21 Feb 2017 21:34 IST

The tragedy of our big cities

Bellandur lake in Bengaluru on fire.   -  V Sreenivasa Murthy

Commons are finite and limited, and using them indiscriminately and selfishly brings ruin to all

On February 20, the BusinessLine daily poll asked a simple question: Is unplanned urbanisation destroying Bengaluru?

While the poll is not scientific, the response was overwhelmingly in line with what any reasonable Bengaluru lover would have expected: 96 per cent of the respondents said “Yes” with only 1 per cent saying “No”.

What is remarkable is that this tragedy afflicting our major metros was predicted by a brilliant ethicist, Garret Hardin, nearly 50 years ago. In his 1968 essay The Tragedy of the Commons, Hardin examined what happens when humans do not limit their actions by considering surrounding land as part of their ethics. He proposed his theory by looking at how a group of cattle herders manage land surrounding them. Because the land is common to all herders, he concluded that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible “on the commons”, acting on his natural instinct to maximise gain.

Maximising gains

Suppose a herdsman decides to increase the number of his herd by one. The common land comes at no cost to him but the extra cow grazes freely on the land, becoming a mature animal which the herdsman sells to a buyer. The herdsman gets all the profits from the sale of the extra cow and the positive utility is therefore nearly +1.

What about the cost of his decision to add the extra cow? The commons got overgrazed by the additional cow, but the cost of overgrazing is shared by all the herdsmen. The negative utility to him is therefore not -1, but a very small fraction of -1. This motivates the herdsman to add a second cow, and a third, then a fourth... At the same time, other herdsmen are adding to their own cattle counts because they see how the first herdsman benefited by his decision to add the first extra cow. So each man is locked into a system that incentivises him to increase his herd, without limit, all to graze on land that is finite and limited.

This, Hardin said, is the “tragedy of the commons”. All men rush to ruin because each person pursues his own best interest in a society that places little cost on the commons: such actions bring ruin to all.

No urban planning

Fifty years later, this is exactly what is happening in our metros. Without urban planning, each person, thinking only about their convenience, buys a new car and brings it to the road (commons). At first, the benefits are enormous. But as more and more people acquire cars and begin using them on city roads, Hardin’s scene of ruin is easy to see. The roads are finite and limited, and our freedom to use them can have disastrous consequences.

The same principle can be extended to housing. Today, heirs of single-family residences that occupied 120 x 90 plots have sold out to apartment builders who squeeze 36 families into a high-rise. This is extreme overgrazing — the kind that spells doom for the city’s health.


As I noted last year, Bengaluru’s population is unofficially estimated to be 108 lakh. In 1981, just 36 years ago, the Garden City already had a bustling population of 29 lakh (Census India). During this time, the city’s population has quadrupled! In four short years, between 2011 and 2015, Bengaluru grew at more than twice the rate it did over an entire decade between 1981 and 1991.

Hardin’s textbook theory of ruin is playing out every day in Bengaluru. Traffic commutes routinely take two hours each way and in the city, traffic crawls to a speed of 10 km/hour. A runner who runs a 10-minute mile can travel through the city faster than a car. This is a huge tragedy.

Increasing population

As one born and raised in Bengaluru, I love the city too much to see it being destroyed. But like the first herdsman, I am all talk and no action. Whenever I visit Bengaluru, I move around in taxis, with little regard to how my movement is adding to the city’s ruin. In my defence, I try using pooled taxis but my motivation is not all that philanthropic. It’s simply that pool service gets me a lower fare and a fair chance that no one else joins the ride, so I can have the taxi all to myself.

To make matters worse, India, along with countries such as Kenya and Egypt, has a demographic problem: a rapidly growing population. Birth rates continue to be high while death rates are falling rapidly because of advances in medicine and healthcare. Migration from the countryside to the major metros compounds the problem. More people means more housing is needed, which leads to greater sprawl. Bengaluru’s borders have enveloped townships such as Devanahalli, Bidadi and Krishnarajapuram which, until two decades ago, were considered destinations distinct and separate from Bengaluru.

How we decongest our metros (or not) in the coming years will decide major quality-of-life issues for the millions of residents who make these cities their home. The sad part is that there’s not a single soul who is doing anything about decompressing our metros; on the contrary, demands of economic growth are causing us to invite even more investment to Bengaluru. And job opportunities attract even more migrants to an already crumbling city.

As Hardin said, each person is only pursuing his own best interest, and freedom in the commons brings ruin to all. The BL poll didn’t quite use the word ruin, but destroy is a word that isn’t too far behind.

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