Prof. Elinor Ostrom, one of the two laureates chosen for this year's Economics Nobel Prize, has devoted her life to dismantling prevailing orthodoxies and disciplinary boundaries. A number of these orthodoxies pertain to ideas of 'development', with which India is now grappling. Therefore, this is an apt moment to pause and reflect upon the development paths we have chosen, in light of Elinor Ostrom's work.

Lin, as the professor is fondly known among her colleagues, built upon and took to new heights the contributions made by her senior colleague and husband Vincent Ostrom. Vincent has pursued the philosophical challenge posed by Alexander Hamilton, i.e. "whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice". Lin has gone further with this question, and has attempted to understand and explain, "How can fallible human beings achieve and sustain self-governing entities and self-governing ways of life?"

At the University of California in 1965, for her doctoral research, Lin Ostrom studied efforts to halt the intrusion of saltwater into a groundwater basin within the Los Angeles metropolitan area. She concluded that the success of these efforts was founded on cooperation among citizens who deliberated, bargained, and made constructive use of a variety of institutional arenas.

Lin's view was - and is - contrary to the conventional wisdom aptly captured in the Tragedy of Commons thesis propounded by biologist Garrett Hardin. Hardin had argued that the resources held in common were doomed to a tragic downward spiral of degradation as each individual within the community would attempt to maximise his or her gains at the cost of the resource, and even the other members of the community. Lin's findings from the Los Angeles study showed otherwise, that the community could evolve institutions to manage its resources successfully.

The metaphor of this Tragedy of Commons has been conveniently exploited by those who advocated either blanket privatisation on the one hand, or unencumbered state control on the other hand over natural resources such as forests, water, and village grazing lands. Thus, Lin's work has provided counter-arguments to both agendas. In the 1990 book Governing the Commons, Lin argued that either privatisation or the leviathan - a strong state - were not the only choices, insisting that under certain conditions, local communities could successfully overcome the challenge of managing their commons by crafting appropriate rules and conventions.

However, Lin cautions that her work should not be taken to mean that communities will succeed no matter what. Successful governance arrangements are often characterised by cooperation at several scales, at times involving institutions such as judiciary, and democratic arrangements for policy formulation and implementation. In her recent work, Lin argues against applying her findings too broadly, for instance, to advocate decentralization as a cure for every ill plaguing a society. Thus policies and programs that romanticise either the state control of resources, a mere hand-over of natural resources to local community groups have little chance of success in the long run.

Lin cautions that her work should not be taken to mean that communities will succeed no matter what. Successful governance arrangements are often characterised by cooperation at several scales. (Photo source: Indiana University).

 •  Disempowering forest mgt.
 •  Politics and conservation

Similarly, centralized programs of so-called partnership between the government and local leaders not accountable to the larger community, such as the much talked about "Joint Forest Management" in India, are also simplistic. Instead, what is required is a nuanced and deliberative process of arriving at governance arrangements that are informed of local realities and address the interests of different concerned groups.

Lessons for Indians

India has had a long tradition of community-based conservation of land, water, and forest resources. For instance, hundreds of community groups in Orissa, Gujarat, and Uttarakhand have protected the village forests despite lack of incentives and virtually no cooperation from the forest department. A large majority of Indians still rely on Common Pool Resources (which may not always be managed under a Common Property Regime) such as water, forests, and grazing land. Add to this the tradition in several parts of our country where post-harvests, even privately owned agriculture fields turn into commons. Moreover, the reliance on commons is not merely of income, as is often argued inadequately. It is essential for the very survival of sections within rural and tribal communities. For us Indians, the reliance on commons is a question of human development as well as environment conservation.

Indians also have rich intellectual traditions that offer the norms and conventions that should guide the conduct of our societal affairs. Unfortunately, members of what is sometimes referred to as the "call-center generation", which is fast occupying the role of opinion-makers in our society, don't appreciate these nuances. They fall for simplistic but gratifying quick-fix solutions. Protect all remaining forests at any cost; plant large number of trees every June 5th; deal militarily with the dissent in tribal areas; and so forth.

This is precisely where Lin's work, often summed up as an exercise in evolving a craft of association, may come handy. How do the Delhiites think of their 'association' with the tribals in Dediapada? Such reflection is a pre-requisite for dealing with the challenges we face in devising systems of governance that do justice to our social, cultural and geographic diversity. Moreover, the commons are not just about local forests and local association, particularly in this era where the whole environmental discourse is defined by climate change an issue that is about development as much as it is about environment. Local lessons and domestic sensitivities should play a vital role in defining our position at the global negotiating table too.

Finally, it is pertinent to consider the kind of scholarship that Lin and her colleagues from around the world practice. It involves combining theoretical insights from different fields through a variety of research methods, something that is underlined by the awarding of the Economics Nobel Prize to Lin, a Political Scientist, who works in the mould of a Political Economist. Moreover, she has and continues to work with Mathematicians, Computer Scientists, Biologists, Geographers, Foresters, and Anthropologists, to name a few.

Given that building the academic and research institutions should be India's top priorities, we should meticulously work on encouraging interdisciplinary work among scholars from around the country. This may help us nurture not only scholars but citizens who appreciate the nuanced deliberations required for finding humble solutions to challenges that seem daunting.