Restoring Community Ownership over Bioresources in Rural Common Lands in India: Insights from Hiregowdanahalli, Kolar
The village common-pool resources including pasture lands, forests, water bodies, and other public-managed areas offer abundant bioresources and floral and faunal diversity. For centuries, they have contributed to ecosystem development and rural livelihoods in India. The alienation of these resources from common people in Indian villages has been a subject of research and analysis. Existing studies shed light on the factors contributing to this phenomenon and highlight the implications for rural communities. This article examines the case of Hiregowdnahalli village in Kolar, India, to shed light on the grazing land and common land situation in the country. The experiences of the villagers in Hiregowdnahalli highlight the urgent need for policy and program interventions that restore community ownership over common lands. By empowering local communities to manage these lands, India can foster a bottom-up process at scale, promoting climate mitigation measures, carbon-neutral Panchayats, and food and nutritional security through sustainable agriculture.
History of Grazing lands in India:
Grazing lands, as important common-pool resources, with their vast open spaces and carpets of lush grass, have served as the lifeline for pastoral communities, influencing their livelihoods, agricultural practices, social customs, and spiritual beliefs for a long time. They have also fostered a deep connection between local communities and their environment, provided fodder for livestock, been natural habitats for diverse flora and fauna, contributed to watershed management, and sequestered more Carbon per acreage than dense forests. Importantly, grazing lands have influenced local governance processes by shaping decision-making structures, resource allocation mechanisms, and community-led initiatives aimed at managing and preserving these critical landscapes in a sustainable manner.
The rules and policies governing grazing lands in India have a lengthy history and have been impacted by numerous kings and administrations throughout the course of different historical eras. During his rule, Emperor Ashoka issued edicts 2300 years ago emphasising the preservation and protection of forests, especially grazing pastures. To avoid overexploitation, these decrees promoted rotational use of grazing lands and supported sustainable forest management techniques.
The Mughal emperors established rules to encourage equitable and sustainable land use. Emperor Akbar created the idea of “Chahar Aimaq,” called Transhumance by current scientists, which formalised a rotating grazing system that separated pastures into four portions and allowed each section to be grazed in a different season.
The unfortunate change towards centralised governance systems came with the British colonisers who introduced rules mandating local communities to obtain prior permission from officials to gain access to these lands. The British also made policies to extract revenues from grazing lands and made income generating plans by diverting the lands, which up till then were treated as ‘village commons’, for commercial purposes. Post-independence laws continued the consolidation of decision making powers and alienated the historical connect between communities and village commons in India. Laws like the Forest (conservation) Act, instead of enhancing grazing lands, has drawn a rigid line differentiating them from ‘forests’, and by making it difficult for the diversion of forest lands for any “non-forest purposes, including grazing.”
Contemporary rules on grazing lands
Even today, there is no grazing land policy in India. The Joint Forest Management guidelines of 1990 is more about “restricting” and “stopping” of grazing and making it “illegal” on various grounds. The narrative around grazing lands has come a full circle, from dynamic community engagement in its management and enhancing local ecology to the one that centralised powers in the hands of various government departments and keeping people and Panchayats away. With the resulting absence of traditional principles of sustainability that managed village commons for centuries, the practice of Scientocracy, of basing policies on science, seem to have been replaced by opaque bureaucracy and centralised planning. The outcome is mass alienation of local communities from sources of abundant bioresource that local communities developed, used and regenerated on a seasonal cycle for perpetual sustainability.
Today, grazing lands, as part of village commons, continue to be crucial for abundant bioresources for livestock production, supporting rural economies, providing raw materials for bio-inputs, and for ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and habitat for wildlife. The success of rural revival in India hinges on the democratic management of common pool resources, with active participation from local communities under the management of Panchayats in collaboration with line departments.
Perspectives from Hiregowdanahalli:
The experiences of the people in Hiregowdnahalli, Kolar, offer valuable insights into the state of grazing land and common land management in India. Despite the presence of 350 acres of grazing land in their village, the residents, including the elderly, had no knowledge of its extent or potential benefits. The forest department had taken over a significant portion of the land and planted eucalyptus trees without seeking consent or informing the villagers. Consequently, households with cattle resorted to purchasing fodder from the market or using crop residues from their own farms, completely disregarding the available grazing lands. The villagers lacked awareness about the importance of utilizing these lands for fodder and were unaware of whom to approach for more information. They had not been educated about their constitutional rights in managing village commons, including grazing lands, thus leading to a sense of alienation from these resources.
Furthermore, the villagers were unaware of their rights to collect minor forest produce and non-timber forest produce for their use, even within the demarcated forest areas. The forest department’s top-down approach resulted in a complete disconnect between the community and the grazing lands and forests. However, once informed about the possibilities, the villagers expressed keen interest in engaging themselves in the management and utilization of these resources, particularly for fodder production and ecosystem development. They also recognized the potential for collecting various types of edible greens if they were involved in planning the management of common lands.
This lack of awareness and alienation from common lands highlight the need for policy and program interventions to restore community ownership and utilize these resources for sustainable development. By analyzing the situation in Hiregowdnahalli, we can understand the importance of bottom-up processes to build climate mitigation measures, achieve carbon-neutral Panchayats, and ensure food and nutritional security through sustainable agriculture on a larger scale in India. The alienation of grazing lands from common people has had significant implications for rural communities in Hiregowdanahalli. Loss of access to grazing lands has affected pastoralists, landless farmers, and other marginalized groups dependent on livestock rearing for their livelihoods. Overall, the people felt that three was a decline in local fodder availability, reduced livestock productivity, and increased vulnerability to poverty and food insecurity. As research studies point out, the loss of communal land resources like in Hiregowdanahalli disrupts traditional social structures and cultural practices associated with the management of grazing lands.
