Udayan Mukherjee

Why India is a growing economy but an unhappy nation

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If people don’t earn enough, don’t have jobs they like, worry about their health, cannot trust others or the State, and are not free to make their choices, how can they be happy?

As the world celebrated Happiness Day on March 20, we were informed by the United Nations that India is one of the least happy nations on the planet. We rank 122 out of 155 countries, easily the worst in South Asia, with only the poorest African nations below us on the list. One can almost hear the howls of protest — can happiness be defined? How can the UN pass judgment with such a small sample size? Yet, since we go to town on small improvements in other rankings like ease of doing business, it’s only fair to examine what, according to the study, makes us so unhappy.

The six parameters on which happiness is measured are per capita GDP, healthy life expectancy, freedom, trust, social support and generosity. This sounds very reasonable, critics should not have a problem with the methodology. So, where do we stand on each?

GDP per capita is our most glaring and quantifiable shortcoming. In 2017, India ranked 126 out of 200 countries on this yardstick, which for the “world’s fastest growing economy” is deplorable. The UN goes one step further by saying that it is unemployment and poor quality of jobs that makes people truly unhappy. On this, we have taken many steps back in recent years, adding to the misery of our citizens. Yet, this is not a story of economics alone. China has made rapid strides with GDP per capita growth over the last two decades yet its position in the Happiness Index has not moved up at all. Seemingly “softer” issues such as trust, freedom and generosity are equally important.

There is little trust in an Indian society riddled with corruption. The interface between citizens and the State, through bureaucrats, politicians, law enforcers and tax collectors, is often a transactional one. Trust is not the foundation of any of these equations.

While on paper, we are a functioning democracy, freedom is often the privilege of the upper classes, economic and social. There is little freedom for minorities, religious or sexual, in making their life choices. Can anyone, hand on heart, assert that people from backward castes or the poor are truly free today? The only saving grace is that they have a vote. It should be no surprise that most governments are voted out after their term in our country. This is an expression of “unhappiness” of our people, at the failure of governments in providing them a free, comfortable and safe life.

Indians are not a generous people. Our record on philanthropy, with notable exceptions, is woeful. We treat our domestic help terribly. Perhaps because we are a poor nation slowly rising to prosperity, our primary instinct is to hoard and grow our own wealth with little regard to sharing it with the less fortunate. The great philanthropists of the world have to come down to India to tell our billionaires that they should give more.

Developed countries score far more than us on the parameter of social support. In our country, we have schemes like NREGA but there is no concept of social security. This causes enormous hardships during challenging economic phases, as witnessed during demonetisation or as our farmers are facing today. For a large swathe of our population, lack of social support is a key factor in feeling unhappy.

Finally, there is healthy life expectancy. Measured in number of years, we have taken some strides here, with expectancy improving from 62 to 67 years over the last decade. It is still much lower though than other emerging countries who are at above 75 years. But, it is the “healthy” bit that spoils the show for us. India’s record on most global health parameters is quite abysmal.

If people don’t earn enough, don’t have jobs they like, worry about their health, cannot trust others or the State, are not free to make their choices and cannot lean on either the State or fellow countrymen at times of need, how can they be happy? Maybe we should not scoff at the UN report, but rather look inward. By the way, the ranking of the US has slipped sharply in the index of late. Any guesses, why?

  • Hidustan Times

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