The Responsibility of Ownership


Shiva demands nothing and is responsible for everything


As the election season heats up with complete bakwas being bandied about, something more substantial is occurring thanks to the weather gods.  Its raining regularly, almost every second day in Delhi, and much more frequently in many parts of north India.  Western India has already seen large scale destruction of crops thanks to unseasonal rains in February and early March.

There is no doubt that some level of climate change is occurring.  The extreme events for both temperature and rainfall are getting more frequent, which to me means that the underlying distribution has changed or is changing.  This by the way could be due to many reasons though man made causes seem more likely.  Whatever be the case, since we are nowhere close to reversing this, we might as well figure out how to deal with it.

Of all the countries of the world, India will have the greatest difficulty in dealing with climate change.  Why?  Because climate change responses will necessitate re-allocation of land across different types of uses.  But ownership of land is quite fuzzy in India, trade in land is difficult, and state takeover is most difficult and expensive.  Left to status quo we will keep on arguing about the problem – with no end.

I would define the currently dominant western notion of ownership as the freedom of the owner do whatever he wants to do with what he owns.  He can sell it, he can hold it for eternity, he can improve it, he can destroy it.  He can do anything with it, and its no ones business to tell him otherwise, or take it away from him.  Ownership in the western notion is therefore an inviolable right.

Variants of this concept have then been used by economists to show that without the right to property markets cannot work well.  But what is it about ownership of property that allows production and trade?  Production and trade far predate the concept of ownership, though I do think ownership is important, I am not sure which element of ownership is crucial.

Let me illustrate.  The press-waala in front of my house does not own the land that his shack is built on.  But his right to use it is universally accepted in our neighborhood.  Even the police do not question that right.  This informal right gives the press-waala the confidence to carry on his trade without fear. And it also allows him the flexibility to make some improvements in his living space (cleans the area around his shack, trims the tree above his head, keeps a small place for the street-dog who sleeps at night under his shack, etc.).  Purists would call the shack as illegal occupation, but even they would not be able to deny the great consumer and producer surplus being generated by such an informal property right.

In other words, more important than the right to own, is the right to *use* that property.  The left wing economists (who I find to be the least appreciative of any kind of nuances) believe that removing the concept of ownership and putting it all under state control is the answer. The right wing economists believe that giving more and more property rights to individuals is the answer.  I think the concept of ownership is overrated by both.  Because ownership is only a right, it has no responsibilities attached to it.

To illustrate, take the traditional notion of property in India.  The woman for instance, was considered to be the caretaker of her jewelry.  She could use it but it was her duty to pass it on to succeeding generations.  She was only carrying on her parampara – each generation being nothing but a caretaker.  Similar concepts also held in the case of land.  And therefore traditionally gold was rarely sold, and only in very extreme circumstances, similarly land markets were also very thin. This was not because the person using it is not progressive, it’s just that for him it is not his to sell, he is just a caretaker.

The caretaker concept also has an element of responsibility that accompanies the right to use it.  I am responsible for it and so I have to pass it on.  I must say I like this combination of right (to use) and responsibility (to improve and pass on) that is associated with ownership.  However I do not like the association of caretaker with holding on.  To illustrate, I am a caretaker of my children, that does not mean I hold on to them – I let them go towards their own path where they can live life to its optimum.  Similarly, land transfer needs to be seen as a responsibility of this generation towards the next – if higher value can be generated in some other use then it should be ok to sell or transfer the land.  Hope some religious leader speaks up on this.

Reverting to our problem of climate change, we need to build scores of surface water bodies, canals, convert agriculture to various non-agricultural uses, move farmers away from low lying deltas, use desert areas more, etc. We also need to put in water harvesting mechanisms, large fields of windmills and solar farms, etc. etc. It is the duty of the landholder to share that land with the buyer – who can then build something that has higher value added.




2 thoughts on “The Responsibility of Ownership

  1. “Hope some religious leader speaks up on this.”

    Thrilled to read your thoughts on this matter. Consider me a new fan. 🙂 but you left me wondering where that above line came from…?

    I guess it’s based on the notion that nothing else might work as well in case of India? Or is there something else that I totally missed?


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