It has intrigued me for long enough to merit an article. I wish to explore choice as a means as well as a symptom of development. To my mind the term ‘development’ is a fascinating one. The literature available on the subject is intimidating, because in itself it embodies all that the whole world seems to strive to achieve. The UN underlined the importance of ‘choice’ in context of development when it stated that;
Human development is about much more than the rise or fall of national incomes. It is about creating an environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive, creative lives in accord with their needs and interests. People are the real wealth of nations. Development is thus about expanding the choices people have to lead lives that they value. And it is thus about much more than economic growth, which is only a means —if a very important one —of enlarging people’s choices.
Now that seems simple enough, the relevance of choice to development has been established, what remains doubtful is whether we in India have grasped the essence of the word ‘choice’. Do we in fact mistake the availability if opportunity with the availability of choice. And mind you there is a difference. To choose is to pick out the best of the available alternatives, while opportunity is merely a favorable time or situation for doing something. Let’s for a moment forget about opportunity and instead examine the definition of choice. It may seem to many that choosing what is best for yourself is the simplest thing in the world to do. Actually as a matter of fact that depends on which part of the world you are in. There exists what economists call the problem of ‘asymmetric information’ To make an intelligent choice is basically making an informed choice. In most of the developing countries including India, choices aren’t informed because (a) the information is inadequate (b) It is inaccurate or manipulated. This is not to say that there is no manipulation in presenting of information in developed nations however there exist other mechanisms which help them to mitigate any adverse choices. Coming to the available alternatives bit, development has always been relative. So turning the definition on its head, our concern really should be, are the alternatives available the best? In other words in a developed country your choosing the second best may not in fact harm your interest whereas in a country like India a wrong choice may cost you dear.
Let’s now go back, no not to the definition of opportunity but to that of human development as described by the UN. The word to take note of is ‘interests’. Therein lies the difference between choice and opportunity. So we might want to look at the BPO sector boom in India, in a different light. The Youth and the middleclass form the two most dynamic sections of the Indian society today. A lot of young people who belong to the middleclass are cashing in on this booming business. And why shouldn’t they? After all they are doing exactly what they need to do. Making good money. Where resources are scarce opportunities need to be grabbed. But is it a choice they are making? The story doesn’t end here. In fact it goes back further. Its not just our job market, even the education system, is an opportunity infested set up. The disparities in the quality of education notwithstanding, even the crème of society is not making any real choices. At the +2 level most students opt for the science stream. Why? Yes they have the opportunity, unlike many of their less privileged counterparts, but if they were to choose humanities over science would they still be so confident about their future? It’s a favorable time to take science, so let’s take it. Interest can take a walk. We are driven by the best, but it is in fact a whole society that is taking advantage of the favorable times but the individual is not exactly exercising any choice-making esp. if the choice is not consistent with what the society thinks is best for you.
This is not really a doomsday prediction, as such points of reference are inconsequential to an economy and society that is evolving or on the ‘path of development’. The good news is that this ‘availing opportunity’ stage may be the predecessor of the stage of ‘choice making’ So making the best of the best available opportunities to us now may actually ensure that our future generations can make some real choices. Till then we should be content to describe ourselves as the country on the brink of ‘development’, and a billion choices away from ‘superpowerdom’.