Monday, May 27, 2013

The Tragedy of the Sacrareligious Commons

I used to teach that Hardin's "tragedy of the commons" (the over-consumption of scarce resources under conditions of non-property/open-access) could be averted by a number of institutional devices, including not only the conventional methods of private ownership/markets, government regulation, and common-property management, but also by strong social or religious norms against resource abuse. I used the example of cattle, which are not in danger of becoming extinct in either the US or in India, but for very different reasons.

In the US, cattle are protected by the combination of private ownership and markets; the profitability of privately-owned cattle ensures their survival as a species into the conceivable future. As long as Americans demand cattle-related products and private ownership of livestock is guaranteed, the risk that cattle might become extinct remains trivially low.

In India, cattle are protected not by private ownership and market demand, but by religious sanction the cow is a sacred animal which may not be harmed, including by eating. Hindus do not eat beef. Mahatma Gandhi reportedly referred to protection of the cow as the most important outwatd manifestation of Hinduism. It is a common sight to see unowned cows roaming freely around India, including in cities - an estimated 40,000 cows populate Dehli - where they block traffic and tip over garbage cans (not to mention creating a huge waste problem of their own) (see here). Despite the problems they cause, under the strong religious sanctions of Hinduism unowned cattle in India are as ensured of continued existence as their cousins in the US, which are protected by the combination of property rights and markets.

But all this may be changing. Hinduism doctrine is losing its hold on at least some segments of the Indian population. Consequently, the rate of beef consumption is rising, and lack of property rights in free-roaming cattle has given rise to a market in cattle-rustling. According to a story in today's  Times of India (here), cow "theft" (really, illegal appropriation of unownable cows), and killing of cows, which is illegal under state law in most of India, are on the rise. Gangs of wranglers are rounding up free-roaming cows, and selling them for meat and leather. The economics are simple:
Typically, the rustlers creep into the city at night. When the criminals spot stray cattle and few onlookers they stop the truck, push out a ramp and use a rope to lead the cow to its doom.
The thieves can usually fit about 10 cows on a truck, and each fetches 5,000 rupees — about $94. In a country where more than 800 million people live on less than $2 a day, a single night's haul of more than $900 represents serious temptation.
Meanwhile, an estimated 3000 illegal beef slaughterhouses have sprung up around India to process the increased supply of beef.

Do changing mores in India portend a "tragedy" of the cattle-commons? What kind of institutional changes might be required to prevent that from happening? And would such changes, possibly including privatization of cattle, accelerate the erosion of religious norms that have protected cattle for millenia? These are all deeply interesting questions. At the very least, they will force me to add some dynamic complexity to the simple story I have been teaching about the sustainability of cattle in India and the US.

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