Reality Check India

Tragedy of the commons in midst of power crisis

Posted in Uncategorized by realitycheck on March 14, 2012

Found a wonderful real life example of the tragedy of commons I want to share.

I visited a relative who lives in an apartment complex in the southern outskirts of Chennai.  His complex is subject to two hours of power cut between 4PM and 6PM everyday – as bad as that is, he was happy that just 5Km further south of him the city limits ended and power cuts were up to 6-8 hrs a day.  The bigger problem with the apartment residents was the voltage. The fluctuations were really bad from the time the power came back on at 6PM to about 11PM.  This was traced to the use of air conditioners. To overcome the voltage hurdle some of them had installed “double boosters” – two back to back step-up transformers. This caused even more voltage fluctuations leading my relative to claim that he suspected some flats were using “triple boosters” now. I dont know if such a thing even exists.  The end result was this competitiveness helped no one as the voltage fluctuated to such a level that no booster helped and even normal household appliances like microwaves and refrigerators and computers struggled.

Now the apartment complex has a active association filled with retired busybodies like my relative who have drafted complex by-laws that rivals the Indian constitution.  The voltage problem was crying for their help and they turned their attention to it. The path was clear – all people had to do was to shun the use of air conditioners till about 11PM – when the incoming voltage improved on its own.  Everyone would be better off and be able to use all their appliances. So a diktat was passed down to that effect. No air conditioners from 6-11PM.  How did this pan out ?

It worked for a first few days.  The voltage situation improved dramatically and the resulted in a net improvement in living conditions for all. But soon some realized that the voltage now was good enough turn their airconditioners on.  A few did and it had no noticeable impact on overall voltage.  They were ignored by the association perhaps because turning on one or two airconditioners probably didnt impact voltage much- not sure what happened.  So now just a couple were enjoying the fruits of a collective effort.  Slowly others too started turning their air conditioners on until the magical point was reached where the overall voltage situation was back to miserable.


This was the best example I have seen of the tragedy of the commons.  It actually quantifies the fruits of co-operation and its subsequent destruction.  If anyone is interested you can check out the videos of Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom who is the current leading expert on this issue. Also check out these links I blogged about earlier.


What are the ways the apartment complex could have dealt with it ?

  1. Socially ostracize free riders ? What if they dont care about socalizing ?
  2. Have a police wing ? What are the checks against abuse by them  ? Who would join this force ?

Food for thought.



7 Responses

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  1. Manoj Agarwal said, on March 14, 2012 at 5:04 am

    Naive Solution: Have two phase power supply. Have a separate power line to each apartment for ACs. ACs anyway have a separate power line in most buildings. If they don’t, have it installed. Switch-off the supply between 6-11PM for entire building on power line.

    If possible refine the solution, to have n-way split so that 1/n of the building is supplied power for 5/n hours.

    If n=2, i.e., building can take load of 1/2 the ACS in the building, each half will have have the power supply for 5/2 hours etc-2.

  2. Alan Smithee said, on March 14, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    I am surprised that the apartment does not have multiple phases. Dump all ACs into one phase.

    • realitycheck said, on March 14, 2012 at 3:41 pm

      Is this possible ? Every apt has their own independent 3 phase supply with phase changers and what not.

      • Manoj Agarwal said, on March 15, 2012 at 8:12 am

        If they are getting affected by each others power consumption, there must exist a common point from where the bifurcation happens. An arrangement to regulate the power can be done at that point. Further, that common point must exist within the Complex (again due to same logic).

        If they are completely independent from each other, they cannot get affected by each others’ power consumption. Period.

  3. hk said, on March 15, 2012 at 7:08 am

    ask the electricity board to set right the problem..ask them to tap little higher setting in the transformer.

  4. K V Sarma J said, on March 17, 2012 at 4:48 am

    Interesting. There is a similar story from Tenali Rama Krishnudu’s life. One day Sri Krishna Devaraya in his court asked his ministers “how is my kingdom doing?”. His ministers one after the other split infinitives (not literally) and explained that people are so happy they are ready to help anybody at any time (like typical liberal ministers). Tenali Rama Krishnudu said “all this is hogwash, your people are just as selfish as anybody else.”. Sri Krishna Devaraya asked him to prove it to him. Tenali told him to order a milk procurement programme. It was then decided that a notice will be issued to all people in Vijayanagara – “By the order of the king, to bridge the deficit of milk required within the palace premises, every house will provide one part of their milk produce to the king. Drums will be kept in your street corners, where you will leave your milk”. So that night, empty drums were kept in all streets. The next morning, when all drums were taken to palace, it was seen that there is only water. Sri Krishna Devaraya was enraged. Tenali then explained – “hoping that everyone else will provide milk, every house poured water into the drum. Therefore king, you should understand that no hard working individual would like to part from his produce. To assume that in good times, they will if King asks him, is just like day-dreaming”.

    I think the apartment complex would have realized that “human thinking and our priorities havent changed much”. We will always assume that others will do good job and we can slack off. This is the major lesson for any society which breeds the culture of slacking off. We saw an ugly side of this in London recently.

    As for the problems faced by apartment complex, there is one solution I guess – “Find the threshold of how many ACs really can be used and make a schedule plan that only so and so houses will get to use AC before 11 PM on a given day.”

    Offenders, nothing really much you can do IMO. Of course, solving the electricity issue at state level can work but what are the chances that happens? 😀

  5. K V Sarma J said, on April 25, 2012 at 9:42 am

    I couldnt help but think of this post when I read the following news piece in the morning:

    The Kerala Electricity Board’s former member is clearly another case fitting perfectly with the ignorant court ministers of Sri Krsihna Deva Raya. Going by good-hearted-ness and kindness, let us say the State applies the rule “everybody will power off their fridges for 3 hours every day and to check that every one is doing this, one veteran Communist leader will go to every house and check”.

    First there will be many people who follow. Slowly, people will find ways to subvert the rule. Some will even offer bribe to the veteran communist officer. Now, why will people violate such a well meaning rule? People who would never even think of doing harm to anybody!

    Rules are good.
    Rules are justified.
    Rules will be followed.
    But the most important clause for these three statements to hold are :
    1. Rules dont make your life difficult
    2. Rules are reasonable
    3. Rules dont put anybody at a disadvantage compared to the others.

    Even if one clause is violated, all the above three statements fail. The debate then centers on making it easy to follow rules, making rules reasonable and making rules put nobody at a disadvantage compared to the others. This is the reason why suddenly when online electricity bill payment came in, late payments and no-payment cases came down. As far as these three conditions are met, nobody would mind having a dictator as the country head. Only when these clauses are violated, you will see a lot of unrest, like the apartment residents!

    There are many examples which show that rules we have in our system of governance fail one, two or all of the clauses above. Take construction rules for instance. Let us hypothetically assume that you should, by your city rules, leave 5 ft in the front side, 5 ft on both sides and 10 ft at the back of a residential building that is above 20 feet high. This rule actually varies across cities. But let us assume this the applicable rule.

    If the plot were to be a 30×40 plot, what are you left with to build a decent house? Clearly this rule fails the tests 1 and 3, even if we say that rules are reasonable (from pov of access to fire engine etc.). People will violate this rule. People will be ready to even pay “sakrama tax (penalty for violating this rule)” – as they call it in Karnataka.

    That went well off the topic. But yeah, my point is this: you have to meet the demands and you cannot use rules to make people fall in line. This is where research and academia have a huge role to play. But then, “not in my country dude …. not in my country!”

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