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Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry and medicine are recognition of specialised achievements. Peers seldom challenge awardees. In literature, zeitgeist affects the decision of the committee. In the wake of 9/11 and rising Islamophobia, V.S.Naipaul's controversial Among the Believers was a clear winner.

The fear of belligerent China and resurgent Russia is the flavour of the season in the West this year. So the literature prize has gone to Romanian-German novelist Herta Muller, who endured Ceausescu's communist rule.

The Peace Prize is pure politics. From Henry Kissinger to Menachem Begin, all kinds of controversial personalities have received it in the past. This year, the committee decided to reward America's first black president just for being a breath of fresh air compared to his predecessor.

Almost as controversial has been this year's Nobel for economics. Unlike in physics, chemistry and medicine (or even literature and politics), it's difficult to measure contributions economists make to the well-being of humanity. For years, free-market fundamentalists dominated the winners' list.

Mavericks like Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman have been chosen to correct the longstanding market bias. But apparently, the Nobel Committee needed to send an even stronger message after the sub-prime crisis that led to the global recession. So for the first time in the history of the economics prize it is a woman who has received it, for her research into resource management outside the market.

Professor Elinor Ostrom teaches political science at Indiana University and was recognised for her "analysis of economic governance, especially the commons". Based on her fieldwork, Ostrom claims that locally managed traditional irrigation systems in Nepal have successfully allocated water between users for a long time. Whether that falls under economics or the management discipline is for professionals to decide. But the politics of this position deserves some attention.

Nepal had a functioning system of community engagement that allowed cooperation in building and maintaining local irrigation systems. In the central Tarai, for example, villagers built earthen dams on perennial rivers at least twice a year to irrigate paddy seedlings and wheat during May-June and Jan-Feb. The water was then channelled through an intricate web of dora (flow channels) to paini (field channels) and pokhari (reservoir). The same infrastructure was later used to drain out floods during the monsoon.

In the Naya Muluk region of Kanchanpur, Kailali, Bardia and Banke districts, a similar system was replicated with series of state-managed Rajkulo and locally maintained field channels. The Kathmandu Valley already had functioning irrigation canals dating back centuries.

All such indigenous systems began to fall into disuse when King Mahendra started dispensing political favours in the form of land grants. Doras and pokharis became the private property of influential local politicos. Dry painis were encroached upon and turned into rice fields. Rajkulos were filled up to make roads. Deep and shallow tubewells soon became the favourite modes of irrigating fields. The government almost destroyed the entire community-led irrigation infrastructure within a decade.

When the 'project approach' of delivering water into farmer's fields failed to have the desired impact, consultants came up with the idea of user committees and consumer groups to implement and maintain minor irrigation systems. Introduced in the late eighties under the aegis of multilateral donor agencies, such an approach has transformed the community cooperation of the past into market relationships.

In the name of community management and sustainability of projects, a monetary value has been put upon the contributions of locals. Water is priced with user fees. The government has cleverly abdicated its responsibilities of providing basic services, raising taxes, and administering justice. Since donors fund impact studies, it hardly ever gets mentioned in policy papers that community-administered development projects constitute privatisation of essential services through the back door.

It was first the might of government that was used to destroy the network of autonomous grassroots initiatives. Now the community is being set up to discredit the government. The market will then reign supreme. Subsistence farming will be easier to replace with commercial farms.

The Nobel hoopla over locally managed economic governance notwithstanding, the overarching role of central and provincial government is necessary to keep the commons for commoners.

Demonstrating democracy, Editorial - FROM ISSUE #473 (23 OCT 2009 - 29 OCT 2009)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)