Amartya Sen’s ‘Capability Approach’ and ‘Development as Freedom’ continues to intrigue, interest and push scholars to explore what emerges when these are applied in the concrete, on the ground, to specific sectors, and, categories of people within these sectors. Menon’s study of two categories of fish workers, namely, self-employed fish vending women, and, women as peelers in seafood processing units in Kerala, uses the theoretical framework provided by Sen’s Capability Approach to comprehend and analyse the nature of ‘mobility’ provided by being in such paid employment and asks whether this ‘mobility’ could be construed as ‘capability’.
The book, consisting of nine chapters, is very well structured—theoretically, empirically and analytically. The author provides a clear exposition of the core concepts that define the Capability Approach, namely, functionings, capability and agency—wherein mobility figures as the freedom and ability to move. It is the author’s contention (borne out of her field-based research) that the mobility of those informally employed, especially women, is merely a ‘functioning’—one that allows them to go out and work but does not necessarily confer autonomy—since most of these women do not have the freedom to move unconstrained on several other domains.
Building on Sen’s basic concepts, the author comes up with a new term—Transformational Mobility (TM)—which she defines as ‘the freedom and ability to move outside the household without constraints from others. It is autonomy in mobility which implies freedom of movement in the real sense’ (p. 4). Given patriarchal production and social relations, and given the specific location of the women studied, namely, at the bottom of the production and social hierarchy, the author characterizes the ‘mobility for work’ of these women as ‘bounded capability’, that is, ‘capability bounded by social norms and patriarchal authority’ (p. 153). The fact that the informal women fish workers of Kerala–the most socially developed State of India—(celebrated by no less than Amartya Sen in his writings on human development), have functional mobility but which does not confer autonomy and agency and therefore is not transformational, forces the author to challenge ‘the exalted position of women in the Kerala model of development and the conventional understanding that the mobility associated with work necessarily improves the agency of women’ (p. 13).
To ‘measure’ mobility, and more important, to capture the variability in the levels of permission required by women to move outside their households for various purposes, the author has categorized the ‘domains or spaces of mobility’ of women into ‘work spaces, personal spaces, social/religious spaces, and political spaces’ (p. 68). Through the application of the Rasch rating scale model (RSM, explained in detail in an Appendix), the author finds that, among peeling workers ‘the women with high mobility and permissibility and mobility are widows, women who have separated from their husbands and who live with their children, and women whose husbands are alcoholics’ (p. 75). Among fish vendors, the author finds that most of those who can move out without seeking permission belong to above fifty age-group and married, unlike peeling workers who are widowed or separated (p. 77).