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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 30

Bhutan And The Happiness Index

Learning the Art of Patience

Wednesday 16 July 2008, by Arun Kumar

Recently the PM was in Bhutan, a unique country. It is one country that wholeheartedly believes in a Happiness Index and not the much touted Per Capita Income as a measure of the well- being of its people. The PM must have observed an unhurried life, progressing at a slow pace and learnt the value of patience. Conse-quently, he advised fellow Indians to patiently wait for the rising tide of inflation to ebb in due course.

The idea prevalent in modern society that time is money is alien to the Bhutanese who need not rush about trying to make the next quick buck. Perhaps for them after a day’s work, happiness comes from spending time with each other, in the family or the community or contemplating at the local monastery. In their scheme of things, material prosperity is not the end all of existence. Not for them a scramble to change their recently bought TV for the next HDTV or a Plasma. Or, go for a new model car or the cellphone every few years, etc. They are strangely happy in the traditional dress and do not hanker for the next fashion from Paris.

How quaint, they must be wrong to believe that no one carries the goodies accumulated through toil and trouble to wherever one goes (if at all) after death. By that logic, they suggest, why spoil the present by wasting time making needlessly large sums of money to accumulate goods that will be left behind? The modernist would say how backward, forgetting that she/he would have little time from the nine-to-nine job to enjoy the company of their families in their plush museum-like home. It is only a place to sleep to start the next 12-hour day and is populated by aliens. In the Happiness Index physical happiness is only one of the seven things—rather funny.

Do the goodies that we accumulate give us happiness? Not necessarily, especially, if we are all the time dissatisfied because we do not have what our neighbour or friends have. Further, we may be in the rat race to have something that others do not have—to be exclusive. That is illusory since sooner or later others will also have that and then we would search for something more exclusive; so happiness is transitory, and dissatisfaction the norm.

If the aim is happiness, then, leaving wealth is not a high priority since the next generation in such a society would also be happy and contented independent of the wealth. Clearly, happiness maybe derived from factors other than wealth. In such a society, no high pressure advertising to make one feel inadequate and compensate for that by consuming more and more of banal things—more and more of the expensive things that require one to work harder to earn more. Rather than do the simple things one goes after the complex and expensive. For instance, replace the alum by the after shave. Simplicity preserves the environment and promotes happiness while modern life does the opposite.

It maybe argued that one can know one’s happiness but not that of others. So one should be satisfied with one’s own happiness and not worry about that of the collective—become an atomised individual. Further, it is difficult to say if one is happier today than one was yesterday; so why worry about the past (or the future), just look at the present— become short-termist. One can only say with certainty that if one gives to someone they would be happier and since one cannot give to all, give to friends to make them happier. So, rulers who have their constituencies need only benefit this group to increase its happiness and consequently their own.

The PM, on being quizzed by the usually ‘unhappy’ and ‘cynical’ crowd of ‘curious’ journalists about the roaring inflation and the unhappiness of ‘aam aadmi’ thought of trying out his newly acquired wisdom and advised the ‘aam aadmi’ to be patient. After all, he had promised them ‘hamara hath’ when he had started his term in 2004.

Perhaps, to people who are happy, time matters little. Would a few months here and there matter in Bhutan? So with the newly acquired knowledge, the PM said, by September (four months later) prices may come down. That was not all, given the faith in God in Bhutan, something the ‘aam aadmi’ seems to be losing in spite of frequent visits to godmen and devis, he suggested that his statement would turn out to be true if the rain gods were to oblige by showering their bounty on the country.

Further, because some ignorant individuals have been demanding tough steps against the businessmen and traders indulging in profiteering and because he had just learnt about happiness, he said that he would advise against any such measures. It would cause unhappiness to these people. Thus, by a master-stroke, he found the mantra for keeping everyone happy—the ‘aam aadmi’ could be happy by exercising patience in spite of the troubles he faces and the business community, secure in the knowledge that no tough steps would be taken against it.

IF, in this view, there is any hint of a one-sided view of happiness then it is only an error on the part of those who think so. After all, can one be happy if one’s friends feel unhappy because of the tough steps taken against them? And, today, the government’s best friends are the businessmen. The country’s prosperity is measured by how happy they are; acquiring companies abroad or building 45-story mansions to live in or buying Rs 5-crore cars. If the national media is to be believed, happiness is to be measured by how well the stockmarket is doing and let us not forget, it is controlled by less than 0.1 per cent of the population (the business community). Today, in India, the businessmen’s happiness depends on how soon they can become billionaires.

