Conserving Coastal Commons through Panchayati Raj Institutions

Mohammed Mushkoh Ramish

Commons are typically understood to be resources or spaces that are open and accessible to all members of a community. Unlike private property which is characterised by individual ownership, rent and exclusivity of use, commons are communally “owned” and governed by communities that have traditionally used them. Fields, pastures, and ponds, as well as urban spaces or collectively produced knowledge, are all examples of commons. In the same vein, coastal commons are spaces like mangroves, estuaries and shores that hold great socio-economic significance for fisher communities (Rao and Majumdar 2018). Given their ecological, economic and cultural importance, it is imperative to shield coastal commons from the phenomena of “coastal grabbing”[1] as the conservation of these spaces is crucial to the survival of fisher communities dependent on them. Yet, in India and across the world, coastal commons have been rapidly shrinking thanks to capital interests and a compliant state (Bavinck et al. 2017), making it imperative to explore different ways in which coastal commons can be conserved.

Against this background, this article aims to explore ways in which Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) can be used to conserve coastal commons. In doing so, it shall first briefly discuss coastal grabbing in India and why PRIs are important to any conversation about conserving commons. Then, it shall examine the various hurdles and challenges to using PRIs for conserving coastal commons; and finally, it shall explore possible ways to overcome these challenges.

Coastal Grabbing in India

Since programmes and initiatives like Blue Flag or Swachh Bharat stress upon “clean” spaces, fisher communities who use beaches for essential activities may be barred from doing so if their activities are not in line with the gentrified notions of cleanliness that such programmes propagate

In 2020, in a move lauded by the country’s environment minister, eight beaches across India were awarded the coveted Blue Flag certification by the Denmark-based Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE). The Blue Flag Programme aims to promote the sustainable development of marine areas, and has laid out as many as 33 criteria that beaches must meet in order to achieve Blue Flag certification. Ironically, in spite of the programme’s claims of promoting sustainable development, fisher communities who have traditionally used coastal spaces for generations find virtually no mention in its list of criteria. Moreover, since programmes and initiatives like Blue Flag or Swachh Bharat stress upon “clean” spaces, fisher communities who use beaches for essential activities may be barred from doing so if their activities are not in line with the gentrified notions of cleanliness that such programmes propagate. Fish drying, for instance, may not be permitted on these beaches as the process generates a strong odour that is unpleasant to many, and is thus incompatible with the aforementioned notions of a “clean” beach.

Commercial interests outside of tourism also help in capturing commons at the expense of fisher communities. Writing on the management of common property resources, Singh (2004) warned of the perils of letting the market gain access to commons. He argued that the former would privatise the latter in a bid to maximise profits, thereby eroding any traditional (and sustainable) common property arrangements in place prior to the arrival of the free market. In India, one of the most notable instances of this happening was the capture of Chilika Lagoon by commercial interests in the mid-1980s. As the value of shrimp[2] spiked, investors and policymakers akin rushed to Chilika to set up intensive shrimp aquaculture operations and profit off the now-valuable crustacean, pushing out traditional fisher communities in the process (Bavinck, et al. 2017).[3]

Panchayati Raj Institutions and Commons

There are a number of reasons why Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) can play an important role in the conservation of coastal commons. Notably, unlike sporadic government action or civil society campaigns, PRIs are long-standing institutions that have constitutional backing stemming from the 73rd Constitution Amendment Act, 1992. This political and social legitimacy afforded to them by virtue of the 73rd Amendment coupled with their status prior to it as traditional institutions of local government in most parts of the country gives them a larger mandate to take meaningful action over the governance of commons (Choudhary 2004). In areas where commons are not immediately under threat of coastal grabbing, this legitimacy can be key in building public consensus in favour of the conservation and protection of commons.

Coming back to the constitutional backing of PRIs, there are 29 subjects that the Eleventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution places under the purview of these institutions. One of these is the maintenance of community assets. Since coastal commons may be viewed as community assets, they may be brought under the ambit of PRIs. One must note, however, that there is a considerable lag in the transfer of functions and powers to panchayats. Of the 29 subjects contained within the Eleventh Schedule of the Constitution, most state governments and union territories (UTs) are yet to have transferred all of them over to PRIs. Notably though, the states and UTs to have transferred all 29 subjects over to PRIs include Daman and Diu, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal – all coastal states/territories (Pal 2004).

