India’s Disappearing Common Lands: Fuzzy Boundaries, Encroachment, and Evolving Property Rights

Elizabeth J. Z. Robinson


Opportunistic land encroachment occurs in many low-income countries, gradually yet pervasively, until discrete areas of common land disappear. This paper, motivated by field observations in Karnataka, India, demonstrates that such an evolution of property rights from common to private may be efficient when the boundaries between common and private land are poorly defined, or “fuzzy.” Using a multi-period optimization model, and introducing the concept of stock and flow enforcement, I show how effectiveness of enforcement effort, whether encroachment is reversible, and punitive fines, influence whether an area of common land is fully defined and protected or gradually or rapidly encroached. (JEL C61, K42, Q24)

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