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6 Wasteland development and conflict over commons

The Colonial Concept of Wastelands

When the british established their rule in india, it was estimated that between one-third to one-half of the total area of Bengal Province alone was 'waste'. The colonial concept of wastelands was not an assessment of the biological productivity of land but of its revenue generating capacity. 'Wasteland' was land which did not yield any revenue because it was uncultivated. Such wastelands included the forest districts of Chittagong, Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri,

Chota Nagpur and Assam, the vast trail of forest lands near the mouth and delta of the Hooghly and other rivers, known as Sunderban. These lands were taken over by the British government and leased to cultivators to turn them into revenue generating lands. In the Gangetic plains, 'wastelands' were allotted to an adjacent village, but in the dense forest regions of Dehradun,
Mirzapur, etc., the forest tracts were retained as 'Government Waste'. In Punjab, 200 per cent of the cultivated area of a village was categorised as village waste. These lands were maintained partly as forest and grazing lands and partly for the extension of cultivation. In the Raiyatwari areas of Bombay there were local forms of landholding, and local methods of cultivation which always involved a patch of wood and grass bearing land being attached to each cultivated landholding. In 1861, under the vice royalty of Lord Canning, wasteland rules were formulated. As Baden Powell records 'The value of state forests-to be made out of the best and most usefully situated wooded and grass lands-was not even recognised, and the occupation of the waste by capitalists and settlers was alone discussed. It was only after the late nineteenth century when forests also became a source of revenue that state forests were no longer called waste. Village forests and grazing lands however continued to be categorized as wastelands because they were not sources of revenue for the state, even though they were vital fuel and fodder resources for the agricultural economy.

The colonial category of 'wastelands' was thus a revenue category, not an ecological category. Colonial policy did, however, also create the ecological category on 'wasted lands' which had lost their biological productivity because of social and government action and inaction. These wasted lands lay in areas demarcated as reserved forests, those owned privately by individuals and used for agriculture, and common land's shared by communities for fuel and fodder supplies. The estimates of wasted lands in India are shown in Table 6.1.

As Baxi notes, 'development of wastelands or policies addressed to it do no more than reverse social and public policy and action which hail the result of wasting lands in earlier times.' However, this is not what the government wasteland development policy has turned out to be. This policy was given a boost in 1985 when the National Wasteland Development Board was set up. Wasteland development generated conflicts because it concentrated on the afforestation of the revenue category of wastelands (i.e., commons) and threatened the customary rights of villagers to use forest produce.

In a nation-wide study covering districts in dry tropical regions spread over seven states, Jodha observed that the most basic needs of fuel, fodder, etc. of the poor throughout India continue to be satisfied from common property resources or CPM's (Table 6.2).

A number of factors have led to the degradation of commons, in particular to the decay of community norms in maintaining these commons. The erosion of systems of social control in the process of modernization and development has led to Hardin's model of degradation of commons in most regions.

Table 6.1 Estimates of Wastelands in India (hectares in lakhs,)

States/UTs Saline and
Andhra Pradesh 2.40   74.42 76.82
Assam     9 35 9 35
Bihar 0.04   38.92 38.96
Gujarat 12.14 7.04 52.35 71.53
Haryana 5.26 15.99 2.76 24.01
Himachal Pradesh     14.24 14.24
Jammu & Kashmir     5.31 5.31
Karnataka 4.04   67.18 71.22
Kerala 0.16   10.37 10.53
Madhya Pradesh 2.42   127.05 129.47
Maharashtra 5.34   110.26 115.60
Manipur     0 14 0.14
Meghalaya     8.15 8.15
Nagaland     5.08 5.08
Orissa 4.04   27.53 31.57
Punjab 6.88   4.63 11.51
Rajasthan 7.28 106.23 66.59 180.10
Sikkim     1.31 1.31
Tamil Nadu 0.04   33.88 33.92
Tripura     1.08 1.08 utter
Pradesh 12.95   53.40 66.35
West Bengal 8.50   13.27 21.77
UTs 0.16   8.73 8.89
Total 71.65 129.26 736.00 936.91

Source: society for Promotion of Wasteland Development 1984.

Village commons have been a historical reality in India. Relics of village woodlots or roadside plantations can still be easily found. In the traditional village, private and unequal landholdings existed side by side with common and equally shared resources. Thus, while self-interest might guide a landlord's use of his own land, the use of common resources would even for the private landlord be guided by community norms.

