The World Happiness Report has consistently ranked India near the bottom of the scale of happiness. Currently, we are ranked at number 122 out of the 157 countries surveyed, which make us a morose lot. Though ranking of happiness is a recent phenomenon, one has a feeling that we were far happier at the time of Independence. Those were the days of extreme deprivation when we survived on PL- 480 rations.

Logically we should have been despondent but that definitely was not the case. Probably, our Independence, acquired after an epic struggle, had given us a large measure of happiness, confidence and hope. Even in the late Fifties and early Sixties, at the time of the disastrous China and Pakistan wars, one could sense a feeling of aplomb and hope, as if better things were just round the corner.

The downturn in our happiness in the 21st century; which is said to belong to us, is rather intriguing. Theoretically, after the upsurge in our economy, now is the time when we are best equipped to enjoy the freedoms and rights guaranteed to us by the law and Constitution.

All economic and social indicators are consistently showing a positive trend; indeed it is a mystery that we are slipping down on the happiness index. One reason could be that despite having tried out all hues of government, not much has changed at the ground level.

The Maharajas and Rajas have been replaced by the political class and big business, who have all the trappings of their predecessors, including dynastic succession. The arrogance and rapacity of lower level officers, with whom the common man interacts, remains unchanged. Even after 70 years the courts of law have not metamorphosed into courts of justice and speedy resolution of disputes is still a pie in the sky. So, one can safely conjecture that extinction of the hope of substantial change appears to be the prime reason for the sense of dejection in our society. The “in your face” attitude of the ruling classes adds to the ordinary citizen’s feeling of woe. An airline official is publicly beaten up by an MP who boasts about it on TV, platitudes are trotted out by the Government but no action is taken against the MP.

A socialist leader’s son travels in a Lamborghini, a DJ is threatened when she sings about broken roads, the death of scores of children caused by shortage of oxygen is termed as a natural disaster ~ the instances of arrogance are too numerous to recount. Numerous mega scams perpetrated by politicians and politically connected persons have been investigated but never has the defalcated money been recovered or the guilty have ever been brought to book. At politically opportune times politicians remember such scams only to discredit their opponents, not to bring about any systemic change.

No wonder that after numerous repetitions of the same sordid story over a period of 70 years, no one expects any action from the Government in any instance of wrongdoing by the high and mighty. Bereft of any expectation of justice, the common man only wants to get on in his day-today life.

Another reason for our mass unhappiness is the everyday uncertainties of the 21st century which are further exacerbated by disruptive actions of the Government. Today every one of us dreads even the humdrum announcements made by the Government.

One day it is demonetisation, another time it is a call to get an Aadhaar card, next time it is to link Aadhaar with PAN, bank account or whatever.

The list goes on increasing. All the time you are threatened with great penalties, should you fail to comply. The joke about everyone running petrified when they hear the word “Mitron”, has its basis in reality. Even the past is not immune to change. In school, one learnt that Maharana Pratap was a great warrior who continued to wage a guerrilla war against the mighty Akbar even after being defeated in the battle of Haldighati. Now we are being told that Maharana Pratap had, in fact, won the battle of Haldighati.

Similarly, Jawaharlal Nehru was earlier portrayed as a statesman who laid the foundation of modern India, but today Nehru is reviled as a lecher with no significant role in the freedom struggle. These historical revisions have disturbed the intellectual moorings of most of us who have nothing left to believe in.

Additionally, the lack of job opportunities brought about by our jobless growth has stymied the hopes and dreams of the younger generation. Even after studying in the best institutes, the best of our youth fail to land a job. It is easy for persons in power to advise youngsters to go for start-ups but capital and/or entrepreneurship is required to strike out on one’s own.

Does our education system give our young men this kind of confidence or training? In desperation, young men with Doctorates and MBA degrees sometimes apply for Group D jobs. The hopelessness of these young men soon transmits itself to their family members. Can anyone placed in such a situation be happy? Then there is the fight for scarce resources. Food production, housing, roads, college seats, train seats etc cannot increase at the rate we are reproducing. On the other hand, there are connected people who get admissions in colleges, reservations in trains and house allotments just by making a phone call.

The super-rich do one better; they send their children abroad for education and jobs, far away from the perennial struggles of India. The disappointment of those left behind in the rat race fuels the unhappiness in the lives of crores of Indians. Finally, how can we be happy when we have divided ourselves into groups and subgroups on the basis of caste or political affiliations?

Mahatma Gandhi had propounded the concept of “village republics” but the Panchayati Raj system is in a shambles today; one of the reasons for its failure being the disunity and antagonism amongst villagers. Elders living in villages recall the days when villagers stood united against all common threats be they wild animals or marauding dacoits. People of the same village preferred to stay together in bigger towns.

Alas, villages of today are highly divided and unsafe places, the scenes of the worst types of crimes and disturbances and one can easily conjecture that villagers are much unhappier than people in bigger towns. Similar caste and political divisions plague town and city dwellers. All events, even those taking place in far-off places, are publicly dissected in terms of religion, caste and political affiliations. At best, this leads to mudslinging and fights on Twitter and Facebook, in the worst case scenario fights and clashes break out.

These polarising circumstances have led to the emergence of a new kind of politician; one who is from the right community, cunning, totally amoral and physically strong. Soon these ersatz politicians foray into contracts and commissions, enriching themselves and their relatives in the process. Right thinking members of civil society despair at the way society is shaping up, providing one more reason for their unhappiness. Coming to development, we are obsessed with statistical goals to the exclusion of goals of human and sustainable development. The Prime Minister’s speech on Independence Day highlighted this obsession.

If the present trend continues, despite our best efforts, we would end up in the middle of the happiness table like China, which has a similar social structure and the same long-time goals. To bring a smile to every face we have to rebuild our social capital which would have us addressing the five main issues which have eroded social trust and confidence in the fairness of the Government.

The first initiative should be a set of policies aimed at reducing income and wealth inequality which means an expanded social safety net, wealth taxes, and greater public financing of health and education leading to quality education in public institutions and quality healthcare in public hospitals. The second initiative should be to improve social relations between communities and individuals. Any act or word aimed at fostering hatred between communities should be roundly condemned by all.

Any move by any community to restrict individual freedom should not be countenanced. The third priority should be to improve the lot of agriculture and agriculturists who constitute 45 per cent of our population. The fourth priority should be reform our judicial system so that justice is quick and affordable. Our final priority should be to root out corruption. Till we reform our institutions, we cannot come out of the bottom of the happiness table.

(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner, Income Tax)