In Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Katherine Boo, writes, “Rich Indians typically tried to work around a dysfunctional government. Private security was hired, city water was filtered, private school tuitions were paid. Such choices had evolved over the years into a principle: The best government is the one that gets out of the way. . . .While independent India had been founded by high-born well-educated men, by the 21st century few such types stood for elections or voted in them, since the wealthy had extra-democratic means of securing their social and economic interests. Across India, the poor people were the ones who took the vote seriously. It was the only real power they had" (pp 216-7). But in Boo’s portrait of the lives of the poor, living in a fetid slum by Mumbai’s gleaming airport, the vote brings no secure power. It brings promises and celebrations at election time; it offers the possibility of individual access to the system through the corrupt political machines that exchange petty patronage for loyalty and eschew any change that might undermine their inconsequential power. The real power lies with the police, courts and government bureaucracy that set the poor against each other and supply “justice” for bribes.
The privatization of public space extends across the economic spectrum in India, just as it does in the rest of a world increasingly characterized by gated communities, private security guards, the dismantling of public education, the shredding of the social safety net, and proxy armies fighting off-budget wars.
The solution to the tragedy of the commons is not to privatize it, as Garrett Hardin suggested in his 1968 essay. It is to reclaim it for the common good.