This was possible for two reasons. The first is rooted in the nature of community organisation. A community is a social organisation based on commonly accepted norms and values which provide the organising principles and control mechanisms for its members. A shared resource can be managed conununally through the implicit acceptance on the part of all the members of the community of a commonly shared norm for the use of resources. Even while subscribing to one set of norms in the context of commonly owned resources, it is possible for members of a village to subscribe to individualistic, class dominated norms when it comes to privately owned resources.

Table 6.2 Indicators a, of rural households Dependence on CPRs


States (Study Districts Villages)

Andhra Pradesh Cujardat Karnataka Madhya Pradesh Maharashtra Rajasthan Tamil Nadu
Category of households poor Others2 Poor Others Poor Others Poor Others Poor Others Poor Others Poor Others
Number of households 65 41 . 84 62 64 33 98 72 102 64 72 64 48 23
Per cent households collecting CPR products
Food items 95 10 96 16 84 14 100 18 98 13 100 23 93 12
Fuel. fodder, fibre 99 15 100 19 100 18 100 11 100 16 100 28 100 17
Timber, silt. etc. 37 59 29 83 41 78 21 84 19 90 31 89 92 42
Per household average number of
CPR based activities' 4 2 5 2 5 3 6 3 3 2 5 2 4 3
CPR items collected 7 4 8 3 7 4 12 5 7 3 10 5 6 3

The second reason why commons could be maintained despite socio-economic inequalities was the self-sufficient nature of the traditional village economy. That self-sufficiency prevented individuals from undermining community action. Thus, for example, in a traditional coastal fishing village with its own socio-economic hierarchies, the exploitation of common resources (like fish in the ocean) was guided by rigid controls to which everyone was subjected. The exploitation of the poorer sections of the village took place on the shore when the catch was distributed on the basis of private ownership. However, the most powerful groups were prevented from over-exploiting the resources of the sea. Therein lies the primary reason why India's marine ecosystem was maintained over the centuries..

The conservation of village woodlots was guaranteed through similar mechanisms, until the simultaneous operation of individual and community obligations was rendered impossible through the opening up of the village economy to large urban and industrial markets. By and large, access to the bigger markets was, and still is, possible only for the most privileged members of the community, through easy access to educational bureaucratic and financial institutions. This initiated a process whereby the rich were no longer subject to traditional social norms and this in turn led to the breakdown of the community. In the case of marine resources, the introduction of mechanised trawlers (through international and local funding used mainly by the local rich), led to the violation of traditional community norms and influenced the manner in which marine resources were exploited. Similarly, the introduction of new agricultural techniques that were adopted only by the rich farmers, made the village elite less dependent on local resources (for example, chemical fertiliser in place of green manure). Under such circumstances, the participation of wealthy villagers in community efforts to maintain local resources was reduced, leading ultimately to the slow decay of those community norms which had previously governed the use of local resources.

A Tragedy of the Commons?

It is important to recognisethat competition has not always been a driving force in human societies. In large sections of rural societies of the Third World, the principle of cooperation rather than competition among individuals still dominates. Similarly, production for one's own consumption rather than for exchange has long been the predominant motive for production in subsistence economies. In a social organization based on cooperation among members and production based on need, the logic of gain is entirely different from that of societies based on competition and profits through exchange. The general logic underlying Garret Hardin's 'Tragedy of the Commons does not operate under such conditions. However, under certain circumstances where common lands cannot even support the basic needs of the population, a tragedy is to be expected even in the absence of competition.

There may, of course, be situations where undermining a community's resources does not ruin those responsible for the exploitation of those resources. Under these conditions, as Daniel Fife points out: 'The tragedy of the commons may appear to be occurring but in fact something quite different is really happening. The commons is being killed but someone is getting rich. The goose that lays golden eggs is being killed for profit.

That situation is all too possible in the business world. Responsible business ensures that it can continue to run indefinitely. But when a business adopts 'higher temporary profits' as its principal goal, its irresponsibility may lead to the destruction of its own resources. In such a situation, it 'pays for the businessman to kill his business'.

The survival of such community property as pastures and village woodlots, or 'common goods' like a stable ecosystem, is therefore only possible under a social organisation where checks and controls on the use of resources are built into the organising principles of the community. On the other hand, the breakdown of a community, with the associated erosion of concepts of joint ownership and responsibility, can trigger off the degradation of common resources. This was seen in forest ownership and land use.

