Finding the right remedies
Considering the comprehensive parameters on which the World Happiness Report is based, India should take the findings seriously and explore ways to improve its ranking
The latest World Happiness Report came out, and Finland once again ranked as the happiest country. The Nordic countries, along with Switzerland, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Iceland, have traditionally occupied the top positions in the happiness index. This is probably due to the welfare state model they have, which provides a high degree of social security to its citizens, in addition to high per capita income. India has improved its ranking from the previous year to come at 126th position, but this low rank, which India has been getting consistently over the last ten years since the World Happiness Report was institutionalised, is a matter of concern. To a large extent, this is difficult to believe and explain since India ranks lower than even Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. This is indeed a distressing situation, and it is easy to go into the denial mode and dismiss the findings, citing faulty methodology or Western bias. In fact, this is exactly the tenor of a spate of recent articles on this subject that have appeared in the media. However, the right approach would be to attempt to diagnose the problem so that the policymakers may be guided in designing better policies to improve the happiness quotient of the people.
Gross domestic product (GDP) is no longer considered to be a comprehensive measure of the level of well-being of the people. Various other indicators are used to assess the subjective well-being of people, like the human development index which factors in indicators on health and education, along with per capita income, to indicate the level of development of a country. The happiness index goes beyond this on the basis of a Gallup poll using questionnaires in which people are asked to rank themselves from 1 to 10 across various parameters to arrive at a happiness index score. The latest measure being used by most progressive countries is to compute gross national happiness (GNH) of their people, rather than focusing merely only on GDP. The concept of GNH originated from the mountain kingdom of Bhutan whose king decided that he would like to focus on all aspects of well-being of his people, and to measure this, a detailed analysis was made to arrive at gross national happiness. The United Nations has also recognised the importance of happiness, and declared March 20 as a World Happiness Day. World happiness reports, which started being released from 2013 onwards, have analysed the factors influencing the state of happiness every year, and arrived at a ranking of countries on happiness index. The essence of this index has been that happiness is not only a factor of material well-being but includes several non-economic, social and psychological factors which can be measured through a well-designed survey. The common factors which are taken into account while calculating the happiness score of the nation are GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and perception of corruption. The ranking also takes into account the positive feelings like joy, peace, and calmness along with negative feelings like sadness which a person may feel while comparing his present condition to the immediate past. This is indeed a very comprehensive analysis, and it cannot be denied that it gives a very concrete picture of the well-being of the people.
India is growing at seven per cent in the current year, and is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. India has also become the fifth-largest economy, and is poised to leave Germany and Japan behind to become the third-largest economy in the world, with a GDP of about five trillion dollars. However, it is not GDP per se which is relevant, but GDP per capita which is a more important factor, and India ranks poorly on this indicator even if we use the purchasing power parity. Consistently, India has been ranked beyond 100 on GDP per capita index, and this is perhaps the main reason which pulls down the ranking of the country in the happiness index. This should provide immediate material for thought for our policymakers who should focus on reduction of inequalities and inclusive growth. The country should give the highest importance to the areas of education and health, which would help in strengthening the human capital and also enable its citizens to participate on an equal footing — socially, culturally, politically and, of course, in the economic sphere.
India is a complex country where, along with economic inequality, there are factors like caste, gender and family background that account for lower levels of well-being. The inequality extends to issues like availability of school facilities, sanitation, and basic infrastructure like electricity, water, and healthcare. In addition, because of social and economic factors, the crime rate is also on the higher side, and because of the population pressure, there is a continuous threat of environmental degradation.
This is the age of television and social media, which has made even people living in rural areas aware of the quality of life that is being enjoyed by the better-off sections of society. India is also enjoying a demographic dividend, with its median age being 29, and this young population is full of aspirations for a better life. It could be a fact that they are not satisfied or happy with their existing state of affairs, and that is why, in any survey related to happiness, there is a tendency to give a lower score on the current level of happiness. This, by itself, is not something wrong, but the important thing is that the policymakers should take India on a higher and faster path of development, so that the dreams and aspirations of the people are realised, or at least achieved to a considerable extent.
Caste remains an important factor in Indian society, and despite the progress that has taken place, caste discrimination still continues to be a matter of discord and unhappiness. This is despite the fact that over the years, there has been political empowerment of the backward castes. Social support is one of the important factors for happiness, and this implies mutual trust, sharing and caring in society. India has a family system which, I feel, gives much more support to members than in the West but, strangely, with urbanisation and development, the supportive role of the family is getting reduced, which is reflected in the low ranking that India gets on this parameter in the happiness index. The public expenditure on health in India is only 1.3 per cent of GDP, which leads to low ranking in healthy life expectancy and other health-related indicators. It is true that we are a vibrant democracy, but the voters have repeatedly shown in elections that there is more often than not an anti-incumbency factor. Also, the perception of corruption in government and society is on the higher side. These are the factors that need the attention of the policymakers if India has to significantly score in the happiness index.
It is imperative for policymakers to focus on those aspects of policy which directly influence the level of well-being of the people. Instead of rejecting the findings of the World Happiness Report, we should realise that India is a welfare state, and aim to create an environment where most of the people feel happy about their current quality of life. Such a society would be based on harmony and peace, and lead to greater realisation of the human potential.
The writer is an ex-Chief Secretary, Govt of Uttar Pradesh. Views expressed are personal