The Neglected Role of Panchayats: Despite the 73rd amendment of the Constitution, which grants power to Panchayats and emphasizes land and forest management as key roles, there has been a systematic dissemination of practices that discourage local community control over commons. The villagers in Hiregowdnahalli had not received the necessary knowledge and guidance to take ownership of their grazing lands and forests. This lack of empowerment prevents the realization of sustainable development opportunities at the grassroots level.
The Way Forward: Developing Vibrant Commons
Restoring community ownership and engagement in the management of commons can bring about transformative change in Indian villages. The development of grazing lands with abundant grass and greens, cultivation of trees and horticultural crops on degraded lands and other common lands, and collaborative forest management with the forest department are essential steps towards harnessing the potential of bioresources in rural India. In the medium term, the following plans will be necessary to achieve the goal of developing vibrant village commons in India.
5.1 Potential for Community-Led Development of Commons: The realization of the untapped potential within common lands, such as grazing lands, can pave the way for the development of climate-resilient and sustainable agriculture practices. By involving local communities in the management of these lands, a bottom-up approach can be established, enabling the development of carbon-neutral Panchayats and fostering food and nutritional security. Furthermore, the revitalization of grazing lands can facilitate the collection of edible greens and enhance ecosystem development, creating a more vibrant and resourceful environment for villagers.
5.2 Raising Awareness: Restoring the community rights to participate in the management of commons, nitiatives should focus on raising awareness among villagers about the importance and potential of common lands, including grazing lands, in supporting sustainable agriculture, livestock rearing, and ecosystem development. Informing them about their rights and empowering them with the necessary knowledge can facilitate their active involvement in the management and utilization of these lands.
5.3 Strengthening Local Governance: Policy interventions should aim to strengthen local governance structures, particularly the Panchayats, by actively involving them in decision-making processes related to land and forest management. Empowering Panchayats with the necessary resources and capacity-building support can enhance their ability to manage and protect common lands effectively. The 73rd amendment of the Indian Constitution grants power to Panchayats and emphasizes land and forest management in the 11th schedule. However, the disconnection between policy and practice has limited the involvement of local communities in the management of commons. To restore community ownership over common lands, there is a need for a push to promote local governance and empower Panchayats to foster a vibrant change in the development of bioresources in Indian villages.
5.4 Promote Local Knowledge and Practices in developing village commons: Lessons from around the world point out to the importance of acknowledging the value of local knowledge and traditional practices in resource management. Indigenous and local communities often possess a deep understanding of the ecosystems they inhabit. Their traditional knowledge, combined with scientific insights, can inform effective resource management strategies. Recognizing and incorporating this local knowledge can lead to more sustainable practices that are rooted in a holistic understanding of the ecosystem.
5.6 Encouraging collaboration and communication between stake holders: Structrued collaboration and communication between stakeholders can lead to transparency in inclusive and sustainable management of commons. There should be a horizontal communication platform between coommunities across Panchayats, between the various Panchayats, and layered communication between communities, Panchayats, subject matter experts, tiers of government institutions, and line departments. When individuals who depend on a common resource come together and engage in open dialogue, they can share their knowledge, concerns, and perspectives. This collaborative approach allows for the development of a shared understanding of the resource’s importance and the challenges it faces, fostering a sense of collective responsibility.
5.7 Building Climate Mitigation Measures and Sustainable Agriculture: The restoration of community ownership over common lands, including grazing lands, can contribute significantly to climate mitigation efforts. The development of grazing lands with grass and greens, along with the cultivation of trees and horticultural crops in degraded lands, and diversified farming systems and other common areas, can enhance the availability of useful bioresources. Moreover, collaborative management of forests between the forest department and local communities can ensure sustainable practices while preserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change.
5.8 Institutionalising Adaptive Management Practices: The theory recognizes the importance of adaptive management approaches. Communities need to continuously monitor the condition of the common resource, collect data, and evaluate the effectiveness of their management strategies. Through regular assessment and learning, they can adjust their practices and policies accordingly. This adaptive management allows for the flexibility needed to address changing environmental conditions, technological advancements, and evolving social dynamics.
5.9 Development of Rules and Institutions: Theories expounded by experts including Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel prize laureate, advocate for the development of clear rules and institutions to govern the use of common resources. These rules, which can be established through community participation and consensus, define the rights and responsibilities of resource users. They may include regulations on resource extraction rates, access restrictions, monitoring mechanisms, and enforcement measures. By establishing such rules, communities can ensure sustainable use and prevent overexploitation.
The experiences of Hiregowdnahalli serve as a microcosm of the prevailing situation across India regarding the neglect and alienation of grazing lands and common lands from local communities. By restoring community ownership and promoting sustainable agriculture practices, India can simultaneously address climate change mitigation, achieve carbon neutrality at the Panchayat level, and ensure food and nutritional security. By adopting a collaborative and participatory approach, communities can effectively manage common resources, prevent overexploitation, and achieve long-term sustainability. By implementing mechanisms that promote shared responsibility, adaptive management, and stakeholder engagement, the theory challenges the notion of the “tragedy of the commons” and offers a pathway to successful resource governance.
— Written by Dr. Kshithij Urs, Executive Director, India Biochar and Bioresources Network