Wasteland development programmes have, however, failed to address themselves to this tragedy of the erosion of social control and to the creation of institutional frameworks that enable communities to protect commons. Instead, the early projects proposed to the Wasteland Board focused on large-scale privatization of commons by industries for commercial plantations. These proposals included using wastelands to meet their cellulosic raw material requirement for pulp and paper and plywood, and production of vegetable oil and charcoal for industrial use.

Although most of the proposals from the private sector are still under consideration by various state governments, at least two states, Orissa and Karnataka, have leased wastelands to private companies for use. The Orissa government has granted a 'licence' to Straw Products Ltd. of the J.K. group to develop a plantation on state government owned non-forest lands and utilise the usufruct from the area.

In Karnataka, two projects involving Gwalior Rayon (Harihar Polyfibres) have been approved to produce pulpwood to meet the captive industrial requirements of the company. The first is a farm forestry project on 13,000 hectares and the other is a joint venture with the Karnataka government on 30,000 hectares. While the first project has run into problems because of the current regulations of banks and the government about granting financial assistance, the second project is facing the onslaught of agitations by public interest groups opposing the leasing of wastelands to private industry.

There are at least a dozen other such proposals for the captive use of wasteland under consideration of various state governments and awaiting their approval. If the recommendations of the Wastelands Board were to be accepted, the state governments would be swamped with requests for wastelands from the private sector.

The single largest proposal for leasing in wastelands has come from Pallas Associates Pvt. Ltd. of Maharashtra. The company, with its plans to set up a 1,200 tonnes per day capacity paper mill, is interested in leasing between 1.5 to 5 lakh hectares of wastelands for paper/pulpwood plantations in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh.

In Maharashtra, three requests for using wastelands are pending with the state government-Shree Vindhya Paper Mills has submitted a request for 232 hectares of land for growing Mesta and Eucalyptus; Ion Exchange (India) is interested in about 180 hectares of wastelands in the Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani area; and

Pudumjee Pulp and Paper Mills Ltd. of Pune wants to lease between 500-1,000 acres of wastelands.

The state governments of Karnataka and Maharashtra are examining a proposal from the West Coast Paper Mills to cultivate two captive plantations of bamboo and Eucalyptus in the wastelands in Karnataka as well as in the adjacent areas of Maharashtra. While the first project would cover 16,000 hectares of wastelands belonging to the government with bamboo, Eucalyptus and subabul, the second aims at planting 4,000 hectares of Eucalyptus in private wastelands through farmers who own these lands. In Andhra Pradesh, a request from Bhadrachalam Paper Boards Ltd. for wastelands use is pending with the government.

In Tamil Nadu, New Ambadi Estates Pvt. Ltd. have submitted a proposal for setting up a 5,000 hectares joint sector wastelands project in the Pasumpon Muthuramalingam district. A proposal from Industrial Chemicals and Monomers Ltd. for leasing 1,000 hectares of wastelands under the ownership of temples in the districts of Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari and Ramanad is also under consideration of the Tamil Nadu government. The company wants to raise a plantation of prosopis juliflora for producing charcoal which can then be used to produce calcium carbide.

Tata Industries Ltd. are interested in jojoba plantations for oil extraction on the semi-arid lands of Kutch and Rajasthan using 'suitable biotechnology'. However, they have not as yet submitted a detailed project report to the state governments involved.

In Gujarat, a proposal has been submitted by Lauric Oilseeds Seedlings (India) Pvt. Ltd. of Bombay to set up salvadorea persica (Pilu) oilseeds plantations in areas facing acute problems of water availability and soil salinity. The project expects to cover 275 villages in eight taluks in the districts of Bhavnagar, Surendranagar, Ahmedabad and Kheda. It consists of 6,OOO hectares of captive plantation and 19,000 hectares of farm forestry.

The Madhya Pradesh government has set up a joint sector paper mill project covering 20,000 hectares of wastelands for meeting their captive requirements of raw material. So far they have applied for 13,000 hectares of degraded forest land but have yet to be allotted land. They plan a production of 40 tonnes per hectare on the basis of an eight-year cycle, with species like Eucalyptus, subabul and acacia nilotica.

