A report that India has gone down this year from 117 to 122 among 158 countries, in the World Happiness Index of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions network, has not come as a surprise as the Oxfam report on global inequality, presented at the World Economic Forum at Davos in January rated India as the second most unequal country. It pointed out that one percent of India’s population own the combined wealth of 58 per cent of the same.
The supreme irony of history is that Russia has been adjudged the “mostunequal” country in the centenary year of the Great October Revolution, as just one per cent Russians own 74 per cent of the country’s wealth.
Coming back to India, the economic consequences of inequality are because of a slow increase of aggregate demand, size of market and hence growth. This is a reality notwithstanding the seven per cent growth now, which is the outcome of what economists call the “low- base effect”. And, this together with our low 131st rank among 188 countries in the UN Human Development Index and the forces of de-globalisation released in the post Brexit and Trump era, the prospects of rapid growth do not appear to be bright.
Thus, it is time now to take a fresh look at the basic paradigms of development such as GDP growth, trade liberalisation and search for a more balanced and sustainable development philosophy. Thomas Picketty, in his pathbreaking work Capital in the 21st Century, referred to a study, which shows that “the static gains from the opening of India and China to global commerce amount to just 0.4 per cent of global GDP, 3.5 per cent of GDP for China and 1.6 per cent for India.”
Picketty argued that “in view of the enormous redistributive effects between sectors and countries (with very large number of losers in all countries) it seems difficult to justify trade openness (to which these countries nevertheless seem attached) solely on the basis of such gains.” In this background, the philosophy of Gross National Happiness propounded by the fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuk needs to be looked at closely. It developed in the late 1980s into a distinct Bhutanese path to development with emphasis on happiness as the development goal and not acquisition of material objects and comfort measured, holds important lesson for the Northeast for several reasons.
Firstly, Bhutan, like the Northeast, is a landlocked region and shares the same sub- Himalayan geographical space of rivers, forests and eco-system. Second, the distance from sea ports and main markets hinder manufacturing and flow of investments in both the areas even when Bhutan and the Northeast possess high growth potential in the service sector in diverse value- added activities, ranging from renewable energy to medical tourism and local resources based pharmaceutical industry.
Third, several ethnic groups of Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Chakmas of Mizoram and Tripura are Buddhists and share the values of Buddhism, which are integral to India’s faith systems. Let us now look at the Gross National Happiness as a practical concept. Mark Mancall defined Gross National Happiness as “ a policy that seeks to remove from the political, social and economic life of the Bhutanese people those conditions that lead to or lend themselves to conditions that Buddhism defines as ‘negativities’, which means those factors that inhibit an individual’s progress towards enlightenment.”
Gross National Happiness thus seeks to create an enabling environment for the Bhutanese society to realise Buddhist values by removing conditions that give rise to “anger, resentment and social distractions”. Thus cultivation of values of empathy, compassion for all, care for nature, eradication of income inequality, greed and injustice backed up by provisioning of what Amartya Sen called “human capability enhancement” facilities for all sections of people constitute the main planks of the “Development State” that Bhutan has been engaged in building now.
One may recall that the monarchical state of Bhutan took shape in 1907, which matured into a state with a difference from 1972 when it set up institutions of governance in tune with Bhutanese social values, morals and needs and not on borrowed ideas. Thus the Gross National Happiness State has a very important role for the “monk body” to deal with those conditions of life in society that gives rise to anger from personal and private situations while the state is to address the material causes of anger like poverty, lack of shelter, education and opportunities for progress in life.
This harmony between the temporal and spiritual authorities is a most remarkable aspect of the GNH philosophy. The success of the GNH state has been impressive. The unemployment is only two per cent and, though 60 per cent of Bhutan’s population is dependent on agriculture and forestry, the sector-wise break-up of its GDP of $ 1.781 billion (World Bank 2013) is balanced with agriculture, industry and services sectors having 17.42 and one per cent share respectively. The per capita GDP of $2,362. 58 for its population of 75 million people is the highest in South Asia and rising as the economy is growing at six per cent at present.
The size of Bhutan’s exports is now at about $ 650 million — it consists mainly of export of electricity to India, cement and processed food products. Till date Bhutan could tap only five per cent of the estimated potential of 30,000 MW of hydel power and is behind schedule in building 12 projects with a total capacity of 20,000 MW by 2020 as per the agreement with India in 2008. Bhutan is also exporting power to Bangladesh and in 2014 and entered into a duty-free Trade Agreement with that country. Bhutan’s tourism policy is cautious as it encourages only “upscale tourism”.
Moreover, the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal Initiative, to facilitate free movement of vehicles and trade, will give a boost to the Bhutanese economy. Environment experts, however, note with concern that Bhutan’s massive hydro-power development runs the grave risks of endangering the fragile Himalayan ecosystem
The success of the Gross National Happiness has attracted global attention and inspired the UN to develop the World Happiness Index. The Northeast may do well to adopt this idea to prepare a region and state specific system for measurement of happiness with elements of both Bhutan and the world happiness index. The diversity of cultures of the Northeast has many commonalities such as large participation in team games everywhere and music and folk dance, angling, hiking and adventure sports. Its cities are open unlike Delhi, which is largely a cluster of gated communities.
The villages of the Northeast are not shackled by walls and households bereft of flowers and plants. Indeed, a happiness index of the Northeast might produce a very different image of the region-a vibrant society that is “developing despite unrest” in some parts and this revelation might induce the region’s states to reshape their approach to a form of development founded on empathy, reason and science. Now that the Five-Year- Plan has gone, it is time for out-of- the-box thinking.
The writer is a retired IAS officer of Assam-Meghalaya cadre and has served as a scientific consultant in the office of the Principal Advisor to the Government of India.