Home > Voices from the Grassroots > The ‘value’ of choice and the freedom to choose

The ‘value’ of choice and the freedom to choose

June 30, 2010

This incident occurred many years ago. A very sensitive and humane officer, Mr.Subbaraya Kamath was worried about the consequences of the displacement that was being planned by the Forest Department in Sunkadakatte forests in the Nagarahole National Park. He along with Vijay Lal Meena, the then officer-in-charge of the park were to meet with the tribals living in the forests and discuss the potential consequences of shifting or not shifting them out of the forests. He had requested that someone from SVYM be with them when they engaged in these difficult and tense conversations with the tribal community. Poshini, who heads the Community Development Services of SVYM was the ideal choice. She was not only conversant with the issue, but had a unique and one-to-one relationship with most of the tribals in H.D.Kote taluk. Moreover, she was very sensitive to the aspirations and needs of the tribals and would make sure that the tribals found an empowered voice in these negotiations.

The discussions started with the usual ‘business like’ approach that the Government officials are comfortable with. Poshini had to repeatedly intervene to remind them that they were here to listen to the people rather than merely tell them what needed to be done. She was getting uncomfortable that the tenor of the discussions was getting prescriptive and she requested Kamath to first explore what the people’s feelings and fears were. Slowly the mood and environment changed and the officials became more comfortable with trying to understand what the people were saying. They started to realize that there was a huge gap between what they had perceived and what the grassroot reality was. People and their interpretation of poverty and their problems were so different from the traditional government understanding of the same. These people did not interpret poverty as living with less than 1 or 2 $ a day. Nor did they see development coming thru as a Government intervention to augment their daily income alone. It was indeed a great lesson to be learnt for any sensitive and curious person. But then, there are indeed very few within the system that are sensitive enough to pick these signals and even lesser who are patient and humble enough to listen to these voices from the grassroots and still fewer who actually act on them.

What remains in my memory is what transpired a little later. Mr.Meena was trying to comprehend what the needs of these simple people were and how the department could help meet them. As he went around asking people this question, an elderly lady of more than 70 years, in her own simplistic way wanted to know whether she would get her daily requirement of dry firewood if she moved and settled outside the national park! The officials were surprised at this small and insignificant (in their view) demand. Poshini also felt crestfallen that this lady had to ask for only this.

The tribals of H.D.Kote

As I sit back and think about this incident, i feel that this question is filled with meaning. I remember the views of Amartya Sen in his book ‘Development as Freedom’ wherein he talks about people having the freedom to choose what they value. The question that this elderly tribal woman asked is so pregnant with meaning and the answer would be challenging in more ways than one. How could a Government that only understands development in mere economic and measurable terms be able to interpret and deliver to this ‘voiceless’ citizen? How would development experts be able to integrate social, cultural, political, and other basic rights into their frameworks? How will anyone understand that ‘development’ goes beyond looking at mere utilitarian and libertarian issues? What place will ‘personal freedom’ and ‘choice’ have in the various schemes that the Government planners conceive of? Will the voice of wisdom from this inconspicuous tribal hamlet in a geographically challenged setting find any place at all in the way the government thinks of displacement and development? How could anyone amortize and measure the ‘value’ of dry firewood being available each day for this tribal woman whose life revolves around the forest and what it provides? Could we even conceive this concept so well propounded by Sen and factor it in the different development programs that socially conscious Governments and well-meaning NGOs conceive and implement?


  1. Arun Karpur
    July 10, 2010 at 7:48 pm


    You have captured the core issue of the development process. I give a similar analogy from the field of disability and rehabilitation. As you are already aware, the Americans with Disability Act in United States is a core reform that promulgates non-discrimination at work place and encourages equal participation in society for people with disabilities. Without much clarity of equal participation most economists leaned on employment as a tangible indicator of equal participation. Over years the policy makers, due to sustained pressure from the advocacy groups and social-behavior scientists, realized that the narrow definition of economic participation was useless and people with disabilities wanted something totally different – an ability and opportunity to function as individuals (not as someone who lacked something). This included their daily living needs of being able to go to community parks and recreation, being involved in societal relationships of marriage, love, and friendship, and access to quality health care.

    Sen’s capability approach – that you reference in your narrative – is what brought researchers out of their narrow thinking and seeing life at large. This inspired World Health Organization to conceptualize disability as not only a lack of one’s ability to perform activities in comparison to their peers, but also understand the disability construct as a societal reaction to one’s condition and how social or environmental barriers further dis-empowered persons with disabilities.

    What you describe must be the essence of every development work, be it by government or non-government agency. This also highlights the poverty of thought in the academic fraternity which traditionally establishes these norms and benchmarks for measuring success of development programs. SVYM’s journey is an opportunity for academicians and policymakers to do right things for people and group quarters they work for.

    No matter how attractive Sen’s theories and postulates are for development, it is the experiences such as yours, Poshini’s, and others at organizations such as SVYM’s that will help articulating how these proposed theories operationalize in real-life situation. Described in your post is a wonderful anecdote – the development community can learn much from these experiences.


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