In Haryana, Nuchem Plastics Ltd. have submitted a proposal for raising a 5,000 hectares plantation of Eucalyptus, poplar, subpart and kilrar in the waterlogged wastelands of Ambala district

In the face of a serious controversy over the conversion of food growing land to industrial wood fibre plantation in the state, the Government of Karnataka has launched a number of schemes of 'Wasteland Development' under its social forestry project which are in effect the conversion of 120,000 acres of village common lands to Eucalyptus plantations to feed a local rayon factory. 'Wastelands' are category 'C' and 'D' lands which were not a source of revenue for the state but were a source of fuel and fodder for the villages. The conversion of these village commons to feed stocks for the wood fibre industry is in direct conflict with the basic biomass needs of the local villages. The diversion of these village commons to industrial plantations through the project for 'Wasteland Development' has led to a major popular resistance movement for the protection of the commons called 'Mannu Rakshna Koota' or 'Movement for saving the soil'. Lands of 'C' and 'D' class which are categorized as wastelands are meant for fulfilling the basic needs of villagers in agriculture, animal husbandry etc. In Shimop and Chiklcamagalur areas, 'C' and 'D' class of lands are being transferred to the forest department with a view to planting Eucalyptus for a joint venture-the Kamatalta Pulpwood Ltd.- floated in November 1984 by the Kamatalra Forest Plantations Development Corporation and Harihar Polyfibres Ltd.

Were is a second proposal for transferring 'C' and 'D' class of lands to the forest department in an area within a radius of 10 km of Harihar Polyfibres, covering nearly 45,000 acres in Chitradurga, Bellary, Shirnoga, and Dharwad districts for growing Eucalyptus and selling it to Harihar Polyfibres Ltd. Here the land will be leased out to agricultural labourers on the condition that their yield be sold to Harihar Polyfibres at 'reasonable' rates.

These proposals of transferring 'C' and 'D' class of lands to the forest department, and growing Eucalyptus as well as supplying the pulpwood to Harihar Polyfibres are indications of dangerous trends in public policy, working against the interests of the people. The nexus of state and special interest power groups is working aginst ordinary citizens. As pasture lands, as minor forests, etc. 'C' and 'D' class of lands were categorized and provided for. The utitisation of these for monocultures of Eucalyptus for a single company has generated a severe conflict between the people and the state.

The experience of the forest department in growing Eucalyptus in the high rainfall area of Malnad districts like Uttar Kannada, Shimoga and Chickmagalur has been a disappointing as well as a controversial one. Therefore, the government took a decision not to grow Eucalyptus in areas with rainfall of 40 inches or more. But an exception has been made in the case of Mysore Paper Mills as well as Harihar Polylibres and the public and ecologists argue that the raising of this monocrop in the high rainfall area is totally unjustified.

Further utilization of 'C' and 'D' crass of lands in the dry zone and other areas will deprive the basic common facility enjoyed by the villages so far. Public interest is being sacrificed for promoting the interests of a private enterprise like Harihar Polyfibres whose record of industrial development has unfolded the trail of continuous pollution and its after-effects.

All this is a clear indication of the state as representative of special interest power groups and the consequent outcome of the mortgaging of people's resources now and in the future. The private interests of the Birlas are being served at the enormous cost of lives of people and cattle in the Tungabhadra region.

The people in affected villages have registered their protest by uprooting newly planted Eucalyptus seedlings from these 'wasteland' in large numbers. They have also undertaken a survey of the existing land use in 'C' and 'D' class lands. This shows that large parts of these lands are under natural evergreen or semi-green forests. Average tree population has been noted to be 50-200 per acre of diverse species. The cultivation of Eucalyptus in the village commons comprising these 'C' and 'D' class lands is perceived by the people as a programme for the creation of wastelands not a programme for their development.

The conflicting meanings of 'productivity' for conflicting interests in land use is well exemplified in the 'wasteland' category. For the state, with a primary interest in revenue, biologically productive land was iwaste'if it did not generate revenue. The state pursued a land use policy which converted productive lands into biological wastelands, a trend which continues even today as land use conflicts over wastelands in Karnataka show. For the local people 'productivity' is a material, an ecological category. 'Wastelands' are their wealth, supporting their agricultural economy. Attempts to change the vegetation and land use characteristics of these village commons are, in their perception an attempt to rob their land and its biological wealth. Conflicts are thus generated by wasteland development, emerging from conflicting views of waste and conflicting interests in land.

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