Winter Institute 2017-18: From the Governing of Commons to the Commoning of Governance

By Ratoola Kundu

Photograph by Abhishek Anil

The commons is any shared resource or domain, which though not owned by any private person or group, may be used by everyone involved in it, even for private benefit, as long as such use does not exclude others’ ability to do exactly that. Commons don’t exist ready-made. They have to be produced. Commons are thus produced through collective practices of “commoning” through variable local arrangements that are more or less equalitarian, incorporative, and fair (Gidwani and Baviskar 2011).

Increasingly however urban commons and the communities they sustain (both civic and ecological) are under immense threat from the neoliberal state and market. The expropriation of commons can be particularly devastating for the urban poor in cities (Gidwani and Baviskar 2011). Not only are these spaces/resources being rezoned, enclosed, privatised, or are being re-regulated and put under new regimes of control that exclude certain groups from accessing or using these commons, but the work or labour of those who are involved in making the commons through a complex, creative and contentious collective process of making rules, practices of negotiating, governing – is being swiftly undermined and erased, thus threatening principles of collective action and ways of “doing” democracy.

Through this Winter Institute, we sought to examine whether the process of commoning can be extended to the domain of governance. Can we move from a mode in which somebody governs and another is governed, to one in which the domain of governance is co-produced, co-maintained and co-transformed? More particularly, what happens when one takes this idea to the governance of the street, and seeks a mode in which it is produced as a commons through a production of the governance domain itself as a commons – moving from governing of commons to the idea of commoning the governance? What kind of a social space, and what kind of social process are we moving towards then? These are the orienting questions for the pedagogical project of the winter institute. 

The street is not a commons legally. But it is turned into one through appropriation, claims, negotiations, contestations and everyday patterns of use. However, the idea of an urban street as commons where multiple uses and users jostle for space, where informal codes, contingent alliances and governing arrangements have evolved historically out of an animated negotiation and decisions by multiple stakeholders, is under deep threat especially in the context of rapidly changing mobility patterns in cities giving way to a preference to assign the use of the street to the simple and single function of the unobstructed flow of motorised vehicles. This has had devastating impacts on the lives and livelihoods of the urban poor particularly the street vendors who depend upon the streets for their livelihoods.

While the Street Vendors Act 2014 seeks to enhance, facilitate and include street vendors in the decision making processes around the promotion and regulation of street vending in cities through the democratically constituted Town Vending Committees, and protect vendors from evictions, the ways in which cities and streets are being reconfigured through Smart Cities Missions that deliberately bypass local informal arrangements of governing streets, creating great distress to the poor who have far fewer channels of voicing their needs that the more vocal residents welfare associations of the wealthier sections have access to.


This Winter Institute was a ten day exercise by the students and faculty of the Centre for Urban Policy and Governance, TISS, Mumbai in collaboration with CEE, Pune which thus sought to develop a critical understanding of how urban streets are perceived and used by multiple stakeholders through formal and informal mechanisms of governance (codes, rules, regulations and practices) and to indicate spaces and mechanisms that support “commoning of governance” of the street – i.e., spaces/mechanisms/institutions that enable collaboration, facilitate sharing and cooperation for collective action to co-manage and co-create the street as urban commons. The exercise took place in the residential cum commercial Aundh-Baner-Balewadi area in Pune where the idea a of world class city is being pushed through a slew of physical infrastructure projects that seek to reconfigure the space of the streets and allocation of space and uses of streets as part of the area based proposal of the Smart City Mission in the city. In 2016, a Special Purpose Vehicle – the Pune Smart City Development Corporation Limited was formed to implement the Mission in Pune. New guidelines for street re-design for the city came into being at this point building upon a certain conception of “Whole Streets” which does not fully specify whether street vendors are included in this vision of whole streets and if so, how. However, around the same time, Pune has also proactively formed a Town Vending Committee to protect the livelihoods of street vendors and open up a space to foster mechanisms and dialogues amongst various stakeholders, including the vendors themselves. Given these contradictory forces that push and pull at street vendors, this exercise was conducted to deliberate upon potential spaces of overlap, or mechanisms and practices that will enable negotiation, mediation, cooperation and collaboration across different stakeholders with respect to governing the street, with vendors at the centre of that decision making arrangement?

The following blog post series by the students of the Masters in Urban Policy and Governance program at TISS Mumbai is based on this exercise and their reflections upon specific facets that engaged them. The Winter Institute is a full-fledged 3 credit Course in the academic calendar of the Masters in Urban Policy and Governance program of the School of Habitat Studies conducted in the first year. It is conceived as a platform for interdisciplinary collaborative learning through research and action in the field. It is a continuous module of approximately 2 weeks duration, involving immersion in a community and location. Students and faculty are engaged in a research on a well-defined thematic for a period of approximately two weeks. During each Winter Institute students (and all other participants) are trained in a research method or skills that are outside the core curriculum of the UPG program. It is expected that students learn to analyse and understand issues, as well as develop possibilities of strategic response to them, as they are studied in the field. Students typically work in mixed groups on contemporary issues identified by collaborators on the field, guided by one or more faculty members, and their output is designed to be of direct use to the host community and local collaborating organization.  



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