What matters more – economic well being or social well being? And does that have a significant bearing on the way we make our decisions? The answer is both significant and surprising. And India must worry about it.
Let me explain.
Early last month I was at Alang, India’s ship breaking hub. On our itinerary list was a newly-constructed dormitory units that the Gujarat Maritime Board has built. Well laid out dormitory blocks with each unit having a service kitchen. There were rows of toilets and bathrooms with piped water. There was also a common mess where food would be cooked and served for shipyard workers. The place, though modest, was a dramatic upgrade from the shanties – with no water, no toilet and missing drainage – where most Alang workers currently live. Yet, the officials said that the newly-built dorms had few takers. One of the biggest reasons, they said, is that the workers didn’t want to disrupt their social circle. Far away from home and their families, they normally stay in groups often belonging to their village or region. And shifting to a government-built dorm, they would have little say in who they share the dormitory with.
Ram Deo (name changed), 44, is one of them. He comes from a village in UP. The father of three is a gas cutter and manages to visit home twice-thrice a year. Life for him is lonely and tough. Often his day starts at 4-4.30 and his work shift begins at 7 am and could go on till well over 7 pm. By the time he returns home he is exhausted. So cooking dinner and chatting with his friends in his shanty is the only way he gets to unwind and feel somewhat belonged. “There (at the government-built dormitory) you don’t know who you will stay with,” he says.
A version of this i experienced last year when my parents shifted close to where I stayed. It was a nice well equipped residential complex but they were miserable. Amid our busy lives and their non-existent social circle, life to them felt tough and literally uprooted. Now, they reside in a senior citizen complex in Bhiwadi, Rajasthan where they have many friends. And their life now seems so much happier.
We often don’t acknowledge it. But social well-being is as important as economic well-being. Governments closely monitor economic well-being of the citizens. But equally critical, no matter at what stage of the economic growth the nation is, social wellbeing too is.
Every year, United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UNSDSN) comes out with The World Happiness Report ranking of 156 countries. The report takes into account GDP per capita, life expectancy, social support and freedom to make life choices.
In the 2016 report, expectedly, the Scandinavian countries dominated the top five list with Denmark (1), Switzerland (2), Iceland (3), Norway (4) and Finland (5). India fared poorly. It ranked 118th on the list. Worse, it slipped from 117th in 2015. What is very worrying is among the 10 countries that saw a decline, India witnessed the steepest declines in happiness levels between 2005-07 and 2013-15, according to the report.
Remember, this dip in happiness quotient happened even as India has made some good economic progress. For record, India’s GDP more than trebled from Rs 32.53 lakh crore in 2005-06 to Rs 113.50 lakh crore (at constant prices) in 2015-16 even as per capita income more than trebled from Rs 25,696 to Rs 77,435 respectively during the period. “The largest regional drop (-0.6 points) was in South Asia in which India has by far the largest population and is unexplained by the model, which shows (in fact) an expected gain based on improvements in five of the six variables, offset by a drop in social support,” the report said.
India had a score of 4404, below the global average of 5382. Denmark, the topper, scored 7526 and Burundi at the bottom of the list scored 2905. India ranked behind even countries like Somalia (76th) Pakistan (92nd), Bangladesh (110th). Among BRICs, Brazil (ranked 17th) and India were the only two countries that saw a decline but India remained the worst performer.
Why does India fare so poorly on the happiness index even as the economic prosperity at virtually every level – from ownership of cars to mobile phones – has risen in the country over the last decade.
Growth with equity has eluded India. In fact in both India and China, Gini coefficient has risen. India’s rose from 45 in 1990 to 51 in 2013 due to growing urban-rural and urban-urban income inequality. While in absolute terms many Indians have improved their economic well-being, in relative terms the gulf between haves and have nots has widened. India is home to one of the largest (among top five nations) number of world’s billionaires. According to Knight Frank Global Wealth Report 2016, the number of billionaires in India surged 330% over the last decade, outpacing global average growth of 68% and the momentum will continue over the next decade.
Perhaps not so surprising then that guilt is the biggest factor that is nudging Indians towards philanthropy, according to a recent Bain report.
Two, a majority of Indian workers work in pathetic conditions in the informal sector. According to an ILO report based on per cent of workers in informal employment India is the worst. In China, their percentage stood at 32.6%, Brazil 42.2%, South Africa 32.7% and India at a high 83.6%. The government has failed miserably in enforcing/mandating even basic statutory benefits that Indian workers should have access to. For example, a vast majority of workers at Alang do back-breaking work in hazardous conditions and live in miserable conditions with little access to even statutory worker benefits including provident fund mandated by the government. “Mazdoor to majboor hai (workers are helpless),” says one of the workers at Alang.
Three, blame it on the rising urbanisation. On one hand urbanisation is important and desirable for India to move its vast majority of working age population (under-employed in largely subsistence low productivity farm jobs) to non-farm jobs. But this migration is disrupting the social fabric. Remember, this isn’t just nuclearisation of families. High living cost in big cities mean that most of these migrant workers move to the cities solo, leaving their families behind in their villages. Of the 50,000-100,000 workers at Alang, over 90% have left their family behind and at best travel to their villages twice-thrice a year. “Yes it is lonely here. I barely get to see my children and family. But I don’t have a choice. I just wish that my children do not have to do what I am doing for a living. But even that I am not so sure,” the worker adds. India lives in multiple ages simultaneously – parts of it closer to the sub-Saharan Africa and parts of it closer to the developed world. In way, India’s poor ranking on the Happiness Index offers a better yardstick to the way Indians feel about their state today. From old age homes for India’s old to basic worker housing, the government along with employers must look at multiple strategies to improve the workers’ lot.
So while the government closely monitors GDP, per capita and other key economic indicators to benchmark the nation’s progress, it must evolve a more rounded view of its people’s well-being and monitor them to build a happier nation.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own. For more visit http://www.facebook.com/ndmias
A Economic Times journalist curious about how a growing economy is changing us as a nation and a society.