It was the year 1988. It had been little more than a year since I had started a new chapter in my life amidst the tribals in Brahmagiri, adjoining the Bandipur National Park. We had just started the dispensary for the tribals and I used to spend most of the mornings in the clinic. The afternoons were reserved for visiting the nearby tribal colonies and interacting and getting to know the local residents. I was on one such visit to Rajapura tribal colony and was interacting with the women there. During the conversation, I learnt that these women would walk nearly 8-10 km each day to fetch water from the nearby Kabini river. I was aghast on hearing this. Not only was the thought of these long walks disturbing to me, but I was also thinking about the amount of time that each woman spent every day on these walks. Being conditioned by the pressure of time that urban living brings, I felt I needed to do something about this. My spontaneous response, in line with what most others would have responded, was to see this as a problem of access to water. A few days later, I met the then Chief Secretary (that is how the Chief Executive Officers were known then) of the Zilla Panchayath (known as Zilla Parishad then) and explained to him the need for a tubewell with a hand-pump at Rajapura tribal colony. He was very sympathetic and responsive and had a tubewell with a hand-pump erected within the next week or so. I felt extremely happy that the problem of water was now fully solved and the women of Rajapura did not have to walk these long distances, spending 3-4 hours on each trip fetching water from the river.
Time passed and I got busy with the dispensary and trying to run the organization. It was only six months later that I could visit Rajapura again. I went there expecting to receive the adulation of a grateful community for reducing their workload and making their lives better. After all, isn’t development all about making the lives of people that we work with better? On reaching there, I was received with the choicest expletives and the women were visibly angry on seeing me. Bommi and Madi, the most vocal of them did not hide their displeasure. I just could not understand why these women were upset with my helping them get a borewell and water virtually at their doorstep. On probing, I learnt the real impact of what I had done. These women were upset with me because I had taken away what was very valuable to them. Fetching water from the river was the only time that they could get away from their homes, families and their husbands. This was the only time that they could get together as a commune and talk amongst themselves the problems that they were all facing. It was private time for these women who could relax while they spoke about themselves, their dreams and their problems. It was time for some peace and rest rather than work and boredom. Having a borewell in their own tribal colony meant no more long walks with their friends. Their husbands now insisted that they fetch water from this tubewell and this meant more time to be spent at their homes itself. This took away what they had been treasuring so much – their personal time, privacy and the company of women whose lives and concerns they shared. In one loud voice they wanted to know why I had facilitated the provision of a borewell for their colony. They demanded to know how and why I had perceived the lack of water as their problem. They were right in asking me why I did not have the patience or the need to ask them what they wanted.
While I saw their problem from my perspective and background, I could think of the solution also from this same paradigm. I could only see the problem of water, the women walking long distances and the time they spent on all this. But they saw something else. For these women, these were not problems at all. Fetching water from such a long distance was never the problem. It was the lack of time for themselves, the inability of being with other women and sharing each other’s life stories and dreams. The solution for this was the long walks. Fetching water was the excuse; the real joy was in the walk, having a bath and washing their clothes in the riverbank and the leisurely walk back home. Once they returned, they knew that the drudgery of their domestic existence would resume.
Many a time, we development practitioners see the problem from the narrow lens of our own expertise and competence. It is like the famous saying “A man with a hammer will only see nails everywhere”. We tend to see development as mere provision of education, health, livelihood, water and sanitation, etc. We limit our understanding to providing for man’s basic physical needs without understanding the deeper requirements for the human heart, mind and soul. NGOs and Governments alike have always prided themselves in ensuring the provision of basic amenities to the poor and marginalized. We tend to interpret problems of communities from the zone of our competence and strive to find solutions based on what we have and what we can do for them. It is less to do with what the people think they need and more to do with what we think they need. It is indeed convenient for us to restrict our understanding to this limited context as going deeper demands a lot more patience, humility and the ability to work as a partner with the people whom we are serving. Development needs to be seen, interpreted and assessed not from the dimension of the agency, but from that of the community with whom we are working. We need to have the patience to listen, the time to reflect on what we have listened and only then think of an intervention. We need to understand that we should not assume the role of trying to solve every problem that we encounter, not try to answer every question by ourselves and not take on the arrogant role of playing God when it comes to working with marginalized and poor communities. We need to understand that ‘not intervening’ can also be a good intervention sometimes. We need to guard ourselves from trying to impose ‘our solution’ and ‘our views’ on people. Only when we learn to respect the wisdom of people that we work with, only when we see them as equal partners and only when we empower them to solve their own problems will we be able to bring in ‘Development’ that is democratic and meaningful. Any thing else will only be ‘cosmetic progress’ with no real significance or worth.