The world and its obsession with GDP is a fallacy. The old mantra of wealth-creation as the goal of life and government is redundant. A lot is fundamentally wrong with the size of a country’s GDP being the most commonly used measure of its well-being. Measuring GDP is likely to remain an essential marker for economists, but it cannot capture everything that is important to people.
Investopedia explains, “Economic production and growth, what GDP represents, has a large impact on nearly everyone within the economy”. GDP and the unemployment rate very often go hand in hand. When GDP growth is strong, firms hire more workers and can afford to pay higher salaries and wages, which leads to more spending by consumers on goods and services.
Firms also have the confidence to invest more when economic growth is strong, and investment lays the foundation for economic growth in the future. When GDP growth is very low or the economy goes into a recession, the opposite applies, workers may be retrenched and paid lower wages, and firms are reluctant to invest.
Thomas Jefferson has said that “The care of life and happiness is the sole legitimate objective of government”. Now, looking at the World Happiness Index, India’s ranking is appalling. Out of 156 nations, India’s rank has plunged to the 140th position in 2019. In 2018, India was placed on 133rd position, in 2016 it was ranked on 118th position and in 2015, India was on 117th position. Pakistan, on the other hand, stands at the 67th rank, China at 93, Bhutan at 95, Nepal at 100, Bangladesh at 125 and Sri Lanka at 130.
For a country as enormous as India, with so much diversity, happiness depends on multiple dimensions and the understanding of the intricacies of Indian society does leave scope for bias. India’s GDP has doubled in the last decade and even when people are relatively better off than before, their happiness has not increased. Clearly, the reciprocity between happiness and wealth is weak.
Under Manmohan Singh, wealth-creation was made the Government’s central focus. But now a fundamental cultural change is underway in India: we are beginning to think that the purpose of life and of government might be the well-being of the people rather than the creation of wealth.
We are no happier than we were sixty years ago and everybody now knows that. This is despite massive wealth-creation. At the political level, party leaders of all major political parties support the importance of well-being. It is a non-party-political issue, so politicians of all parties talk about well-being, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who won two consecutive elections on the promise of ‘Acche Din’.
We have been overlooking issues like food, water, shelter, and safety. Foundations of wellbeing like basic education, information, health, and a sustainable environment. Opportunities such as rights, freedom of choice, freedom from discrimination, and access to higher education. All of which are included when measuring well-being. For a long time, we have been focusing on wealth creation and it must have been necessary when many countries were still feeling the effects of the global recession, and understandably national leaders were focused on getting their countries growing again.
India’s rank on the World Happiness Index indicates the need for a holistic approach towards development. Propulsion is needed on factors such as social welfare and mental well-being, along with the thrust on economic development. Furthermore, even this economic development should not be limited to profit-making alone but should consider the planet and people for laying a strong foundation of industrial development and growth.
Happiness is the basic aspiration of every human being. It is what we most want for our children, and it is the theme of much of the world’s greatest literature. Having the right goals, the right strategies, and the right policies aimed at sustainable economic development are equally and perhaps even more important than those focused on GDP. Every country’s goals and strategy will be shaped by their unique conditions, needs, and resources, although many countries do face similar challenges.
India lacks a clear philosophical focus and a corresponding cultural organization to promote it. This means a thorough re-casting of policy is needed. At present, the main method is cost-benefit analysis where benefits are measured in rupees.
This method cannot capture the outcomes of most forms of public spending like health, law, and order, protection for our children, care for the elderly and relief for the poverty-stricken. Since choice throws little light on how people value better health, safer streets, happier children, and more contented elderly and deprived people. For these aspirations, the outcome must be measured in terms of changes in happiness and misery. Designing and implementing these methods to turn it into a reality lies in the hands of the political class.