If we get too fixated on the alternative-to-GDP idea, we lose sight of this process, the operational and much more important part
What is common to Bhutan, Venezuela, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Madhya Pradesh? All have a ministry/department on happiness. Bhutan is the one talked about the most, with the idea of GNH (gross national happiness) presented as some kind of alternative to GDP (gross domestic product). GNH is built into Bhutan’s Constitution, in Article 9, on Principles of State Policy. What is invariably quoted is Article 9.2. “The State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness.” However, this follows Article 9.1. “The State shall endeavour to apply the Principles of State Policy set out in this Article to ensure a good quality of life for the people of Bhutan in a progressive and prosperous country that is committed to peace and amity in the world.” Operationally, what does this mean? Those who mention Bhutan invariably talk about GNHI (Gross National Happiness Index), administered by Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research. GNHI is based on four pillars (political, economic, cultural and environmental) and nine domains (can be skipped for present purposes). There were surveys in 2010 and 2015 to determine how Bhutan performed on GNHI. Hence, along a happiness/unhappiness continuum, progress could be measured and one had an aggregate measure that was an alternative or supplement to GDP, based on subjective responses to questionnaires that were then aggregated. To state the obvious, Bhutan has a population of around 750,000.
But I don’t think the alternative or supplementary summary measure is the point. The point is Planning Commission and Committee of Secretaries being subsumed in Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC). In other words, feedback received from GNHI surveys is factored into the government policies and public expenditure priorities, reflected in central and local body plans. More than the aggregate measure, if I have understood the idea right, this suggests decentralised planning to me. Ascertain needs of gram panchayats/urban local bodies. Use those local plans to aggregate and move up to a block-level, district-level and national plan. If we get too fixated on the alternative-to-GDP idea, we lose sight of this process, the operational and much more important part. After a lot of sarcastic comments and dark humour in 2013, I haven’t heard much about Venezuela’s vice-ministry of supreme social happiness. Perhaps it just vanished, because of chaos and general uncertainty. The initial idea seems to have been to converge anti-poverty programmes directed at disabled, homeless, poor and old-age pensioners. Unlike Bhutan, you don’t ask people what their priorities are. Given the ideology of the government, you know what people want, or should want. At best, you synergise across schemes. This also illustrates why discussions on happiness, mentioning both Bhutan and Venezuela in the same breath, are misleading.
I don’t think it is fair to place UAE in the same bracket either. In 2016, UAE announced a new ministry (and minister of state) for happiness. It may be early days. But so far, all this ministry seems to have done is to train officers from federal and local government to become chief happiness and positivity officers. I am not sure the UN General Assembly Resolution of July 19, 2011, was a very good idea. “(1) Invites Member States to pursue the elaboration of additional measures that better capture the importance of the pursuit of happiness and well-being in development with a view to guiding their public policies; (2) Invites those Member States that have taken initiatives to develop new indicators, and other initiatives, to share information thereon with the Secretary-General as a contribution to the United Nations development agenda, including the Millennium Development Goals”. Irrespective of what is done to public policy formulation, people are jumping onto the bandwagon of measuring and pushing something that is at best elusive. Witness World Happiness Report, an annual feature since 2012. This is based on diverse indicators across GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make choices, generosity and perceptions of corruption (trust). Measure a country’s distance from the perfect dystopia and you have a rank and a score. In 2016, India had a rank of 118 out of 150 countries.
If citizens are happier in a certain country, presumably people would want to migrate there, given a choice. In 2016, the top three countries were Denmark, Switzerland and Iceland, and both Nepal and Bangladesh have higher ranks than India. It is worth checking out the number of Indian emigrants to these five countries. Among India’s states, MP was the first one to start a happiness department, in 2016. It is early days there too. At the moment, the focus is on volunteers training people to positively impact lives on others. This is, thus, an attempt to bring about behavioural changes in people, not behavioural changes within the government. Such disparity across three countries and a state should remind you of the clichéd blind men and the elephant, and perhaps of John Godfrey Saxe’s poem too. Most people will remember how the poem starts. “It was six men of Indostan….” And this is how it ends. “So, oft in theologic wars, The disputants, I ween, Rail on in utter ignorance, Of what each other mean, And prate about an Elephant Not one of them has seen!” For happiness too, theology is a good expression, because that’s what the fetish about measurement has reduced it too. The means of measurement have become more important than the end.
The author is member, NITI Aayog. Views are personal