Development indicators need to be reshuffled to go beyond mere growth goals and incorporate wider parameters
Ever since I was a student of economics at Delhi University, the growth versus equity debate has been at the centre stage of any discussion around development economics. Recently, I read an outstanding book titled “The Growth Delusion” by David Pilling which is a critique of overemphasis on the growth of GDP as an economic welfare measure across the world. India is no exception. The current budget boldly talks about economic growth as the goal to be achieved — based on the philosophy that only if the size of the cake is large, it can be distributed amongst maximum people. We hear the talk that India has already become the fifth largest economy and is soon likely to become the third-largest. The Government of India has set up an ambitious goal to achieve a USD five trillion economy by 2025. The UP government has also set a goal of a USD one trillion economy by that period. GDP is an indicator of the size of the economy but not of the wellbeing or quality of life of the people. Pilling has been severe in his comment when he says that all countries are obsessed with the rate of growth of GDP and put all their energy in chasing this chimera.
Despite growth in GDP, economies are witnessing rising inequalities. This has been highlighted in a famous book written by Thomas Piketty. We have also read the opposing viewpoints of eminent economists like Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen; the former emphasising growth and the latter talking about state intervention in public services like health and education to bring about genuine economic welfare. In India, over the years, we have witnessed jobless growth leading to an increasing rate of unemployment. Further, despite being one of the largest economies in the world, the per capita income of citizens is abysmally low, leaving us as a developing economy, far behind the developed world. There is still a lot of poverty and the second wave of the pandemic has exposed the poor quality of public health infrastructure in the country. Education and nutrition levels are far behind the developed countries and our rank in the Human Development Index is beyond 100. This clearly shows that growth by itself is not going to solve the problems of our country and we need inclusive growth. The latter requires specific state intervention in favour of the poor and the marginalised. This clearly indicates a need to have a broader index of development that goes beyond GDP and allows us to aspire for an improved quality of life for the people.
Pilling discussed various alternatives to GDP in his book. We could have goals for increasing per capita income or net domestic product. Then, we could have the Human Development Index as an indicator or evolve a Sustainability Index which would factor in the crucial environmental needs. He developed a matrix of economic, environmental and social indicators that can best bring out the status of quality of life in a country. Recently, India lost the World Test Championship to the tiny island nation New Zealand. I read an interesting article which tried to analyse the rise of New Zealand as a cricketing power by bringing out the differences in per capita income and various other social and economic indicators between New Zealand and India. The comparison held India in a very unfavourable light.
Most countries have added parameters other than GDP in their evaluation of development. The most significant has been the concept of Gross National Happiness developed by Bhutan. The utilitarian approach of the greatest happiness of the greatest number is not the solution as it ignores the problems of the minority and tends to perpetuate inequalities. Happiness economics has evolved as a discipline in itself, and 20th March has been declared as the International Happiness Day. India has unfortunately ranked 140 out of 156 countries on happiness indicator, with Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland being amongst the top nations. Happiness index accounts for GDP per capita, social support systems and healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, trust and corruption levels. One can think of including more aspects of happiness in this indicator like the government of Bhutan which calculates gross national happiness on the basis of four pillars — promotion of sustainable development, preservation of cultural values, conservation of natural environment and establishment of good governance.
Currently, a new concept known as subjective well-being (SWB) is being used at the global level to measure the quality of life and the extent of happiness. SWB links happiness with life satisfaction which is a function of in-born temperament, fulfilment of basic needs and quality of social relationships. We all know that happiness has both internal and external causes. Internal happiness, of course, is a spiritual concept where happiness depends on inner contentment and the response of an individual to life situations. This is something that is influenced by the culture of the family of an individual and the spiritual practices that he follows. However, external happiness is determined, to a large extent, by the policies of the government. It is this external happiness that can be measured through an index and governments can influence this in a big way. Happiness can be defined as a state of being where there is a high level of satisfaction, positive feelings and infrequent negative feelings. External happiness depends upon a person having sufficient material resources like money, sufficient social resources like family and friends and a desirable society that is free of hunger, injustice, corruption and war; and is full of spirit of trust and cooperation. If the citizens of a country feel that they are leading a purposeful and meaningful life, and are optimistic about their current position and outlook for the future, then they can be considered to be high on the happiness index. The difference between the SWB approach and GDP is the focus on multiple dimensions of the human lives in the former. It is also true that if there are a large number of inequalities in society, particularly in the form of opportunities, then happiness decreases.
It is thus important that we are not caught in the GDP trap and focus on the larger issues of life which lead to a better quality of life for citizens and makes for a happy society. None other than the famous economist Simon Kuznets said, “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.” Robert Kennedy of the United States famously said, “GDP measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything but that which makes life worthwhile.” Human beings have to be at the centre of development policies. We have to evolve an index where we measure the quality of life that we are giving to the people. I would like to end this article by quoting David Pilling where he says towards the end of his book, “Growth was a great invention. Now get over it”.