The inimitable Chowkidar
Among the unhappiest in the world, India has an opportunity to choose a prudent democrat
The humble chaiwala has lost his pride of place. Even the familiar Gorkha has been fired; along with him are gone his night howls of 'hoshiar raho'. It is because Prime Minister Modi gave a clarion call to every citizen to become a chowkidar to protect our nation. Yes, he has done a great service in reminding us of our duty, albeit it is through protecting our democracy. For this, we need to choose the right chowkidar-in-chief, who would honour the very principles of democracy; and is committed to making us happy and changing our lowly position in the World Happiness Report Index.
The World Happiness Report of the UN looked at six key variables – well-being, income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support, and generosity. India stands at 140 among 156 countries in the survey of 2018, down by seven notches over the previous year. Finland is the happiest for the second year in a row, while Denmark has been consistently in the top five for the past five years. Are we really as unhappy as the survey says? Let us have a look at each of the parameters.
Firstly, well-being. Our philosophy, Yoga, and Upanishads emphasise well-being and happiness as a state of complete physical, social, mental, and spiritual well-being and harmony with nature. But, the increasing stress of modern day life has robbed us of our mental peace and happiness. Studies have reported that extended families have more 'life satisfaction' than nuclear families which is a norm now. They further indicate that by 2025, over 38 million years of healthy life will be lost to mental illness in our country.
Further, there is a total change in our cultural values. Leaders telling lies on oath, rendering ethics and values of no consequence, is so common. Alongside globalisation, religion too has become commercialised – profit and wealth being the primary objectives. In contrast, until recent times immediate well-being was not considered as important as the ultimate well-being. Religion is no longer a solace since the culture of rationality and truth-seeking has been replaced with blind faith, rituals and bigotry. Jesus was killed because he talked about taking business out of the temple, whereas Buddha called into question all the Hindu Gods and rituals, yet, no harm was caused to him. Instead, those who opposed him became his monks when they were convinced in months-long debates. It is not our culture to kill people with blind faith in our beliefs, like what the cow-vigilantes are doing with the blessings of the Party and governments. This change is a serious cause of social tension and unhappiness in the country.
Happiness is elusive when we think of income too. Right to equality and equal distribution of wealth is only on paper; governments are pro-rich. The GDP growth of 7 per cent, being claimed by the government, is dubbed by many experts as manipulated. Doubting the figure, because not enough jobs are being created, former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan even seeks to check its veracity by an impartial body. Total employment actually shrank by millions and the rate of unemployment is a whopping 16 per cent. And, whatever wealth is generated, the distribution is skewed. As per Oxfam survey in 2018, richest 1 per cent Indians cornered 73 per cent of Rs 20.9 lakh crores of wealth generated, while the rise is only 1 per cent for the poorest half of 67 crore Indians. Previous year's survey showed the richest 1 per cent held 58 per cent of the country's total wealth.
Now, regarding freedom. We have freedom of the press, but the publishers are either induced or coerced into toeing the line of the government. We have freedom of religion, but there are communal tensions caused by bigots. There is freedom to choose professions; but the choice and opportunities are dwindling, with corruption inhibiting them further. One has the freedom to contest elections, but without money-power, it is beyond one's dream. More than anything else, freedoms of thought and expression are stifled with government action; and freedom of privacy is intruded by snooping into every computer.
There is also a great trust deficit. The promise of cooperative federalism is a farce; there is a mockery of democracy – no debates, no press conferences; only witch-hunting opposition with abuse of institutions; there is the only autocracy. Election promises are made only to be broken; election-time sops are only to please the voters. In the absence of a choice, one has to vote only for the better among the worst, who, once elected, would be on sale for voting in Parliament or Assembly. There is also mutual suspicion among people, like in the Big Brother regime.
