Tragedy of the commons(1) is a term, coined originally by William Forster Lloyd a political economist at Oxford University in 1833 looking at the recurring devastation of common (not privately owned) pastures in England. The explanation was simple. Each herdsman guided by his own gains, keeps adding to his herd to maximise his personal gains, knowing fully well that if every one else does likewise, they all stand to lose the common grazing land altogether. He does it and so does every one despite this knowledge, because for each one, the privatized gain would exceed his share of the commonized loss

In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin (2) explored this social dilemma in his article "The Tragedy of the Commons", published in the journal Science which later on became basis for debate on sustainability as well as provided rationale for Neo Liberal drive for privatization of public assets.

What is commons was first codified by Romans in 535 AD as Air, Water and Fish. However, with more of nature coming under ambit of human economic activity, new items became economic resources like forests, wild animals and the most precious one the land. Depending on its economic value these resources were swiftly appropriated like the land by the kings and his vassals or by the state on behalf of community like forests and wild animals. The state was responsible for evolving rules and regulations of orderly exploitation of these resources equitable and sustainable manner.

However, in India, where state is primarily representing crony capitalist interest, where bureaucracy is indolent, police machinery is complicit and judiciary is overworked the privatization approach to avoid a Tragedy of the Commons, results in scams like Coal Gate. What is more tragic is that for many less visible resources even such neo liberal market based solutions are given short shrift. What seems to be the practice is theft and extra judicial coercion which eventually results into situation similar to Tragedy of the Commons except in this case,the party responsible is not common folks but the mafia with political blessings. The society and common man is at the receiving end which makes it the real tragedy of the commons and for the commons.

Take the case of the sand consisting of our riverbeds.

Not many people may know that illegal sand mining is a nationwide phenomena and with spurt in housing and infrastructure projects, the illegal sand mining has grown like third degree terminal cancer thriving beyond the ambit of formal economy and law and order . Sand is everywhere and so is the sand mafia. This all pervasive illegal activity is the soft underbelly of our Infrastructure corporates and building industry which has so far claimed hundreds of lives and poses severe threat to the environment (3)

Unlike coal, diamonds or gold which are classed as major minerals, sand is considered a “minor mineral” extraction of which is left with State Governments. Sand, which is one of the key construction material, is difficult and heavy to transport so builders prefer to source it from nearby areas. This investment free exploitation of public resource involving only labor and transportation costs has become a quick buck-making industry, favourite enterprise for politicians and their underlings with local police always at hand to oblige.

No wonder the industry is flourishing in every state of India with devastating consequence to the environment. Such ravaging of our river beds causes floods, erosion of the river bank and damages biodiversity (4) The prolonged closure of Chennai Airport is due to the fact that the one of the runways is constructed on the Adyar river against initial opposition by environmental groups.

There is no official statistics available but simply going by the frequent recurrence of news regarding casualties and attacks by sand mafia in almost every part of India, it will not be overestimation if we treat this social malady as the major cause of precious lives lost that of conscientious officers, NGO workers, RTI activists and ordinary men and women.

Recently in Maharashtra, an upright Police Sub Inspector Ashok Sadare committed suicide after six months of suspension. He has clearly stated in his suicide note about the pressures from superiors and sand mafia and his wife narrated involvement of local sand mafia don and his linkage with state BJP heavy weight Eknath Khadase. There was no Nana Patekar on the scene and entire police department lavished praises on their superiors and their integrity. (6)

The case got some traction because of the competitive politics within BJP and steadfast follow up by the state unit of Aam Adami Party (AAP). But unfortunately, only yesterday the poor widow had to withdraw her allegation under alleged pressure. (7) For the time being, it is business is as usual for the sand mafia and their political boss. This brings us to the larger issue of sharing and management of common resources of society and can the Indian state ever be trusted for the safe keep of our national resource. As the leader of the Opposition in Parliament recently stated, quoting Dr BR Ambedkar, “No matter how good the Constitution is, if the people who implement it are bad, then the Constitution will also turn out bad”(8) The present state of affairs of Sand mining industry does not inspire much confidence about the quality of our ruling class.

Today there is much better understanding and higher concern for common resources than what was in Victorian England. There are several examples of local villagers coming together and addressing local issues and sharing local resources in a cooperative spirit. Anna Hazare’s Ralegan Siddhi is one such project and there are hundreds more in various parts of the country. Certainly human society has left behind the naked competition of early industrialisation period in England. Hence neither the state management nor the privatisation can be treated as the universal solution problem of equitable and sustainable use of common resources because in the end the problem still remains: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who shall watch the watchers themselves?)