Tragedy of the commons: How Smart Streets favor the elite

By Shaonlee Patranabis

For ten days in October, 2017, a group of students combed the streets of Aundh, Pune, looking for forms of governance. I found it (rather, I had hoped to find it) in the commoning of the street. This short note is an eulogy to the commons that the street could be.

On the street, various facets of governance combine to form an absolute superstructure. Just as the society is a superstructure formed as a more tangible expression of the economic base, the street is a more tangible expression of the governance dynamics of the society. Keeping that in mind, it becomes imperative that the street be looked at critically, especially, each of the nine streets in Aundh, given they are a part of an area level project by a city that claims, “A smart city constantly adapts its strategies incorporating views of its citizens to bring maximum benefit for all.”[1]

The democratic process tests the patience of a majority of the people, most of whom want quick-fixes to increasingly complex issues. The rhetoric of the Smart City project, with its focus on small projects and implementation over planning is a brainchild of such a point of view. The implementation of the Smart City projects has been handed over to a distinctively private body- the Pune Smart City Development Corporation Ltd. (PSDCL), a special purpose vehicle accountable to a board which consists of only six elected members out of a total 16. It is a shadow of the engagement process promised.

The Governing Board of the Pune Smart City Development Corporation Ltd. Note that only the first six members of the body are necessarily elcted representatives [2]
As a representative from the Pune Smart City Development Corporation Ltd. informed a team interviewing him, the Smart City Corporation “is a project specific implementation body”. It neither looks to transform the infrastructure of the entire city at its core, nor is it currently empowered to formulate and implement policies of its own at the moment. During the students’ interaction with the CEO of the Pune Smart City Development Corporation Ltd., he mentioned that, “soon the PSCDL will become a municipal corporation for the Aundh area, removing the hurdles of implementation that the General Body proposes”. Thus, it is imperative to find out what does the smart city look like for the PSCDCL.

The stretch from Bremen Chowk to Parihar Chowk has been developed as the pilot for the smart streets project, with features such as multi utility zones, (faulty) disabled friendly tracks, sculptures made out of waste, wide footpaths etc. During the negotiations for the same, as the president of the shopkeeper’s association informed us (an executive from the PMC corroborated), the street was declared to be a “no hawking zone”. This was a condition that the PMC accepted as well as the PSCDCL obliged, shows the administration’s attitudes towards the vendors.

While the pilot street sports statues of fun and frolic, the real balloon seller is unwelcome.


The city of Pune still does not have a Street Vendor’s policy[3] and the PMC routinely terrorises hawkers and vendors along the nine Streets[4]. My colleagues will cover this in greater detail. The point is, there is little protection provided by the law to the street vendors in Pune, in spite of a central law that assures the same. [5] (Ironically, during our visit to the PSDCL office, a copy of the act was lying on the coffee table)

The treatment of the hawker as an external entity who is not a stakeholder of the street is therefore, no surprise. In the eyes of both the PSCDCL and the residents, a stakeholder is one who pays for the good. Which immediately excludes anyone too poor to pay the taxes. The people of the Ambedkar Vasahat, a slum, are deemed to be a nuisance, so are the hawkers and street vendors.

This act of excluding peoples from the usage of a service or jointly owned resource creates what is known as a “club good”. Like a swimming pool or a golf course, the utility derived from the club good is enhanced due to its exclusivity. In a street, the utility of the space as a public common is arguably increased by the presence of members like hawkers, yet the negotiators of the formation of the club of the street have acted otherwise.

Forgive me reader, if I diverge into the semantics here, but I found it intriguing to see a public utility be treated as a club good. It is understood that the utilities are services that a government must provide and the poor have a right to as much as the rich. It is the duty of a welfare state as well as the responsibility of the better off parts of the society to help alleviate poverty by providing requisite infrastructure to facilitate the betterment of life and maintenance of livelihoods. Thus, a utility is jointly owned for all uses and purposes. It is a Public Good- non-excludable and non-rivalrous.

