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Village commons are considered to be the lifeline of village communities as they not only provide essential resources to sustain basic daily chores but also ensure a mere sense of survival. In the 21st century, due to technological advancements our needs have been increasing incessantly. After exploiting limited resources in urban settlements, the industrialists are finding ways to fulfill their wants by misusing ‘invaluable’ resources of rural communities.
Recognising the potential of such village commons to earn huge profits, recently, the Greater Noida Industrial Development Authority transferred few village ponds of Saini village in NCR to private industrialists. A plea was filed by lawyer-activist Jitendra Singh in Supreme Court when the National Green Tribunal failed to perceive that such resources are being taken over.
Realising the importance of village commons in rural areas and understanding how badly it affects the living of poor citizens, the Supreme Court declared that such transfer for commercialisation of property is unconstitutional under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
In a country where people are still struggling to get access to potable water for drinking, such a transfer of water resources can lead to severe water crisis. The court further emphasised that the state government cannot divert the resources even if it wished to provide alternative source as it would tantamount to ‘mechanical application of environmental protection’.
There lies no assurance that detrimental effect of destruction of existing water body would be counterpoise and citizens would be coerced to travel larger distances to access the allotted alternative site. More you get, the more you want, as there is no end to the persistent needs and wants of people. A lot of exploitation has already taken place at the cost of such valuable resources of rural people.Hence, such practices should not be continued any longer.
Right to life ( Article 21)
Article 21 of our constitution ensures every citizen the right to life, liberty and security of person. The scope of Article 21 has been widening with the developments in society. There are two notions; laws changing due to change in society and society changing due to change in laws. Law and society, both being dynamic have forced The Article to survive the test of time. It includes all those aspects which makes life meaningful and worth living. .In the Supreme Court, Bhagwati J. repeatedly held that Article 21 includes within itself the bare minimum necessities.
It includes right to clean environment, health, social security, etc. Justice Field expressed word ‘life’ to be more than just animal existence which embraces not only physical existence but quality of life too. It derives its validity from the DPSP mainly Article 39 (policies to be followed by state) and Article 41 (right to work, educate, voluntary public assistance etc.). Right to life includes right to lead a healthy life with dignity to enjoy all facilities necessary for prime human condition.
What are “village commons”?
Resources like ponds, parks, etc. accessible to villagers in a community, village or town are termed as community resources. No person is deemed to be the sole owner. In the pre British era, the resources were available in abundance, were used freely by the villagers and were largely under their control.
With the advancement in society, the extensive control of government has destroyed the management of such village commons and hence led to substantiate decline over the years. Few contend that it comes in conflict with the Doctrine of Eminent Domain but it strictly attaches socio-economic aspect to it.
Article 48A imposes a duty on the state to ‘endeavor to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country’ and Article 51A (g) expects every citizen to perform his fundamental duty to ‘protect and improve the natural environment’.
Furthermore, the constitutional scheme envisages that every citizen has the right to a healthy environment and that, the state is the collective identity of citizens, so it must fulfil its obligations.
The utilisation of common land runs behind the principle of pollution and purity in some areas which has diluted the concept. A large area has been under-utilised due to lack of resources or innovative ideas to channelize it. Hence, potential should be recognised so that villagers earn more income for village panchayats in state.
Their importance in rural life
The village commons are used by villagers for fulfilling their subsistence needs. It not only aids in poverty alleviation but also development orient strategies in India by different stakeholders. It helps in raising the economic standards, rural health and social conditions.
The allocation of such commons to village panchayat ensures equitable distribution of resources considering DPSPs. For example, construction of hospital or pond, etc. Mere allocation does not effectively implement the agrarian reforms, hence, here lies a need for proper planning and implementation to promote welfare of the maximum. The government under Land Acquisition Act can acquire land for public purposes in lieu of compensation.
The privatisation of such resources leads to loss of income and livelihood of rural farmers and agriculturalists. It stands antithesis to cities which connotes progress and development. Many instances of development of villages has been seen in Karnataka and other states by acquisition of such lands. But ultimately it has caused damage to the rural poor.
People being selfish look for protection and not conservation. Their ‘structure of ownership’ and ‘knowledge of valuable resources’ are responsible for withering away of such commons. The tradition of the legal community should be protected and it can be done by promotion of their customary rights.
Conclusion: The Way forward
The judgement for rights of the citizens with lower voice raising capacity was necessary to be proclaimed by the highest court. The government and private industrialists in a lure to earn more and more look forward to the village resources as the urban resources have been exploited already. Such resources provide a means of livelihood to many people and transferring them in the name of development leads to cruelty.
Moreover, the duty lies on the government to provide protection but it has remained just in paper works as the corrupted and influential people have used such resources at their will for personal aggrandisement. The judgement seems to give a ray of hope to such villagers to stand for their rights and provide justice to themselves.
New policies should be formulated for the issues that had not been covered by the existing legislations in order to turn grey area into black and white for stricter protection. The amendments should be done in respective state laws for acquisition of land and powers of panchayat to regulate commons to bring in conformity with ‘rural self-governance’.
The lengthy process to obtain rights for village commons, maintenance of land records, etc. must be catered to. The dissemination of information regarding resources among villagers is essential for effective utilisation and management of resources.
There lies a need to establish institutions for maintenance and management of village commons to protect and enforce their rights and ‘regulation of eco systems and economic activities’ as the Constitution calls for ‘social and economic justice’.
Author: Naina Agarwal from Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Patiala.
Editor: Ojasvi Agarwal from Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat.