Are Indians unhappy, or just angry? Rising inequality corroding the nation’s social cohesion
India is witnessing a profound shift in terms of both its popular discourse and political rhetoric. Today, majoritarian politics seems to have made exclusion its dominant narrative.columns Updated: Mar 26, 2017 18:34 IST
When it comes to happiness, India ranks lower than most of its South Asian neighbours, according to the United Nations-sponsored World Happiness Report (2017) released last week. In a ranking of 155 countries, India was placed in the bottom quartile and ranked at 122. This makes Indians one of the ‘least happy’ in the world. These findings were widely reported, but none took note that India has been steadily slipping since the global happiness index was first launched in 2012, when it ranked at 111.
The index uses five parameters to measure the level of happiness, or the lack of it, among the citizens of a country. These include per capita GDP, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices and trust. But are these numbers to be laughed at? Can one really measure happiness which, as a state of mind, can vary many times over in the course of even a day? Moreover, the notion of happiness changes across cultures and is tied to such factors that can be hard to measure or quantify.
On the other hand, if one does accept that the index is some sort of approximate and meaningful exercise, then it would be well to debate the implications. Why are Indians becoming unhappier when they have enviable GDP numbers? The index tells us that there is a fall in trust, ability to exercise choices and rapidly eroding social support networks. In sum, the emotional world of the Indian is under stress amidst a rising economy.
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- 2. Denmark 7.42
- 3. Iceland 7.5
- 4. Switzerland 7.49
- 5. Finland 7.47
- 6. Netherlands 7.38
- 7. Canada 7.32
- 8. New Zealand 7.321
- 9. Australia 7.28
- 10. Sweden 7.28
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- 150. Togo 3.49
- 151. Rwanda 3.47
- 152. Syria 3.46
- 153. Tanzania 3.35
- 154. Burundi 2.91
- 155. Central African Republic 2.69
The story hasn’t been much different for the United States, a country that is much admired here for its economic success and democratic values, or China that is often seen here as a model of development worth emulating. The United States, which once ranked among the top 5, is now placed in the 19th position. Despite the phenomenal progress of their economy, the Chinese are less happy today than they were 25 years ago, according to the happiness report.
Clearly, “money does not buy happiness.”
While there may be truth to this well-known belief, this disquiet in the social sphere might speak for more than unhappiness. Could it be that Indians are actually getting angrier as well? Being angry is not the same as being unhappy. While the former is often a reaction to be expected from the “excluded”, the latter is associated with how the “not included” might respond. The boy who doesn’t make it to the school cricket team is likely to be unhappy, while the boy who is dropped from the team is likely to be angry.
Also it is easy to identify what makes people happy, but always difficult to pinpoint why they could be angry. Anger always manifests in a more complex reaction than happiness. We see that in today’s India. Rising inequality has begun to corrode social cohesion and the ability to build political consensus.
In broad brush stokes, one could perhaps also argue that India is witnessing a profound shift in terms of both its popular discourse and political rhetoric. Today, majoritarian politics seems to have made exclusion its dominant narrative. This is in striking contrast to the earlier calls for social and economic inclusion. Could the index actually be telling us that the majority feels like victims despite relative economic success? Does it also tell us that the personal now is becoming political? Could it be that the aspirations of the new demographic are turning into the narrative of deprivation rather than the hope of citizen entitlement? This may well become the electoral script for 2019?
The author is Chief Content Officer, Hindustan Times.
Follow the author @rajeshmahapatra