Whose commons are they?

by Nayana Udayashankar

What are ‘commons’?”

I posed the question to a room of fourteen women participants. One of them had a quick and ready answer.

“They are resources everyone can use. Like the roads; the seas; the beaches.”

“Do you really mean ‘everyone’? Will my boat get a space on the beach in your village?”

 “Ummm…yes, I think so. If they are the commons, then you should be able to use them.”

I could see that even as she spoke those words, she was unconvinced by her own answer. She searched the room for assistance, and another participant pitched in. A spontaneous debate ensued and suddenly the whole room was abuzz.

“I think people in the village will ask you many questions about why you want to use our spaces.”

“But we allow boats from neighbouring villages all the time.”

 “That is because they are also fishers and we always know which village they are from.”

“Since you are not from here, if you get your boat, it would be different”.

“I think there are restrictions on who can use the commons”.

 “But how can there be restrictions on something like the sea? Don’t we always say that the sea belongs to no one and the sea is for everyone?”

The deceptively straightforward question had caused a stir and it was fascinating to witness it build up. Dakshin’s Palk Bay team was facilitating a workshop titled ‘Understanding the Commons’ to a selected group of fourteen fisherwomen from Ramanathapuram district as a part of the Coastal Grassroots Fellowship (CGF) programme. One of the exercises that was planned as a part of the fellowship was to facilitate community mapping of commons in four coastal villages of Ramanathapuram. This was the first workshop in a series of many that our team had planned. Our objective for this one was to ensure clarity among participants on basic concepts related to the commons and help them identify their village commons. So, the commotion in the room was very welcome!

In one of the initial sessions of the day, we asked our participants, rather, the grassroots ‘fellows’, to hand-sketch their village on a chart. The fellows divided themselves into four groups – one each for the four villages they came from. Each of the four groups of fellows drew out their village maps while responding to a set of curated questions. These were questions that asked them to mark out important landmarks in the village – places of leisure that women use, the playground they used as children and the playground their children now use, and the places of worship, among others. A simple exercise of mapping out a fishing village turned out to be a reflective session that drew out many unexpected details for all of us. The conversation touched upon many aspects of the village – the ponds and streams that had been lost to encroachment or pollution, the socio-economic groups within the village, historical landmarks in the village that had a village origin story associated with them, the commons used for village gatherings and festivals; among other things. The hand-drawn maps set the stage for us to dive deeper into the conceptual underpinnings of the commons and we ended up with a lively discussion on what the word ‘commons’ actually means.

Theoretical frameworks on the commons describe a set of guidelines that are used to identify the commons. These include the physical attributes of commons, decision-making arrangements that govern the relationships among users, the interaction among the decision-makers, and the consequences of such actions. Global commons such as air or space, which need a combination of global and local institutions for management are also differentiated from local commons that are often managed by community institutions (Karlsson, 1997). And then, there is the emerging concept of the ‘new commons’ (Hess, 2008) – the commons that emerge out of human interactions with technologies (especially digital technologies) and systemic changes to institutions or new ways of using commons such as the deep seas, which are become accessible in different ways because of technological inventions. The concept of the commons is a dynamic and evolving concept, and understanding and placing local institutional frameworks, that often do not have formal recognition, alongside continuously evolving formal institutions is challenging.

There are no easy answers to ‘What are commons?’ and that was evident in the discussions we ended up with that day. The sea is global in its vastness and connectedness, but at the same time, has a deep local significance for the villages. The fellows had many insights on ways of looking at and working with the commons from their lived experiences. Through the workshop, we were able to work through, and collectively try and put theory and practice together. The first workshop was just the beginning. We, as the facilitators, were thrilled to have the opportunity to begin the process of unpacking the commons with the fellows and are certainly looking forward to the next one!

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