The Gift of Commons

filed under: 
Image credit: 
Charu Kulkarni

(Translated From the book ‘Aaj bhi khare ha italaab’)

Nature and the Mother Earth are not what I own. They are gifts I have received and I ought to pass them on to others, to the next generation. For ages, humans have preserved these gifts of nature, worshipping, expressing their gratitude to them, and sharing them with fellow species in harmony. Air, water, forests, oceans, ecosystems, fruits, atmosphere, and land are a part of our ‘Commons’. We collectively share them. That’s the only way every species of the Earth has lived and can live in sustainability. Now, this is completely different from what my school books, teachers and the society I live in taught me. They never taught me to share the gifts of the Commons. The only thing I learned was: “Earth is full of valuable resources to be exploited, trees standing in forests have no value until they are cut and sold in the market, the water in the lakes has no value until it is packaged and sold, and forests have no value until they are mined for minerals. That’s the way our nation can be developed and emerge as an economic super-power”. I believed that lie.


Today, I feel shame that I never questioned what I was taught - because I realize now that the commons are under a threat like never before. The free gifts we were supposed to share are either being privatized for the personal gains of a few or grossly neglected in the belief that anything not privately owned is worthless. The commons are facing repetitive assaults by large corporations, the Governments and often, by the common man.

I feel gratitude for my ancestors who preserved the commons because of which today, I can drink water from a river, climb up a mountain, visit a forest, sight a bird, and inhale air without paying for it. But, what am I going to leave for the next generation? – dried up lakes, forests without trees and animals, polluted air to breathe, and fruits and vegetables poisoned with chemicals.

I remember my childhood days, when I frequently visited a lake surrounded by huge trees in an area called Pipliyapala in Indore. Today, it has been turned into an amusement park by the Government. Hundreds of trees were cut, the lake modified into a water-sport area and cemented; the natural gift was appropriated and turned into a centre for commercialized entertainment. What once was a place for the amusement of masses has now been price-tagged and turned to an elite-only amusement park. For me, this was a direct experience of commons being snatched away from me and my friends.

For ages, humans have preserved the commons: the people of central India built hundreds of lakes and wells for harvesting rain water; fishermen used traditional methods to catch fish, which left space for the population of sea life to remain steady; tribals lived a zero-waste life in forests across the World; and recently, hundreds of citizens hugged trees in the chipko movement to prevent deforestation in the Garwhal Himalayas. In just a few decades, innumerable shared gifts of commons have been turned into privately-owned property: patented, trademarked and copyrighted. Supposedly, these Commons were acquired by the Governments and the corporations for the good of the public and for development – but Mother Earth through Climate Change, typhoons, floods, droughts and more is throwing this question at us – What is public good and what is development?


Taking Responsibility

I realized the paralysis of my community and my own inertia which caused us to lose the natural park in Indore when I became a part of a movement last year: the protest of the people of Gujarat against the cement plant being set up by Nirma Ltd. in the fertile lands of Saurashtra, snatching away farmers’ land with the help of State. I realized that earlier, I never considered it my responsibility to preserve the commons around and protest if they are encroached upon. “Why are you here?” I asked a child who shouted slogans aggressively to support the movement. “I have come from Bhavnagar to protest against Nirma because these people are destroying the land and snatching away our rights.” I was suddenly inspired by his energy and dedication for the cause. At his age, I was busy cramming up the history’s chapter of French revolution. Books taught me the details of revolutions, but never the courage to stand, take responsibility or start a revolution.

On my recent visit to Punjab, I heard an inspiring account of the clean-up of the river Bein. The River Bein in the district of Kapurthala running into 160kms stretch was once called Kali (Black) Bein. “Bein was in such a horrendous condition that standing near it - forget drinking from it - was beyond imagination.” said a KarSewak (Volunteer) at SultanpurLodhi, who had been part of the movement that helped clean it up and transform it to its present state of health.

Pictures of the Kali Bein taken 10 years ago remind me of the Khan river which once flowed through the city of Indore. Even during the early days of my childhood, I have seen Khan River as a filthy stream of garbage. Standing on the banks of the Bein, sacred to the people of Punjab, I was spell bound by the beauty of this river. It would not have been possible if the people of Punjab had not taken up the cleaning of the river Bein as their responsibility.

By drawing on the Sikh tradition of Karsewa (free voluntary service) and Daswandh (common donation of 10% of earnings), a religious leader, SantBalbir Singh and his followers galvanized the local people to action, enlisting volunteers to do the physical work of cleaning the Bein and raising funds for equipment. After six years of dedicated service, the world saw a complete turn around of the Bein. In the whole process, no Government support or funds were involved. The citizens of the region themselves took the task of cleaning the river and protesting against Industrial Wastes being dumped into the river.


Where do I go from here?

I find myself caught with various feelings – sadness and wistfulness when I wish the Khan can be miraculously cleansed; Anguish at the mindless destructiveness of the human species and helplessness when I wonder what and how much I can do to “clean up” the mess.

“Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth”.  Henry David Thoreau said, and momentarily, I feel good at finding a kindred spirit. But it does not do much to revive my spirits. It is difficult for me to get back “to business as usual”, to take up a popular professional course and then a job that pays well and sweep my feelings under the carpet of “Let me be practical”. It is practical after all to want survival and well-being.

Perhaps all I can do is to learn a lesson from Nature’s cycles – transform wastes into manure for new growth. I need to get into a habit of transforming my sadness and helplessness into a commitment and energy to do my bit. And, like Nature, be, relate and work in communities.


Links to short films on ‘Commons’