Growth vs Happiness
The government must overcome its obsession with economic growth and consider the happiness and well-being of citizens as true measures of the country’s progress.
It is well established that the level of happiness and contentment among citizens is not reliant upon the country's economic growth alone. But still, our country remains obsessed with the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business global rankings, paying scant attention to India's dismal ranking in the World Happiness Report of the New York-based Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which operates under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General.
The 2018 edition of the World Happiness Report placed India in the 133rd position among a total of 156 countries in the Happiness rankings for 2015-17, based on various factors including GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption. The five top-ranked countries in the Report were Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland while the five countries at the bottom included Yemen (152), Tanzania (153), South Sudan (154), Central African Republic (155), and Burundi (156). The only other country in the region that ranked lower than India was Afghanistan.
It is very pertinent here to ask how India's name figures alongside these conflict-ridden, highly chaotic, and politically and economically unstable nations in the Report's happiness rankings, even as the country completes 71 years of Independence in August this year. What, perhaps, is even more worrisome is that the world's largest democracy has been consistently slipping down the happiness rankings since 2012, when the first World Happiness Report was published in support of a UN high-level meeting on happiness and well-being.
Strangely, despite India being counted among the countries that have been witnessing maximum decline in happiness, our government has so far neither initiated any significant measure to improve its position in the rankings nor commented on why the country lags behind most of the world when it comes to happiness levels.
Happiness is now considered the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policies across many countries in the world. The UN General Assembly had in the past passed a resolution which called upon its member states to become aware and acknowledge pursuit of happiness as a fundamental goal and had also urged that countries recognise and accept the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in lives of human beings. It had asked member states to adopt a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach towards economic growth in order to promote sustainable development, poverty eradication, and happiness and well-being of people. In 2012, the UN declared March 20 as the International Day of Happiness.
India's consistently declining happiness rankings over the years and its failure to take preventive measures to arrest that decline or at least react to the poor happiness rankings suggest that despite the growing emphasis on pursuit of happiness, not just by the UN but an increasing number of countries across the globe, our government policies continue to erroneously focus solely on achieving higher economic growth rather than on improving overall happiness and well-being of the people.
The World Happiness Report 2017 pointed out that while GDP related to the economic side of life was just one dimension – the output of goods and services, subjective well-being was a far more comprehensive measure of individual well-being taking into account various economic and non-economic concerns and aspirations that determine people's well-being.
Highlighting the growth and happiness in China during the period 1990-2015, the Report said that while GDP in China had multiplied over five-fold over the past quarter-century, subjective well-being over the same period fell for 15 years before starting a recovery process. It pointed out that its current levels were still, on average, less than a quarter of a century ago.
India, however, would rather not pay heed to the example of China cited in the Report considering that the country is striving to establish itself as an economic superpower. The government, at least it seems, is determined to implement just about any reform that could propel growth and help achieve that goal, at times even ignoring the well-being of people.
As opposed to the indifference towards the happiness rankings, the government had acted with remarkable alacrity during the last few years to improve the country's Doing Business rankings, which is released annually by the World Bank. The Doing Business Report investigates regulations that enhance business activity as well as those that constrain it, at the same time presenting quantitative indicators on business regulation and the protection of property rights that can be compared across a large number of economies over time. It measures aspects of regulation affecting several areas of the life of a business such as starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting electricity, registering property, getting credit, protecting minority investors, paying taxes, trading across borders, enforcing contracts and resolving insolvency.
The Doing Business 2018 Report ranked India at 100 out of a total of 190 economies for ease of doing business, a major improvement over the 130th place that the country had secured in the previous year's Report. India is also mentioned among 10 economies that had improved the most in areas measured by Doing Business in the latest Report.
It may be recalled that following the release of the Doing Business 2017 Report, the Ministry of Commerce had pointed out that several of the government's reforms were not acknowledged in it because of methodological reasons.
No matter what, it can't be denied that the large-scale structural reforms implemented by the present government at the Centre actually led to improvement in India's Ease of Doing Business rankings. It is also quite understandable that the country is now aiming to be included among the top 50 economies for Ease of Doing Business in the coming years, given that it would help scale higher economic growth. However, the question that comes to mind is whether the resulting growth would be sustainable, inclusive and equitable, and lead to rapid poverty eradication. More importantly, would it enhance the happiness and well-being of citizens? It is time the government recognied the happiness of its citizens as the true measure of social and economic progress.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)