To become billionaires, businessmen need high profit margins for which prices have to be raised and wages kept down to a minimum and the stock- markets need to be manipulated through various devices, like, insider trading. High profits are also possible through manipulation to obtain concessions from the government. One of them in the last few years has been taking over the lands of the hapless farmers and giving them a tiny fraction of what the businessmen would make. Earlier Japan was called Japan Inc but now India has become India Inc.

Another way is to resort to the black economy which generates about 50 per cent extra GDP. Indians apparently have huge amounts of black wealth hidden abroad in various tax havens, like Liechtenstein. Can one forget that the current Punjab CM accused the former CM of spiriting money out of the country? And, just the other day, was it not the other way round—only a question of who is in power? Is it any different in UP or TN? As someone sang, ‘Maujan hi maujan’.

Germany which acquired the data on who has stashed how much money in Liechtenstein (by paying Euro 4 million to a dissatisfied banker) has offered the data (for free) on the Indians who have deposited their money there. But why would the PMO wish to hurt its friends since their happiness would decline? So it is avoiding obtaining this data. Getting the data is dangerous since it might also reduce one’s own happiness by making enemies. Remember Narasimha Rao who inadvertently opened the Pandora’s box of hawala and had to lead the last part of his life fighting cases against himself. Fixers can fix you also. Is there a stalling tactic so that accounts maybe closed and the government could claim that the data on CD is false?

It is no secret that when the PM was the FM, he overlooked all the scams taking place all around him. When the stockmarket scam was going on he said in Parliament that he would not like to lose sleep over the rising stockmarket prices. And, when the JPC wanted to quote him, there was a storm and the JPC had to change that part of its report.

Then there were the sugar and fertiliser scams and so on—the largest number under any previous FM. Some of them were huge involving over a thousand crores of rupees when the previous biggest one was the Bofors, involving perhaps Rs 100 crores at best. When the real friends are happy then one’s happiness quotient goes up and one can live life king size or become the PM. One only need ignore any wrong-doing by one’s friends and in all this patience is of essence.

Rising food prices lead to big profits for businessmen and becomes a source of happiness. International traders in food are happy and are laughing all the way to the bank. And so are the international oil companies. Rising steel and cement prices lead to high profits and more happiness for the manufacturers and dealers of these commodities. And so on, the happiness index marches on.

The general public remains happy on strong doses of patience. The Bhopal gas affected have not got justice for more than two decades, Irom Sharmila in protest has not eaten for seven years (is force fed), farmers are continuing to commit suicide, workers are thrashed in Gurgaon, Prof Aggrawal has decided to go on fast unto death because of what has happened to the Ganges river (the most revered river), Binayak Sen is incarcerated in jail for more than 12 months for being a doctor in the most backward part of the country, the Narmada displaced await settlement for years and so on. If justice was automatically done, how would patience be inculcated? For sixty years people have heard of trickle down with few drops coming their way. The golden future is always just ahead. In 1991 it was in 2005, in 1999 it was in 2020 and now in 2030.

Trust is a prerequisite to happiness but today, one cannot be sure if the doctor is taking the patient for a ride by prescribing unnecessary tests to line his pockets or the melon one eats has not been injected with chemicals or the spinach sprayed with deadly pesticides. Indians wanting to be happy are following the individual route of instant happiness by cutting corners and making a quick buck—Bunty and Bubbly style, selling the Taj Mahal. Sparrows and vultures are disappearing, the rivers are heavily polluted and the air we breathe in the metros is like cigarette smoke. The public has to take all this in their stride and patiently wait so that the business community can be happy with nine per cent growth.

The well-being of citizens comes from systems that are responsive but increasingly that is not so in India and the happiness index is sliding. This is not the case for the PM or the FM or the corporates. One needs to distinguish between the happiness of a small group and that of society. The neo-classical concept is based on utility maximisation with lip- service paid to social welfare maximisation. No chance of any other calculus than profit and loss entering the consciousness—forget there being seven attributes in the happiness index.

The new mantra is that the ‘aam aadmi’ has to be patient and grin and bear it rather than protest or take to the streets. Only the happiness of the police increases in this because they get to thrash the protestors who become an unhappy lot. So, the new optimality (meaning, all sections are happy) of the economist is that the businessmen make a lot more money and the rest patiently wait for their lot to improve in future. Is this what we have learnt from our little neighbour, Bhutan (or is it from Washington)?

[Enlarged version of an article in The Tribune]

Dr Arun Kumar is a Professor, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at e-mail: arunkumar1000@hotmail.com

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