The term 'wastelands' is a colonial legacy - a reference to the revenue-yielding (in)capacity of lands on which nothing was cultivated. Unfortunately, we continue to use the same terminology and hence the repeated attempts to put them to 'productive use'. But what seem 'wasted' are in fact common lands supporting a wide diversity of livelihood systems all over the country for millions dependent on them - certainly not 'waste'-lands!
Commons make farming systems resilient by augmenting water and nutrient flows, they are a vital link in hydrological processes, impacting recharge of ground water as well as regulating the surface runoff, and arresting soil erosion. Common lands harbour myriad forms of biodiversity and where these adjoin protected areas, the commons provide additional habitat and corridors for diverse species, and shift biotic pressure off the protected areas. They also serve as 'sinks', absorbing harmful greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
Commons provide one platform to address multiple issues of poverty, to reduce inequalities, and improve ecological health. Community institutions enable a code of locally agreed behaviour that both energizes proactive steps and keeps undesirable individual action in check. Our work on ecological restoration is intertwined with crafting local community institutions, reviving collective action, and strengthening tenure arrangements over forests and other common lands in favour of communities.
In our endeavour to conserve commons through community institutions:
- Based on the administrative category of the land, we assist in strengthening and building institutions such as Village Forest Protection and Management Committees, Grazing Land Committees, Tree Growers' Cooperatives, Gramya Jungle, and Panchayats
- We assist communities to optimally use provisions of affirmative legislation, such as the recently-enacted Forest Rights Act, to claim community rights to access, use, protect and manage forests and forest produce that they have traditionally had a right to
- Nest user-based institutions built around natural resources under the constitutionally mandated umbrella institution of the Panchayat and their sub-committees
- Work with both older and recent forms of institutions enabling them to rise above narrow and sectional interests and make their functioning more democratic, broad-based and inclusive
- Evolve institutional forms that allow exchange and transactions across the landscape and other commonly held resources, providing joint and continued access to benefits, effectively address conflicts and contestations, and reduce injudicious exploitation of resources
- Bring together representatives of village institutions, civil society representatives, academia and government functionaries so as to build better and inter-disciplinary stewardship of the natural wealth of the area, and to make informed choices on judicious land use