Hunter Gatherer Research

The freedom to stop being free

Rethinking school education and personal autonomy among Nayaka children in South India

Hunter Gatherer Research (2019), 5, (1-2), 39–66.


This paper examines education programmes for South Indian Nayaka, traditionally classified as hunter-gatherers and officially recognised as one of India’s poorest populations. With persistently high school dropout rates among their children, Nayaka parents find themselves today at the focus of formal education initiatives, constructed both as a central obstacle for children’s success in school and as responsible to facilitate it. The paper focuses on Nayaka’s sense of autonomy as a core social notion which is mainly practiced by avoidance from directing other’s actions and decisions, including children. The notion of autonomy plays a central role in constructing adult- child relations. I demonstrate how parents negotiate between conflicting senses of parenthood expected from them by development workers and educators on one hand and their families on the other. I argue that what is described by teachers as parental carelessness and lack of responsibility is in fact a deliberate and thoughtful avoidance from ordering others, which in turn encourages the development of children’s autonomy. I then show how the experience of school alters children’s sense of their own autonomy and as a result, their sense of their selves. Last, I explore the paradoxical role of the notion of autonomy in the unexpected trajectories of social change, when local attempts to maintain autonomy in contemporary circumstances in fact allow this value to diminish and thus invite significant social change. Overall, this paper demonstrates the importance of paying attention to local ideas for understanding the experience of development programmes and illuminate the pitfalls of education programmes.

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Author details

Lavi, Noa