During the early 80s, our philosophy lecturer goaded us into watching the Brian Clark’s film, ‘Whose Life Is It, Anyway?’ that was being screened in one of the cinema halls of Hyderabad. “It is a must-see movie for every student of metaphysics”, he exhorted all of us in the class. I was one of those very few who complied with his directive.
Our lecturer was right. It was an incredibly interesting plot, a total diversion from the mainstream film ideas — no action, no artistic settings, no special effects — nothing of the sort of Hollywood. It was literally a complete ‘feel-so-a-pickle’ (philosophical) dystopian drama, with full of one-liner dialogues loaded with awe-inspiring rhetoric on ‘life and choice’.
The sculptor protagonist Ken Harrison (played by Oscar-winning Richard Dreyfus), who was immobilised down the neck due to a terrible accident, used to ask the doctor from his hospital bed as to what meaning would his life carry when he had no choice to live as he desired.
Freedom to Choose
Yes, what a life is it if it is devoid of freedom to make choices? Decades after having seen the movie, Ken’s words would ring in my ears off and on whenever I happen to cross paths with the sorrowing people, strewn in poverty, without any choice to wriggle out of it. No doubt, the dismal and precarious scenario of Indian poverty, though strange to compare, seems to be in a close analogy more or less to the pensive state of Ken. If the poor’s choicelessness is attributable to their socio-economic compulsions, Ken’s was due to his physiological poverty. He was confined to bed and couldn’t lift himself up except with others’ assistance. The marginalised sections are also restricted to the social and cultural confines of rigidly stratified communities and they are not able to climb the ladder of social upgradation.
If Ken used to depend upon medicines and treatment for his survival, the poor rely on public schemes for their livelihood. Similar to Ken who was in no way able to do anything he wished to do because of his motionless limbs, the downtrodden are helpless in almost every aspect of socio-economic and political processes.
Is it such a situation that cannot be remedied? Immediately, the great Stephen Hawking flashed on my mind. The wheelchair-bound cosmologist proved that the solution was quite possible at least in his case with technology. Then why can’t it be so if a poor person’s choice is to live well?
One of the most critical areas where we in India faced a disappointing net outcome to facilitate and empower the citizens, especially the disadvantaged groups, is that we failed to enable them with the freedom to choose what they want to do in their lives. The poor cannot afford to dream a comfortable living for they have had neither land nor capital through many a generation. They can never imagine a life of esteem and accomplishment for most of them still remain as ignorant illiterates. They also cannot choose to enjoy the fruits of democracy for they are unaware of the power of their own votes. Ultimately, they have been left with no choice except to continue living in abject hardships and miseries.
Deprived of material means of production since ages on account of various historical reasons, the major chunk of the poor couldn’t exercise their liberty to change their destiny for better as their labour, the only physical means of survival in their hands, rendered them at the powerful’s beck and call in olden days. And the demonic legacy was carried forward with the result that the meek manual labour became a poor cousin to grandiose machine capabilities in the fast-changing global economy. Over the passage of time, the freedom of choice started vanishing as elusively as a mirage for the hapless poor.
Of all the parameters taken into consideration while assessing a country’s happiness level, such as individual income, health and hygiene, and honest governance, free will to make life choices, among others, assumes vital significance. The same criterion remains as one of the weakest links of overall Indian well-being because of the fact that most of the poor people find themselves immobile economically as well as socially. Free will and choice took a back seat when India was measured on happiness scale and it slipped to 140th position in 2019 from its previous ranking of 133 in 2018.
Deeply alarmed by the slower pace of poverty reduction across the world, the World Bank laid down an ambitious goal of promoting shared prosperity by increasing the incomes of the poor. Hawking too worried over the ensuing great divide between the richie-rich and the poorest of the poor as the accrued huge profits are exclusively garnered by the digital magnets. He advocated for the sharing of wealth created, judiciously and generously, between both the owners and the workers but to no avail.
The objectives of public policies may seem to be well-intended but are usually met with not-so-encouraging consequences. Therefore Nobel laureate Milton Friedman reasoned, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programmes by their intentions rather than their results?” How true!
Intentions are just conjectural whereas the results are practical and implementation-oriented. Lack of sustainable livelihood and empowerment blocks the mind of the poor to recognise their potential to not only make their choices freely but also realise them. Let’s be optimistic about a favourable situation and rating this time before the next World Happiness Survey queries, “Whose poverty is it, anyway?”
(The author is former DG Cyber Crimes, Bhopal)