Such was her connection to Bangalore that she had been herself studying lakes in the city for the last year or so and had deep insights into the way forward for citizen action on lake preservation.
Prof. Elinor Ostrom, recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics, passed away in Indiana, United States, on 12th June, after a short and intense battle with pancreatic cancer. Her life and her ideas hold deep significance for us in Bangalore.
In February 2012, Prof. Ostrom visited Bangalore for a few days, giving the T N Khoshoo Memorial Lecture at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). In addition, she was very keen to visit one of the sites of a recent research program that she and I had initiated last year to examine collective action and lake restoration in Bangalore.
Kaikondrahalli lake on Sarjapur road, which was recently restored through a collaborative effort by local communities and the BBMP, was one of the sites of this research, and she had heard much about this lake through the years that we have been working on it.
The lake community had gathered in full force to meet her on the morning of the 3rd of February 2012. She was 78 years old, had just got off a long plane ride and completed an intense three day visit to Delhi, and was even then battling cancer. Her energy and drive could always put people much younger and fitter to shame, however, and she enthusiastically undertook a trip around the lake boundary, asking many questions of the lake community, and suggesting to them that they invest in long term monitoring of the ecological condition of the lake, so that research and practice could go hand in hand.
She planted a jackfruit sapling – which is growing very well at the edge of the lake – and was very happy at the choice of species, commenting that as a girl she had a jackfruit tree in her garden in Los Angeles, and knew the tree well.
Internationally renowned for her research on the collective management of commons, Prof. Ostrom’s research has demonstrated the capacity for local communities to organise to protect shared natural resources – called common property – such as lakes, forests, grazing lands and fisheries. She and her colleagues systematically collected evidence that proved the potential for sustainable and equitable governance of natural resources in a manner where responsibilities and benefits were shared by all.
This line of thought went quite contrary to the opinion of many governments and conservation agencies, who assumed that local communities could only be capable of destroying their environment, and needed a benevolent dictatorial government to deal out rules and judgement from above. Lin – as she was popularly known - worked with colleagues across the world and drew on case studies from places as diverse as Nepal, Kenya Los Angeles, and Switzerland to develop a set of “design principles”, conditions under which local communities were more likely to be able to develop sustained, ecologically and socially relevant rules for management of their natural resources.
These design principles were rather simple, but very profound – for instance, one principle states that people are more likely to follow a set of rules if they have had some say in developing these rules themselves, rather than having rules given to them by someone else (say the government) and being told they had to follow them.
Another important design principle is that monitoring – and sanctioning of offenders through fines and punishments - is essential for protecting natural resources. Otherwise, one selfish individual can disrupt the entire effort of the group, and as she put it so eloquently “human beings don’t like to be 'suckers'!”
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