, cooperation, and group-level behavior that seems to be converging in networks both within and outside of university structures....Cooperation is now a core issue of our times, and because of the ferocious energy of many in the social sciences, it is re-emerging into the spotlight of public attention.

Theorists and researchers of cooperation and collective action share the values and passions of practitioners, but, as Marx put it so eloquently, the point is to change the world not just to understand it. And for this endeavor, researchers and theorists can inform and even transform how we do collective action in real life, and we can be a cornucopia of experience for more understanding of the questions they are puzzling over.

While common lands and waters are being stolen by investors and developers the world over, the Supreme Court of India decided it was not going to look the other way.  In a bold, surprising ruling, the Court made a sweeping defense of the commons as commons. 

In the January 28 decision, the Court held that the enclosure of a village pond in Rohar Jagir, Tehsil, in the State of Punjab, by real estate developers was a totally illegal occupation of the commons.  The developers, who were appealing a lower court ruling, had filled in the pond with soil and started building houses on it.  The Court ruled in unmistakable terms that the pond/land must revert to the commoners immediately and the illegal occupiers must be evicted.  Even more remarkable, the Court held that similar enclosures of common lands elsewhere in India must be reversed even if they have been in effect for years.  (Thanks, Trent Schroyer, for alerting me to this case!)

You can read the 12-page decision by Markandey Katju here [pdf file].  Given the ideological capture of American jurisprudence, it is astonishing and inspirational for me to encounter a no-nonsense affirmation of the rights of commoners by the highest court of any nation.

The Rural Commons of India

The Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) is a pioneering advocate of the commons in India, especially on behalf of the poor.  At the recent conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons in Hyderabad, which FES co-hosted, the organization displayed a series of posters that make clear the commons is a vital resource for survival and ecosystem stability in India.  I found the posters so captivating that I asked for copies of the images so I could share them here.  Each comes with the following tagline....

 

 

 

 

 

 

....and each features photos and short statements about why and how the commons helps poor communities.  Here are some of the posters: 

 

 

The Seed-Sharing Solution

The women of Erakulapally – a small village two hours west of Hyderabad, India – spread a blanket onto the dusty ground and carefully made thirty piles of different seeds:  their treasure, the symbols of their emancipation.  A rich aroma wafts through the air. 

For these women – all of them dalit, members of the poorest and lowest social caste in India – seeds are not just seeds.  They are the vehicle for a remarkable transformation in their lives, local farming and their ecosystem. 

Over the past twenty-five years, thousands of women in small villages in the Andhra Pradesh region of India have escaped from working as low-paid, bonded laborers, to become self-reliant farmers able to grow enough to feed their households.  Food was once unaffordable and hunger common.  Now the women can feed their families, often without having to buy anything in the market.  Despite their status as dalits, they are no longer filled with fear and anxiety, but rather show great confidence and pride in themselves.

A group of us attending the recent conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons drove out to meet the women last week.  We were welcomed with a tasty millet-based drink and a short chorus of joyous singing.  Our meeting was hosted by the Deccan Development Society (DDS), a grassroots organization that is helping the poorest rural women of India recover their rich traditions of sharing seeds and community-managed farming.  The foyer of the building in which we met featured a “seed shrine” -- dozens of small clay pots filled to the brim with colorful seeds.

I delivered the following remarks -- "The Marginalization of the Commons and What To Do About It" -- at the 13th Biennial conferece of the International Association for the Study of the Commons, in Hyderabad, India, on January 12, 2011.

The commons is of keen interest to me because of its great potential to transform how we talk about economics, politics, governance and culture.  Or more to the point, it can be an active, creative force for positive change in people’s lives.    

The focus of the conference today is the structural forces that are marginalizing the commons and disempowering commoners.  Why is it that the commons is so often excluded from official policy discussions about how to manage resources and improve people’s lives?  Why are the State and the Market seen as the only two serious realms of action – while the commons is often patronized or dismissed as inconsequential, if it is considered at all?  

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