Now for health and social support. Easily available liquor every hundred yards, made so by the government of AP, etc., has proved to be a health hazard. Globalisation, and absence of character building in education, cause great stress and tensions, and there is a telling effect on life-expectancy; and even premature deaths through suicides. Food adulteration is another cause. Private medical treatment is very expensive and government hospitals, mostly, are not comfortable and conducive places. There is social support in terms of myriad welfare schemes, but corruption sabotages the very intentions. And, NGOs, mostly, work for their gains.
Overall, for the chowkidars, there has been an increase in negative emotions – anxiety, sadness, anger and worry, distrust and insecurity. Thus, the survey has rightly placed India among the unhappiest countries. But, instead of sulking, it would be prudent to find ways to cheer us up.
Happiness is variously defined. Psychologists consider it as 'a mental or emotional state of well being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy'. Sociologists say it is the degree to which an individual judges the overall quality of his life-as-a-whole positively, and refer it as subjective well-being (SWB) or life satisfaction. But quantifying it is difficult.
A breakthrough, however, was made by Bhutan by calculating their country's Gross National Happiness (GNH) and they evolved a single digit Index as a measuring tool for policy-making and to create policy incentives for the government, NGOs and businesses of Bhutan to increase GNH. Good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and environment conservation are the four pillars that support the nine domains – psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards, and 33 indicators, which help in reaching the GNH Index. UN also passed a resolution in 2011 in support of this novel concept.
While East European countries with no freedoms are low in happiness than poorest democracies, Denmark stands out as an example of happiness and well-being – free from corruption, thrust on health care, gender equality and voluntary work; and they proved the efficacy of cycling in environment protection, fuel saving, accidents, etc. As against the fact that 40 per cent Danes get involved in volunteer activities that generate a feeling of oneness of society, and accountability to each other for common growth, volunteerism is lacking in us. No serious efforts are ever made by us to bring such cohesion.
Instead of emulating these examples, the government in power spends crores of rupees in advertising about their bounties and achievements. Any national newspaper of 26- 28 pages would generally have nearly half devoted to full page, half or quarter to advertisements from different government departments, although this does not pay any dividends. There are not even proper mechanisms to assess people's satisfaction with government projects and schemes. The present systems of vigilance and anti-corruption are grossly inadequate since they only manage statistical targets, and whatever action is taken by them gets riddled in dilatory departmental or legal processes.
It is imperative that effective feedback mechanisms are in place for real-time check and corrective action. In the past, apart from using elaborate spying systems and overt feedback mechanisms, benevolent kings themselves used to move incognito to check the well-being of their subjects. It is worthwhile, therefore, to divert the money spent on advertisements for this task since the dividends for the good and sincere work done, and the goodwill generated, are enormous. In a democracy, people's satisfaction is paramount, like customer satisfaction in commercial establishments.
The customer care departments vie with each other to please their customers, while sales departments aggressively advertise their products to lure potential customers. Take for example a pharmaceutical company. Whenever a new product is launched, their salesmen and qualified pharmaceutical degree holders interact with doctors who prescribe them to their patients and get feedback about how much better this new drug is working. Yet, not satisfied, they employ talented engineers and others to get independent feedback from the doctors who are handsomely compensated for the time invested. Similar is the case with sales of vehicles, and so on.
It is time that chowkidars become inimitable and assertive, to set things right in our democracy. Revered Hanuman never knew his strength until he was reminded of it. Kumbhkaran had to be awakened from his deep sleep to show his power. For their own well-being and life satisfaction, for effective delivery and improvement in government policies, people should demand a comprehensive model based on Bhutanese and Danish experiences, and also for effective feedback mechanisms, with their participation. Lokpal has to be made proactive and given a pivotal role in this task.
Ultimately, the happiness of a nation is the aggregate of the happiness of society and of individuals. For this, a real democrat should be chosen as the chowkidar-in-chief of India.
(Dr. N Dilip Kumar is a retired IPS officer and a former member of Public Grievances Commission, Delhi. The views expressed are strictly personal)