07 May 2014

Poverty as Unfreedom: Is it a State of Mind?

The renowned philosopher J. Krishnamurti in his Freedom from the Known (Chapter 8) said “Freedom is a state of mind - not freedom from something, but a sense of freedom...” From this perspective, an individual’s attachment to either physical or mental aspects would be a hindrance to freedom, or, rather, to a sense of freedom.

From a different perspective, Amartya Sen would suggest that doing away with hindrances that would improve physical or mental well-being will improve freedom. This is more in line with freedom from something and it is in this sense that poverty is an ‘unfreedom’.  We will focus on this latter interpretation and try to understand the notion of poverty, as a state of mind with the help of two stories.

One story is about a landlord who was envious of his peasant neighbour, as the latter was content and never agreed to work for the landlord.  One day the landlord left a bag of 99 gold coins at the peasant's house and when asked also denied that the bag was his. As there were no other neighbours, the peasant was happy to have got this bag of gold coins. But, this happiness was short-lived. Counting the coins led to a search for the 100th coin that was not found and the peasant took a decision to work hard and save so that she could add that 100th coin to the bag. She was now willing to work for the landlord and sacrifice small pleasures of life like spending time with her family. This change of lifestyle in pursuit of that elusive 100th gold coin also did away with her mental state of being content.

The other story is about a ruler who had difficulty in managing the affairs of the state. This left her worried and with many a sleepless nights. A well-meaning adviser suggested that if she were to stay for one day in the house of a person who had no worries then her worries would vanish. A search was initiated and with much difficulty a person who did not have any worries was identified, but to the ruler’s dismay, the person did not have a house. Of course, the person to take another term from Sen, did suffer from ‘physical condition neglect’, but this did not affect the person’s mental state of being worry-free. Over the years, the ruler learnt to be calm and as a consequence gave more time to improve the well-being of the people, which among other things included shelter for the homeless.

It is possible that a person who is homeless or jobless or sick or suffers from some other deprivations is content and happy about her situation. This, according to Sen, is an adaptive preference. However, this will not prevent the homeless person from valuing, and hence, desiring the possession of a house. In fact, a reliance on the mental state alone would lead to this ‘valuational neglect’ along with the earlier mentioned ‘physical condition neglect’. A welfare-state should address these neglects.

An aspect that is increasingly accepted in a discourse on poverty is that it is multidimensional. The multidimensional poverty index (MPI) computed for India by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) indicates that between 1999 and 2006 the headcount ratio declined from 56.8 per cent to 48.5 per cent. Though the reductions are impressive, yet the levels remain higher than the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh and Nepal that have relatively lower per capita incomes. The Global Hunger Index 2013 ranks India at 66 among 78 countries and considers the situation to be alarming. An estimate for 2010 used in the Human Development Report 2013 shows that less than two-fifths of the 25+ population have completed their secondary education. Thus, the material/physical condition neglects in India are serious.

One of the livelihood interventions in India, to address some of the deprivations, has been through the formation of female self-help groups. At the national level, this is being spearheaded by the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) through Aajeevika - livelihood mission. Similar state level interventions exist in Andhra Pradesh (Indira Kranti Patham), Bihar (Jeevika) and Kerala (Kudumbashree) among others.  There have also been initiatives by non-governmental organizations in different parts of the country. In fact, in August 2013, MoRD entered into an agreement with PRADAN (Professional Assistance for Development Action) that already works in more than 40 of the poorest districts largely located in the Naxal affected areas of the country to facilitate this. A recent impact evaluation of PRADAN that this author was part of indicates that their livelihood intervention enables capabilities of individuals to manage themselves, organises them into producers’ companies/cooperatives and facilitates forward/backward linkages. For instance, they have promoted the tasar silk product now branded as Eco Tasar that is being sold in Fab India and other outlets.

To sum up, being content, worry-free, and happy are essential aspects of mental well-being, but these will not help us identify the poor. It is the civic, economic and other deprivations (being without food or home or job or health care or social dignity or rights among others) that should be the basis for identifying the poor. Organizing the poor and enabling their capabilities, which could include their mental strength and self-confidence, should be important aspects of implementation, but only after the poor are identified and the interventions focus on their deprivations. We end by referring to Mahatma Gandhi’s talisman – “whenever in doubt think of the poorest person and you will find your doubts melt away.”


  1. Nice. very true. there is need for going beyond the mainstream paid media narrative and engage a bit more.

    1. Thanks Devajyoti. Hope that some of these narratives can have common ground with your paintings.