In India, where terms like ‘Acche Din’, ‘Vikas’, ‘5 trillion-dollar economy by 2021’ are bandied about by the Narendra Modi government and its supporters, what does ‘development’ really involve?
Too often, in public perception, the performance of the government of the day has been judged on the basis of conventional economic indicators – for instance, GDP growth rate, or the overall size of the economy. But this may not directly correlate with how Indian citizens are really doing; to them, their job prospects and employability, personal income levels, the environment, relationships within society, and quality of life matter more, though these are not always easily captured in the common economic indices.
Some countries have tried to rise to this challenge by evolving other measures of their citizens’ welfare. These are often grouped together under the rubric of a “well-being budget”.
In May this year, under Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s leadership, New Zealand announced its first ‘well-being budget’, a significant departure from traditional economic planning and allocation of financial resources to a system that assesses the long-term impact of policymaking from a social ‘well-being’ perspective. Among the key points of the budget was an increased emphasis on areas such as mental health, infrastructure for child development, opportunities for indigenous communities and poverty alleviation.
The Kiwis are not alone in their attempt to go beyond conventional economic matrices. In the late 1980s, the United Nations came up with a Human Development Index. Over nearly half a century ago, Bhutan made waves with their announcement of a ‘Gross National Happiness Index’, which went beyond the trappings of conventional indicators such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and looked at the welfare of their people in a holistic way.
Similarly, the United Arab Emirates has allocated a portfolio in its cabinet for a minister of state for happiness (currently held by my good friend Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak) as well as a National Programme for Happiness and Positivity that incorporates and promotes ‘happiness’ and ‘positivity’ within major government institutions and programmes.
The Welsh have their ‘Well-Being of Future Generations Act’ that seeks to ensure that the long-term social and ecological impact of the official policy is monitored. And closer to home, even the state governments of Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh have experimented with forming a ‘Happiness Department’, albeit with limited success.
Distraction from pressing needs?
Such departures from conventional policymaking do not sit well with a majority of economists, who feel particularly alarmed by the inherent ‘subjectivity’ with issues such as well-being. There is also the concern that such efforts could offer a dangerous distraction from the economic pursuits of a country, as measured by traditional indicators such as growth rate, consumption pattern, industrial production indices and so on.
In all fairness, this is an understandable concern. In a country like India, where welfare policies are inextricably linked to the very survival of many, including a large section of our society that continues to hover at the poverty line, there is a strong argument that we cannot afford the distractions posed by illusory endeavours in pursuit of something as elusive as ‘happiness’. Especially since so many distractions are actually intended by the Modi government and its apologists to deflect attention from the current parlous state of the Indian economy.
But even as we rightly celebrate our economic accomplishments such as breaking into the top 100 in the Ease of Doing Business Rankings, we cannot afford to ignore the warning bells such as the United Nations’ Global Happiness Index, where India currently ranks 140th among a list of 156 countries; or the fact that we have the highest suicide rate in South East Asia, the most drastic manifestation of our current mental health epidemic that could threaten to derail conventional economic growth altogether in a population where one in three Indians struggles with depression.
In order to tackle this, we must first accept that a well-being budget is not an ‘either-or’ proposition. It need not be a substitute for conventional economics, but rather, as a project that will help us develop tools and indicators that take economic outcomes beyond their face value and move towards what the economist Richard Layard (one of the chief editors of the UN Global Happiness Index) terms the ultimate objective of ‘life satisfaction’, which would offer a better measurement of how our citizens are faring — arguably a far more significant duty of the government of the day.
Approach to well-being
As commentator Martin Wolf points out, there are two approaches to implementing a well-being budget. One is the approach followed by the Kiwis, which has tied down all key government decisions to the larger aim of promoting well-being and judging policy through the long-term social and ecological impact they have on communities (that often gets missed in the general din of policy assessment). Such an approach is admittedly not easy to replicate in a country like India where the population of the state of Himachal Pradesh exceeds that of New Zealand. It might be more worthwhile to consider the second option, which is to have a narrower and dedicated budget solely catering to the well-being of our citizens.
So while India can continue to embark on traditional economic planning and its ambitious welfare programmes, adopting a separate “well-being budget” will allow us to prioritise issues that are inextricably linked to the happiness of all Indians — stronger commitments to improving the environment we live in (tackling the issue of deteriorating air quality, for instance, that practically keeps north India confined indoors for much of the winter months). Or increased spending on mental health (and not just as a subset of the larger spending on healthcare in India, but dedicated spending that reverses the acute shortage of mental health professionals and builds a strong support infrastructure). And a more sustained effort to equip and provide India’s youth (who form the overwhelming majority of our country) the necessary skills and opportunities to thrive.
A constitutional obligation to have dedicated expenditure for well-being would at least ensure that some priority has to be given to these elements, which are all too often overlooked or minimised in a conventional budget.
Two centuries and a half ago, the American Declaration of Independence dedicated itself to ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’. Isn’t it time we improved the quality of the first, protected the second and started our own quest for the third?
The author is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 18 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is The Paradoxical Prime Minister. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor. Views are personal.