Development is such a complex process that experts have defined it in various ways. Some of these definitions are very narrow and uni-dimensional, while a few are more comprehensive. While some would like to view it from an economic lens, most people nowadays are veering around to looking at development from social, cultural, political and other dimensions affecting human life and progress. This encouraging trend needs to go beyond the confines of academia and research and get integrated into actual ground level development interventions. Unfortunately most of the programs of the Government and NGOs are focused exclusively on welfare rather than a wider understanding of ‘development’. Schemes are built around enabling people to cope with poverty rather than empowering them to exit from poverty.
Development needs to be empowering and undertaken in a manner that preserves the dignity of all the players. Development also needs to account for people who will need the extra hand of a safety net to ensure that they can begin their escape from poverty. These are people who are challenged not only by their social and economic circumstances, but also have relatively lower access to the provisions of these safety nets. It is for such people that ‘charity’ becomes the starting point leading to their subsequent development. It is at this stage that one can easily get into the trap of being sympathetic to their needs and thereby robbing them of their dignity and self-esteem by taking on the role of a ‘provider’.
More than a century ago Swami Vivekananda had said “Do not stand on a pedestal and say, here my poor man, take my 5 cents. You should rather feel privileged that the poor man allows you an opportunity of serving him.” He further said that it is always the giver who gets more than the recipient. In this regard, I had a very enriching experience many years ago. It was in the late 90s and we had sort of established ourselves in the tribal area of H.D.Kote Taluk. The school at Hosahalli was now reasonably well established and there were more than 400 children studying there. Thimmiah was still active and made sure he was available with his wit and wisdom whenever I went to the school. A few years ago, I had got the Government to allot him a 1.5 acre land just behind the school. He had now made this into his very own orchard with the many saplings that I could get for him. He tended to them very lovingly and made sure that neither the local goat nor the visiting deer or elephant made a meal of these plants. Slowly his orchard started to be visible and gave the place a magical aura of its own. It is indeed difficult to describe the hard work that he and his wife put into this small patch of land. They could be found all the time on their land and in a few years, the plants unfolded into fruit-bearing trees. Their hard work started paying off and he was rewarded with lemons, guavas, mangoes and an occasional jack-fruit. His joy knew no bounds and he made it a habit every season to gift me the first fruit of each tree. He would wait for me to visit Hosahalli and then come rushing with the fruits and insist that I eat them, sometimes in his presence. I could never understand the joy that he got in doing this year after year. Over the years, my visit to the school became occasional and erratic, but he would not let this ritual be affected. If I did not go, he made sure that his fruit came to me. He would give it to Prasad, our resource manager at the school and ‘instruct’ him to make sure that it reached me at once. He would make Prasad promise him that no one else would eat the fruit on its journey to me.
For long, I always believed this was Thimmiah’s way of expressing gratitude to me for getting him the land and the saplings. How limiting my thinking was! Despite reading Vivekananda, I had so easily fallen into the trap of seeing myself as the provider and sub-consciously felt gratiated with Thimmiah’s gifts. Thankfully, an incident that I can clearly recall provided Thimmiah the opportunity of teaching me an invaluable lesson.
Thimmiah was now riddled with Tuberculosis and was very poor in his compliance to our treatment. He would take his medicines whenever he felt like and the personnel at the hospital and the outreach workers were getting increasingly frustrated with him. Every time he slipped on his medications, they would complain to me and ask me to use my ‘influence’ over him and coax or chide him into being more compliant. It was one such day and I was also nearing the end of my patience. I met Thimmiah and tried reasoning with him and patiently explained what his non-compliance would cost him and his community. He did not seem to be in a mood to listen and was more interested in whether I had received the jack-fruit that he had sent through Prasad. Our discussion did not seem to be getting anywhere and I started feeling irritated and let down that Thimmiah for whom I had done so much was not willing to follow my instructions. It was then that I blurted out that he needed to show me more gratitude for the land and the saplings and all the other forms of help that I had given him and his family over the years.
Thimmiah’s response is still fresh in my memory. He seemed unaffected and calmly mentioned to me that he was indeed sorry that he had received all the ‘help’ that was given. He said he was confused now, as he had always felt that I was not the ‘provider’ but a partner in his progress. He remarked that he never saw the ‘other’ in me and felt that we were working together in creating something wonderful. His explanation was simplistic and yet so difficult to comprehend. The garden neither belonged to me nor to him. I could claim no ownership because I facilitated getting the land and saplings while he could also not make any claims only because the title-deed was in his name and he toiled day and night on the land. He explained that the land and the fruits belonged to both of us as much as it did to the whole world. His ritual of giving me the fruits each year was not his way of thanking me, but his way of reminding me not to make him feel obliged to me and to send out the message of partnership. He wanted to communicate in his own wise way that we were not obliged to each other, but should actually feel obliged to nature and the circumstances that gave us this extraordinary opportunity of working together. He felt that I needed to see my act of helping him get the land and the saplings as the beginning of a partnership where his part of the deal was to till and tend the plants and the garden. In this partnership, he maintained that our dignity would not only be maintained but also grow. In making one of us the ‘provider’ and the other the ‘receiver’, we were reducing this extraordinary development process to a very narrow interpretation of charity.
I was stunned at his explanation and was trying to process all that he was saying. In a few minutes, I was getting my lesson in not just development, but in what partnerships mean and in the philosophy and message that Swami Vivekananda gave this world. For development without dignity is no development at all. And we can ensure this dignity only when we see everything as a true partnership wherein all of us are equals, with no distinction between us.