You are here: Home » » Story

Alternative approaches for abating river pollution

Mumbai : The earlier column introduced the idea of “the tragedy of commons”, a situation in which a jointly-owned resource is overused or destroyed because each person takes more than they would if the resource was privately owned.

With each individual acting independently, the combined pressure on the resource exceeds what is in the interest of the community as a whole. According to Garett Hardin, the biologist who coined this term, there are some kinds of problems which society cannot resolve through technology, but which instead require a wholesale change in morality and behaviour – what we might call a cultural shift.

Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 Nobel Prize winner for economics proposed the “Institutional Analysis and Development” (IAD) framework to address the problems such as the tragedy of commons. The framework looks at the physical characteristic of the resource, the community of users and the rules-in-use.

In the words of one of its advocate, this framework may not be able to make the whole “elephant” visible, but it can help one see inter-related parts more clearly.

The IAD framework helps to perceive complex social phenomenon by dividing them into smaller pieces of practically understandable function. The important aspect of IAD framework is that outcome is influenced by the institutional arrangements created by local actors in a given context. According to Olstrom, the IAD framework helps us to understand both why individuals engage in collective action arrangements to devise institutions to cope with problems such as the tragedy of commons as well as what types of rules make such institutions successful.

According to Olstom, designing institutions to nudge entirely self-interested individuals to achieve better outcomes has been the major goal posited by policy analysts for governments to accomplish. A core goal of public policy, according to her, should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans. This will need to be the shift in paradigm in the institutional approach to address the tragedy of commons problem.

Ostrom has over the years demonstrated that within communities, rules and institutions of non-market and not resulting from public planning can emerge from the bottom up to ensure a sustainable, shared management of resources, which is efficient.

According to a researcher on the subject, the mechanisms of conflict resolution must be local and public, so as to be accessible to all individuals of a community. Besides mechanisms of graduated sanctions, a mutual control of the resource among the users themselves must be established. This has a double merit.

First, those interested in the proper management of the resource (the user) also have an incentive to check that management, and second, the users are also the subjects that have the best information on how the resource can be used in an inappropriate manner by the others.

Finally, the rules, in addition to being clear, shared and made effective by all users, must not conflict with higher levels of government.

Ostrom has provided eight principles which would need to be followed for managing the common pool resources: i. define clear group boundaries; ii. match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions; iii. ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules; iv. make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities; v. develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behaviour; vi. use graduated sanctions for rule violators; vii. provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution and; viii. build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

The IAD framework has proved to be successful when applied to common pool resource problems in developing and developed countries. Given the rich literature and empirical evidence that is available on this subject, it is high time we make an attempt to apply this approach in the Indian context. This is particularly essential in India where the population pressure on scarce available natural resources is ever mounting and the free rider problem is making less and less of available resources for greater common good.

Successive governments have been eager to allocate financial resources to solve the river pollution problem. But successive programmes like both the phases of the Ganga Action Plan and the current Namami Gange are designed as a top down approach to a problem which can only be solved through a bottom up approach.

Yes, financial resources will be required, but without local actor or institution’s active involvement and oriented towards “bringing the best out of humans”, the efforts will not yield the desired outcomes.

The adoption of IAD framework to Ganga cleaning problem will require significant evidence based research which will suggest an alternative approach to the current prevailing wisdom. This effort will be worthwhile as the new found enthusiasm for abating river pollution is slowly leading to familiar sub-optimum outcomes.

It is also to be recognised that the river rejuvenation will be a long process. Before we embark on another decade-long journey which is Centrally and not a locally-directed approach, it will be prudent to allocate some effort in developing alternative approaches to solving a chronic problem.

For that, we need to recognise that it is not the level of enthusiasm of Centrally-directed approach which will determine success; the problem lies in adopting a Central or an external solution to a problem best solved with local participation. The faster we recognise it the better.

Abhay Kantak is Director – Urban, CRISIL Infrastructure Advisory.

(Disclaimer: India Water Review does not take any responsibility for the views expressed in the article. The article published also does not in anyway reflect the opinion of India Water Review.)


The successes in Greece and Indonesia demonstrate civil society wants to keep water in public hands. And yet the World Bank continues its dogmatic promotion of privatization.