Common lands are not wastelands

Cows grazing in a pastureland in Karnataka (Image Source: Pradeep Kumbhashi via Wikimedia Commons)
Cows grazing in a pastureland in Karnataka (Image Source: Pradeep Kumbhashi via Wikimedia Commons)

India has a large expanse of common lands that meet the livelihood needs of over 350 million people. However, they continue to be exploited and are witnessing a significant decline, loss, and degradation over the past few decades informs this discussion paper titled 'Common lands in India: Spatial distribution and overlay with socioeconomic and environmental indicators' by IFPRI

This has to do with the expansion of economic activities, human encroachment, land conversions, along with increasing environmental pollution. Policy makers tend to look at commons as wastelands and weak community rights over commons and eroding local institutions governing commons have also contributed to their degradation. Further, conservation policies that focus on expanding protected areas have led to shrinking of common lands marginalising communities who depend on them.  

The paper discusses the findings of an assessment of the spatial extent and usage of officially recognised common lands across districts in India, using 2011 Census of India data and Household Census data.

What are common lands? 

Common lands are natural resources that are used or shared collectively by a community, such as forests, pastures, ponds, grasslands, lakes, rivers etc. They provide fodder, fuelwood, water, food in the form of fish, fruits, vegetables,  medicinal herbs to the local communities. Common lands contribute between 12 and 23 percent to rural household incomes in India. 

In India, common lands are often referred to as wastelands and used interchangeably for lands that are considered unproductive. This understanding has its roots in the colonial era, when the term 'wastelands' was coined for land that was not private nor under cultivation and thus not producing revenue even though traditionally local communities used and benefited from these lands. 

Common lands support a wide variety of livelihoods in rural areas and revenue wastelands often include  pasture lands that serve as open grazing grounds for livestock, particularly during monsoon periods when agricultural and forest lands are less accessible. 

India’s wasteland development program aims to reduce the extent of wastelands through transforming them into cultivated areas, which involves privatisation and selling of lands to private industries while dispossessing local users. These have led to large scale displacement of local communities, especially the landless Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) and other marginalised groups who do not have formal property rights. 

From the 1990s, decentralisation of resource governance to local government at the policy level has led to a focus on encouraging participation of local communities in resource management through programs such as Joint Forest Management programs. This also led to the recognition of forests rights by Scheduled Tribes and forest-dependent communities. However, lack of clarity on the extent of common pool resources represents a serious impediment to progress.

Types of common lands

Common lands are mainly classified as forests, permanent pastures and other grazing lands (hereafter pastures), culturable wastelands, and barren and unculturable lands (hereafter barren land). Out of a total area of over 255 million hectares, there are nearly 67 million hectares of common lands in India.

The top four districts with highest concentrations of common lands are Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand (93.2%), Chamba in Himachal Pradesh (89.2%), Karwar in Karnataka (80.9%), and North Sikkim in Sikkim (80.8%). In the Northeast, more than 50% of the districts in Sikkim are covered with common lands. The Indo-Gangetic Plains (IGP) region, known as the country’s breadbasket, has the least concentrations of common lands as most of the land has been privatized and used for agriculture.

Forest is the most dominant common land and are mostly found in districts bordering Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry and some districts of Mizoram, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. 

Most districts of Jammu and Kashmir state have the highest shares of culturable wasteland area along with a few districts in Rajasthan, Assam, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Telangana, and the coastal districts of Maharashtra.

Himachal Pradesh and Chhattisgarh states have the highest concentrations of pastures while Gujarat and Rajasthan also have many districts with permanent pasturelands. Most districts in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, as well as coastal districts in Maharashtra, have a high concentration of barren land relative to other states (up to 34%).

Uses of common lands

In India, commons support the livelihoods of rural communities by providing fuelwood, timber and non-timber forest products (NTFP), fodder, housing and fencing material, and grazing land for livestock etc. Among communities in sub-humid regions, commons support agricultural needs while communities in arid and semi-arid regions use common lands mainly for livestock grazing. 

Common lands also help by regulating and supporting ecosystem services (ES) that are important for farming and livestock, as well as local communities. Common lands also play an important role in carbon sequestration, regulating temperature, nutrient runoff, rainfall and water flows, and biodiversity conservation.

Although numerous government initiatives have been pushing for the adoption of improved cookstoves and cleaner burning fuels like liquid petroleum gas (LPG) and kerosene, dependence on fuelwood remains high, especially for marginalized social groups. Rural communities also utilize common lands to meet other needs such as for construction material for roofs, walls and floors. For example, use of grass, thatch or bamboo is very common in most districts of the Northeastern states due to high forest cover in the region.

Livestock are important to the livelihoods of pastoralists (usually ST) and agropastoralists. Small livestock such as sheep and goats are particularly associated with grazing on commons, while large livestock such as cattle and buffalo are more likely to be stall-fed, though a portion of their fodder may be harvested from the commons.

Overlap between commons and protected areas

The number of protected areas in the country has increased from 574 in 2000 to 903 in 2019, while the total area under protected areas has increased from 146,666 km2 in 2000 to 165,013 km2 in 2019. THis has gradually led to the shrinking of common lands in the country.

Some of the largest wildlife sanctuaries are found in the Jammu and Kashmir region, Gujarat, Arunachal Pradesh and Maharashtra. National parks, the second largest category of protected areas, are found in districts with high concentration of common lands. For example, districts of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan Telegana and Sikkim with more 50% of the land area under common lands also have national parks. Conservation reserves are fewer in numbers and smaller in physical area. The only conservation reserve in Rajasthan is divided between the districts of Jaisalmer and Barmer where culturable wasteland and barren land are widely present. 

The assessment finds that:

  • Common lands are extremely important for supporting the livelihoods and survival of communities, particularly the ST who often use and live around common lands. While forests are the most prominent type of common lands and forest-related policies are important for safeguarding them, communities also depend on barren lands and culturable wastelands and derive various provisioning ecosystem services though these and other commons that are often portrayed as less valuable or of no value or 'wastelands'. 
  • Communities rely on a number of products such as fuelwood derived from wastelands and barren lands. This calls for the need for framing of policies similar to the Forest Rights Act for culturable wastelands, as well as channeling public investments to aid communities in protecting and restoring wastelands. Further, it is vital to validate and strengthen the implementation of laws and policies that mandate registering and recording of collective community rights to commons.
  • Information on the state of common lands, existing local institutions around common lands, and the socioeconomic conditions of the rural communities depending on common lands continues to be limited. Studies taking a closer look at the state of common  lands and their sociocultural arrangements are needed to target interventions aimed at securing community rights and access to common lands, strengthening local institutions, and restoring degraded common lands.
  • There is a need for comprehensive environmental and socioeconomic impact assessments at district level before plans for clearance or conversion of any commons land are undertaken and dispossessed communities duly compensated.. 
  • Voices are now being raised against exclusionary conservation policies that invade common resources, drive away people depending on the resources and leave them poor and helpless. Thus, it is necessary to plan strategies that involve local communities in protection of their commons and encourage sustainable community use of natural resources.

This is an open access report  available for downloading on the IFPRI site here

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