The position of PRIs as guardians of commons was further solidified in 2011 in Jagpal Singh and Others vs. The State of Punjab[4] (hereafter Jagpal Singh). Here, the Supreme Court ruled that the takeover of village commons by private parties, be it by illegal encroachment or state allotment, was illegal, and ordered that the ownership of these commons be restored to local Gram Panchayats. Jagpal Singh thus set a welcome precedent privileging the position of PRIs vis-à-vis commons. However, it is not certain how much of Jagpal Singh can apply to coastal commons, since the judgement only concerns Gram Panchayat land. Yet, given Jagpal Singh’s emphasis on community practices and the importance of common property resources,[5] the judgement may act as firm footing for efforts pushing for the devolution of legal ownership over coastal commons to communities that have traditionally used them.

Challenges to Using PRIs to Conserve Coastal Commons

The current crop of policies concerning natural resources are a product of conflicting interests. There are the interests of local communities and their traditional community-based models of governance and use on one side and on the other the interests of the state (amongst others) in extracting these resources for revenue (Sarin, et al. 2003). In this context, Panchayati Raj Institutions make for an interesting middle-ground in navigating between these two largely mutually exclusive interests. On one hand, PRIs can be reduced to local arms of the state which exist only to implement government policies – many of which may not even be wholly consistent with their needs. Alternatively, they can use their status as representatives of local community interests to help conserve community property like coastal commons. In the case of the latter, PRIs face an uphill task. There are two major reasons for this:

First, PRIs lack the autonomy, power and resources to effectively guard against coastal grabbing. Being the third tier of government in India, PRIs lie at the very bottom of a top-down and centralised system of governance. Despite the 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts, India’s approach to decentralisation has been lukewarm and inconsistent owing to the “stop-start” nature of devolving functions, funds and functionaries to PRIs (Raghunandan 2018). This patchy process of decentralisation has also been attributed to the high costs of building up adequate local institutional capacity within local bodies (Choudhary 2004). However, the problem is not just limited to a lack of resources, but also extends to the inability of PRIs to raise resources and control them. In Karnataka for instance, there are Grama Panchayats at the village level, followed by Taluk and Zilla Panchayats at the block and district levels respectively. Of these, the latter two cannot raise revenue on their own, while Grama Panchayats are expected to raise funds by taxing buildings, marketplaces and even entertainment, among other things. This problem is further compounded by the fact that panchayats do not have absolute discretion over the funds they receive. An examination of the outlay for thirty major schemes implemented by local rural governments in the state found that grama panchayats held absolute discretion over as little as only five per cent of the outlay (Aziz 2006).

Second, there is a lack of adequate and appropriate representation of fisher communities within Panchayati Raj Institutions. While the 73rd Amendment Act makes provisions for the reservation of seats in PRIs for women, and people belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, fisher communities are not adequately represented as there is no separate reservation for them. Thus, while PRIs do have provisions in place for affirmative action and proportionate representation in order to give marginalised communities a say in decision-making, these provisions are not enough in the context of conserving coastal commons. The little representation there is for fish workers in these institutions is mostly limited to big trawl owners whose interests rarely match those of small-scale fish workers. This “elite capturing” of interests and seats in PRIs is not undocumented. Writing about local governance and natural resource management in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Orissa and Uttarakhand, Choudhary (2004) noted that more often than not, gram panchayats mostly represented elite interests, and were more responsive to signals and orders from above rather than village realities. Elsewhere, a study by Narayana (2005) in Tamil Nadu and Kerala (both coastal states, notably), found a number of ward members and panchayat presidents to all be large landowners. Fisher communities thus find it difficult to have their interests represented in PRIs, which in turn makes it hard for them to utilise these institutions to conserve coastal commons.

PRIs and Conserving Coastal Commons: The Way Forward

Given the limitations discussed earlier, there is a lot in the way of proposed reform for these institutions which would enable them to govern and conserve commons quite effectively. Most notably, increased institutional and financial autonomy for PRIs could go a long way in this endeavour. The aim of this article, however, was to seek out strategies that were within the ambit of the power that these institutions currently hold. One potential strategy may be the effective utilisation of panchayat committees. The Panchayati Raj legislations for each coastal state, union territory and island territory of India contain provisions that empower panchayats to constitute committees either for one or many predefined purposes or for any purpose a panchayat deems necessary. In the case of the latter, this means that PRIs have the power to constitute committees or sub-committees dedicated exclusively to conserving coastal commons.

