Whose City? Whose Commons?: Urbanization and the fate of (Peri) Urban Commons in India

Factors such as urbanization have led to the depletion of Common Property Resources, affecting the livelihoods of many who depend on them for sustenance.

Kartik Chugh
(Research Intern, CUES-TIGR2ESS)

The demise of CPRs

Common property resources (CPRs) can be understood as natural resources of a community where every member has access and non-exclusive property/usage rights to the resources but with definite obligations (Jodha, 1985).  CPRs in the Indian context may include community forests, pastures and grazing lands, village ponds, rivers, common threshing grounds, etc. Many people rely on these common resources for sustenance. 

Commons, however, have been depleting in India since the early 1950s. Jodha (1985) has pointed out various factors such as commercialization, mechanization, technological intervention, population growth, land reform etc. that have attributed to their depreciation. In 1974, Hardin argued that the non-exclusive nature of commons’ usage would mean that the resources would be overexploited over time due to population pressure. The solution to avert this ‘tragedy of the commons’, as many economists and social scientists argued, was the privatization of the commons. As a result, one can observe a shift in management regimes where privatization of CPRs was promoted by the government to help the poor (Jodha, 1995).  In the 70s, for instance, the state perceived commons as open wastelands which needed to be managed scientifically. 

Almost two decades later, Ostrom (1990) contended that a community can manage and regulate its shared resources effectively. By highlighting the importance of common property institutions, she demonstrated how in favourable conditions, user organizations can emerge and regulate coordinated actions and rational collective strategies. Based on this observation, policies shifted towards decentralization in the 90s. These policies not only promoted the involvement of communities in managing CPRs but also created a possibility of effective community-based self-governance.

Growing City, Shrinking Hinterland. Credits: Author

The economic reforms in 1991 saw urban restructuring as an important component of development and economic growth. The following decades have spurred rapid urbanisation and a boom in the real estate sector. Cities have shifted boundaries, residential areas have mushroomed, new industries have been established, and the urban population of India continues to increase rapidly. To meet the demands of the growing cities requires an expansion of the infrastructure which is fulfilled by the acquisition of land and water from the peri-urban villages by the state and real estate. The acquisition of land is not limited to private agricultural lands but often involves engulfing village commons such as grazing lands on which many people rely for sustenance.

Depleting Commons, Increasing Marginalization

Jodha (1995) has pointed out the important role that CPRs play in people’s biomass centred lifestyle in the central drylands of India. Here, CPRs are important sources of fuel, food, fodder, timber, and employment. Beck and Ghosh (2000) have also argued that CPRs in West Bengal are crucial to the subsistence of poor households, something that is largely ignored by policymakers. Poor people have had a customary right over these resources (gleaned grains, fuelwood, leaves, and fishes) but they are increasingly being privatized. This has led to the class conflict manifested by the struggle over the access and distribution of resources between the rich and the poor. Around the city of Bangalore, hundreds of lakes have been lost owing to urbanization and industrial pollution. These lakes were traditionally used by a number of communities for varying purposes such as agriculture, fishing, cattle bathing, drinking, and domestic uses.

Similarly, the acquisition of common land in the periphery of Gurgaon for the construction of Water Treatment Plant has deprived livestock dependent village communities, especially those belonging to lower caste such as Bhangi, access to grazing lands (Narain, 2014). These communities mostly consist of landless or marginal farmers. In the absence of community grazing lands, most of the fodder is acquired from agricultural fields. While those belonging to higher caste can procure fodder from their fields, others have no option but to buy it. As a result, people belonging to the lower caste have to expend more on the maintenance of livestock. The higher input costs have made rearing livestock less lucrative because of which people have shifted towards unskilled labour.  

A deteriorated village Johad (pond). Credits: Author

At times, it is the unequal power structures in the village that interact with urbanization to deprive certain groups the access to village commons. Vij and Narain, (2016) have demonstrated how in village Budheda, the head of the Panchayat (Sarpanch) misused his powers and leased out the village johad (pond) to a private contractor without consulting the Gram Sabha. As a result, the locus of control over village johad was transferred to someone outside of the village, affecting those who relied on it directly.

Two points become clear from these examples. One, that the peri-urban commons are depleting and two, those who are most negatively affected by this process are socially and economically disadvantaged. Since the degradation of CPRs impacts the communities unevenly, it is therefore important to take into consideration the dynamics of class, caste, gender and power in understanding people’s differential access and dependence on CPRs. In other words, the process of peri-urbanisation raises questions of equity and justice.

Figure 1: Causes and consequences of CPR loss. Factors such as urbanization, rainfall variability and misuse of power lead to a decline in CPRs which when intertwines with caste/class dynamics advances marginalization and transforms socio-cultural and gender relations. Credits: Author

Another important aspect that needs urgent attention is the ecological consequences of CPR demise. For instance, Vij and Narain (2016) have pointed out how the drying of Johads coupled with rainfall variability is linked to a decline in groundwater table and drying of wells. These consequences are again borne unevenly. For instance, when the wells dry up, women have to travel further to collect water. The transforming gender relations were also observed when I was carrying out my fieldwork in peri-urban villages. Because the common pastures are depleting, livestock has to be stall-fed. While taking livestock out for grazing was traditionally the responsibility of men, stall feeding is associated with women. With an increase in stall-feeding, the time and labour of women have increased. 


Urbanization has emerged as a recent threat to these natural resources. The CPRs which are regarded as support systems to marginal and landless groups in the rural/peri-urban landscape are fast depleting. Seen differently, the CPRs are now also supporting the urban communities, albeit differently. The urban expansion favours the needs of the city by depriving peri-urban resources. It is important then, that we ask who the modern cities are meant for? There is a need to question the top-down models of urban expansion which have created marginalization and deprivation in rural and peri-urban spaces.  Only after we acknowledge the rural-urban linkages, would new ways open to thinking about alternative modes of urbanization and making the process more equitable.    


  • Beck, T., & Madan G. Ghosh. (2000). Common Property Resources and the Poor: Findings from West Bengal. Economic and Political Weekly, 35(3), 147-153. Retrieved November 5, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4408824
  • Jodha, N. (1995). Common Property Resources and the Environmental Context: Role of Biophysical versus Social Stresses. Economic and Political Weekly, 30(51), 3278-3283. Retrieved November 5, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4403587
  • Narain, V. (2014). Whose land? Whose water? Water rights, equity and justice in a peri-urban context. Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London, UK
  • Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom
  • Vij, S., & Narain, V. (2016). Land, water & power: The demise of common property resources in periurban Gurgaon, India. Land Use Policy, 50, 59-66. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2015.08.030
Kartik Chugh
Kartik Chugh

Kartik is a research intern at CUES-NIPGR under project TIGR2ESS. He is interested in the political ecology, and geography of human-animal interactions. When not absorbed in the research work, Kartik enjoys cooking, and loves playing football.

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