Unhappy India

Not very long ago (Sept 2, 2019), India launched a rocket to the far side of the moon. It carried a lunar lander that fell silent following the landing attempt four days later. Had it survived, India would have become the fourth country in the world to accomplish the feat. Still, the partial success was a matter of pride. There have been other signal achievements including a doubling of GDP in the past decade. Then, why are Indians unhappy?

The World Happiness Report for 2018 ranks Pakistan and Portugal respectively at numbers 75 and 77 while India is far behind at 133 adjacent to Congo at 132 and Niger 134. Bangladesh at 115 is also happier than India. On the other hand, India’s per capita GDP ($2036 — IMF) is now higher than Pakistan ($1555). So again, the question: Why are Indians unhappy?

Could it be the answer lies not in absolute but relative wealth? The Gini Index is a measure of wealth inequality where 100 represents the most inequality possible and zero perfect equality i.e. when everyone has the same wealth. On the subcontinent for 2018, Pakistan’s index at 30.7 beats many first world countries while India’s (35.7) is way behind. Pakistanis are also higher in generosity (0.216), whereas for India this variable is much lower at 0.172. Generally, charitable giving is found to improve self-image and well-being.

India is seeking another way as archeologists are busy trying to dig up evidence of events described in the Hindu religious texts — ancient civilization becoming a tool for expressing Hindu superiority and raising self-esteem. Yet India does not really have to; it can bask in the architectural glory and beauty of the Taj Mahal. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) might have kept count of who were Hindu artisans and laborers and who Muslim, not the Mughals. Perhaps the BJP can find vindication and gratification in the fact that Shah Jahan’s mother (Manmati Bai) was Hindu.

Mr. Modi might also glance westward at Egypt and its pyramids to observe that magnificent ancient civilizations do little to enhance stature in the present. A better focus for him could be on the 800 million of his own people trying to earn enough each day to get a meal; indeed, while his staff are proud to announce, he changes his clothes three times a day. Vainglorious and narcissistic may be, but it is difficult to forget Mr. Modi’s chalk stripe suiting with his name woven into the stripes. Extreme penury and inequality are unlikely to make a people happy.

Add to that the caste system and its unbelievable (for the modern world) treatment of untouchables — who are not a negligible minority when every sixth Indian is one. The chronicle of a family, Untouchables by Narendra Jadhav is an enlightening but painful read. Imagine not being able to drink from the village well because of birth and heritage. Most humans are proud of their heritage, but like the Nazis earlier, the BJP tries to restrict it to the three upper castes among Hindus.

Recurrent lower-caste humiliation and threat of violence draws rancor turning to disguised hostility, not the best ingredients for a happy homogenized society. To this can be supplemented the newly-formed notion of Hindu superiority — a bald-faced conceit when the country had been ruled by Muslims and the British for 800 years, not forgetting the Sikhs in the Punjab.

There could be another marker for happiness: a low suicide rate. Science magazine’s cover topic in vol 365 (23 Aug 2019) was devoted to the tragedy of suicide. The global average rate is 10.5 per 100,000 of population. On the subcontinent, Pakistan’s is less than a half at 4.5; India’s a whopping 15.6 (pp 736-7). Yet it is possible the rate is even higher as the notorious farmer suicide figures are manipulated by the states according to Wikipedia. The para on the number of farmers cites researchers’ claims that “… official data may be overestimating the number of total farmers in India, and undercounting the total number of farmer suicides every year.”

Worth a brief mention, Japan’s tradition of harikari leads to the very high rate of 15.7; India with a comparable figure has no such tradition.

One surprise is that six of the top seven countries with the lowest suicide rates are not necessarily rich … just Muslim, so Pakistan is not an anomaly. Perhaps it is the Islamic emphasis on equality, brotherhood and mandatory charitable giving that facilitates societal cohesion. Islamic countries also average a rate so low as to be about a third of that for wealthy Europe and North America.

If it appears contradictory because the Scandinavian countries in Europe are also at the top of the happiness report, there are other issues to consider like the dark of winter leading to depression. Among the top ten in the world, the suicide rate in Greenland is 51.1, Lithuania 28.0, Russia 25.1. It seems the major reason Scandinavian countries are happier is due to the broad social welfare net covering healthcare, unemployment, pensions, and so on. It frees the populace from the usual worries about old age security or of paying large hospital and drug bills as in the US. Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are, however, comparable on the social welfare scale.

Then there is the serious issue of insurgencies. While mostly confined to the northeast and east, the battles are more common than is commonly realized. Thus the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project reports that in 2016 (the latest figures) there were 186 violent events (about every second day) of which 52 percent were battles. Bomb blasts targeting security forces accounted for 19 percent and another 9 percent sought to destroy infrastructure. Violence against civilians hurt by both sides constituted the remaining 20 percent. These conflicts are ongoing since the early sixties with thousands of lives lost, as a quick glance at Wikipedia confirms. Of course, violence in Kashmir is on a different scale altogether for the lives lost number in the tens of thousands.

India is a fractious country divided by caste, religion, ethnicity, language; wracked by political and administrative corruption; stymied by bureaucratic incompetence; and yet producing brilliant engineers and scientists capable of world-quality research and space exploration. It is cause for hope, although slim, unless the country pulls itself up by its bootstraps socially and economically.

Arshad M. Khan is a former professor who has, over many years, written occasionally for the print and often for online media outlets.