Gobar Times
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A measure for progress


The results are out. Sri Lanka’s been ranked the top country in South Asia on development ‘achievements’ such as life expectancy, schooling and income. The 2011 Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations Development Programme ranks Sri Lanka at 97, while India ranks a miserable 134, a little above Pakistan (145), Bangladesh (146), Nepal (157) and Bhutan (141). Norway is first, followed by Australia and the Netherlands. Simply, India lags far behind in ensuring a good life for its citizens.

Now, development is usually understood in purely economic terms. Here, India’s GDP is more than 10 times that of Norway. In 2010, Norway clocked a dismal GDP growth rate of less than 1 per cent, while India’s economy grew at an impressive 9.7 per cent.

Thankfully, there are other measures that put people, not the economy, at the heart of things. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of the United Nations wants all nations to eradicate poverty, ensure all kids go to school, men and women are treated equal, and the environment gets its due.

Gross National Happiness (GNH) and the curious case of Bhutan

Bhutan – with more monks than soldiers, where the beloved fourth king wanted to abolish his rule – has evolved a powerful measure for progress: Happiness. What’s the point of a booming economy if it can’t make you happy? Till the 1960s, Bhutan was a feudal society--no schools, hospitals, highways, or national currency; no phones, or postal service. It only got TV in 1999! In 2006, the fourth king abdicated his throne; in 2008, his son made Bhutan the world’s youngest democracy.

What is GNH? It is an approach to capture the aspirations of people and is used as a tool to better design policies. It is serious stuff: just as India has a Planning Commission (PC), Bhutan has a GNH Commission. The PC puts together development policies, only looking at conventional parametres such as economy, health, education, living standards, and to some degree, environment. But the GNH wants to go the next level: how do you use a parameter like happiness and design national policy around it? Cool challenge, isn’t it?

So development is about what people care about, and policies should reflect what people care about. GNH follows an ideal of democracy – to be for the people, by the people, of the people. Plans are designed to not just push economic growth, but to promote a high quality of growth. The challenge is how to achieve growth, reduce joblessness and spread benefits countrywide. The country pushes carbon neutral growth by keeping 60 per cent of the country’s land under forest cover, forever.

Remember, GNH is a tool to screen all policies: it must deliver what it promises. All policies are put to the GNH ‘test’ before they are approved. The GNH tool has nine domains. Five are recognisable: health, education, living standards, environmental sustainability and good governance. The other four are what makes GNH unique and fun: psychological well being, community vitality, cultural diversity and time use.

Psychological well-being: Does the proposed policy recognize that just as our bodies need physical nourishment, our spiritual side too needs to be enriched. This can be achieved by meditation, religious practice or by spending quality time with the loved ones.

Time use: As countries become richer, people work longer, leaving them with less time to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Bhutan declares local holidays to allow people to celebrate local festivals. France has reduced working hours to give its people a better life. GNH pushes policies that help people align their jobs with their values, to give them the time to strengthen relationships.

Community vitality: Often, development diminishes community. GNH emphasises ‘family’ in policy making. Both parents and their children look after each other at different times in their lives. What’s the point of raising life expectancy from 60 to 90 years, when old people are forced to spend their lives in nursing homes? Singapore’s housing policy, for example, allots flats on a priority basis to people who want to live with their parents.

Culture: Culture, tradition and sense of identity are very important to the Bhutanese, and GNH ensures policies are in harmony with enduring Buddhist values – respect, love and compassion. GNH is a powerful rejoinder to the idea of endless growth in a world with limited resources. There’s a growing interest in this concept, and a recent UN resolution asked countries of the world to explore how development goals could be enriched by measures of happiness.

— Aditya Batra

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A measure for progress