A debate around the usage of goods that people jointly own has raged on for a while now. While certain proponents hail the State as a provider of such goods, others seek to depend upon the market.

Table 1 Categorising Goods


Excludable[6] Non-Excludable
Rivalrous[7] Private Good eg. A pencil, a piece of jewellery, an apple. Common Property Resource eg. Fish in a pond, grass on a meadow
Non- Rivalrous Club Good eg. The services of a spa, golf clubs, paid subscriptions etc. Public Good eg. National Defence

The classical view of the commons that looks for the intervention of either the state or the market is built out of fear of overuse. Hardin in his 1968[8] paper highlighted this issue as the “tragedy of commons”- entrenched in a very pessimistic view of humanity. The tragedy of the commons happens because humans are incapable of looking beyond one’s selfish interest during the process of decision making. It is now proven, via the work of Elinor Ostrom[9] and her ilk that this is not the real picture.

It is important to note why Hardin’s tragedy occurs and Ostrom’s communities succeed in the management of their common property resources. The root lies in the establishment of a sense of ownership of the resource along with the building of trust within the community that owns the resource. There are no commons without the commoning of responsibility, norms and ownership. The herder on Hardin’s commons does not feel like he/she owns the commons. Ostrom’s user knows that the common is his/her to take responsibility for. In an ideal world, there would be no difference in public property and government property.

The “public” is Hardin’s monster and the PSCDCL is desperately trying to escape this tragedy of the commons – yet a concentrated effort to engage the public in an act of commoning is missing.

On the other hand, the street is also a contested space. The contradiction between the use and the design of the street has led to a conflict between two groups who should have a natural alliance given space – the pedestrians and the hawkers. This conflict has trickled down even into a newly constructed space where both can co-exist.

A coconut vendor on the DP Road told us “Yeh toh Udyog City hai” (this is an Industry-City) or this city is in itself an industry- something to make money out of. On the street, none of the vendors, residents of the Vasahat or the informal workers felt that the 9 Streets project was built for them, instead they looked upon it in fear. Just as the vendors on the stretch from Bremen Chowk to Parihar Chowk were ousted, they fear that they will be treated the same. The animosity towards the “bangle wale” or the people who live in big houses was clear. The aloofness of the middle-class residents was also evident, one of who clearly stated “I do not care about their livelihood” proving that the fears of the people who used the street to earn their livelihood was not misplaced. The othering of the members of the club and the non-members was complete.

While the utility of the street has the potential to be a common for the good of the entire community, it has become a contested space. The Smart City and PMC’s lack of identification and acknowledgement of the underprivileged as stakeholders are only making it worse. Who is the street for? Are we okay with the streets becoming elite club like spaces? Are the underprivileged stakeholders or mere beneficiaries of infrastructure? Can an aloof populace be worthy of a democracy? Can an outcome oriented body be trusted to upkeep the democratic process?

The questions that the 9 Streets have raised are numerous and complex. Common Governance of the street will remain elusive as long as these are not engaged with.


[1] Annexure 1, Point 1


[3] This was corroborated by a PMC official.

[4]   Insights from a Mini Public Workshop for the residents of Aundh, Pune, organised on October 17, 2017, by TISS, Mumbai, and Centre for Environmental Education (CEE), Pune.


[6] Excludable: In economics, a good or service is called excludable if it is possible to prevent people (consumers) who have not paid for it from having access to it. By comparison, a good or service is non-excludable if non-paying consumers cannot be prevented from accessing it.

[7] Rivalrous: In economics, a good is said to be rivalrous or rival if its consumption by one consumer prevents simultaneous consumption by other consumers, or if consumption by one party reduces utility/ability to use to another.

[8] Hardin, G. (2009). The Tragedy of the Commons∗. Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research, 1(3), 243-253.

[9] Ostrom, E. (2015). Governing the commons. Cambridge university press.

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. The blog series showcases the work, reflections and opinions of the students, and not the Centre.

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