Even where panchayats may only form committees for a specified list of purposes, the coastal commons agenda may still be incorporated into their mandate – albeit not directly or wholly. For instance, panchayats in the states of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal have Standing Committees and Upa-Samitis respectively, whose duties include maintaining and providing support to, among other things, fisheries. Since traditional fisheries are dependent on the conservation of coastal commons, these committees may be tasked with maintaining the same. Elsewhere for our purposes, one may have to resort to a broader interpretation of legal provisions. In the states of Goa and Maharashtra, and the union territory of Puducherry, a broader interpretation of “animal husbandry” and “village/rural industries” may be required to utilise committees constituted for the two to aid efforts for the conservation of coastal commons. Such committees may serve as an arm of a panchayat that is dedicated, at least in part, to the conservation of coastal commons. With the aid of civil society, these committees can be educated about laws and practices relevant to coastal commons and PRIs. Being equipped with such actionable information may enable them to act as internal pressure groups within a panchayat and influence its decisions (Sivaramakrishnan and John 2008).

Since these committees are constituted by panchayats themselves, they may be granted autonomy at the discretion of the panchayat leader (or the assigned nodal officer) as well as financial powers to effectively manage coastal commons and carry out requisite interventions for their upkeep and protection. Community membership of these committees may also ensure that traditional models of managing commons are translated into (and in turn documented through) Gram Sabha resolutions (Choudhary 2004). Moreover, such committees dedicated to coastal commons may further deliberative decision-making, particularly if they have members from fisher communities. In doing so, they would also provide both greater transparency and downward accountability. Different panchayats would need to come together in order to ensure that these committees do not work in silos. Such a coming together may help overcome barriers posed by limited resources, capacities and information asymmetries that are endemic to PRIs. This may be facilitated through the formation of Joint Committees, which allow for inter-panchayat cooperation.

Further Reflections

The powers of panchayats, however, are not limited to their formal authority, enabling legislations or any specific policies. Instead, panchayats may be used as vehicles for consensus building and/or collective bargaining in favour of coastal commons, particularly given their social legitimacy at the ground level.

Panchayati Raj Institutions are, among other things, symptomatic of India’s reluctant attitude towards decentralisation, as well as its stop-start nature of devolving powers to local institutions. This is a recurring theme when it comes to institutions outside of the executive, legislature and judiciary. The former Chief Justice of India H. L. Dattu once wryly, but quite appropriately, remarked that the National Human Rights Commission was a “toothless tiger” – i.e., a body which serves a number of nominal functions, but has no real power. To an extent, one can make the same argument for panchayats. However, the powers that panchayats do hold are not limited to their formal authority, enabling legislation(s) or any specific policies. Instead, panchayats may be used as vehicles for consensus building and/or collective bargaining in favour of coastal commons, particularly given their social legitimacy at the ground level. With the aid of civil society organisations, panchayats may also initiate and/or support local initiatives working for the conservation and maintenance of commons. In particular, civil society can aid PRIs in overcoming problems of inadequate capacity and information asymmetry by providing institutional support and disseminating actionable information.

Writing on local governance in Karnataka, Aziz (2006) stresses the role of civil society organisations in revitalising decentralised governance by motivating people – marginalised communities in particular – to participate in decision-making and working shoulder-to-shoulder with both elected members of PRIs as well as bureaucrats. However, as much as this article advocates for conserving commons through Panchayati Raj Institutions, one must be careful not to disregard the fact that the “social legitimacy” of panchayats alluded to above is more often than not built upon the marginalisation of certain social identities.

Moving on, one must also be wary of reducing coastal commons solely to their utility for fisher communities. These spaces hold great ecological significance as well, and conversations about their conservation should not make the error of overlooking the same. Lastly, while it was not in the scope of this article to examine what efforts to conserve coastal commons should look like, it would be prudent to discuss the same. What should such efforts look like? One may be tempted to dissuade commercial interests by placing an exponentially high monetary value on common land, while others may favour scaling-up production within community-based fisheries in a bid to mollify the state’s perpetual need to maximise revenue. However, as commons are not private property, the former would raise questions about ownership; while the latter would prove counter-productive as community-based fisheries have successfully sustained themselves for centuries by self-regulating in order to avoid abusing and extinguishing their resource base. Straying away from such an approach would rob commons of their very essence, and in time lead to their overuse and eventual destruction. Going forward, policymakers must thus remember that efforts to conserve coastal commons must necessarily be rooted in community-based models of resource use, lest commons cease to be commons.


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[1] The (contested) acquisition of both shore and inshore coastal spaces and resources by alien interests (Bavinck et al. 2017).
[2] Here, synonymous with prawns and other small crustaceans.
[3] To see how the shrimp market boom contributed to the marginalisation of and an increase in poverty amongst traditional fisher communities in Chilika, see Nayak, et al. (2014).
[4](2011) 11 SCC 396
[5] In Jagpal Singh, Justice Markandey Katju stressed the importance of common property resources and how they have been an essential part of communities for centuries (para 2). He also critiqued the systematic encroachment of commons by alien interests at the cost of local communities, and hailed traditional community-based uses of commons (paras 4 and 19).

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