Pursuit of happiness: GNH vs GDP
Recently, as a member of the Expert Group set up by the King of Bhutan, I attended the meeting to develop gross national happiness as a viable substitute for gross domestic product. The latter goes up when the trees are cut while the former goes down for the same act. There are many other differences between both the concepts, which have triggered a worldwide debate. Some believe that a system, which counts on the destruction of natural resources as a contributor to the economic growth is a broken system. It is unfortunate that Prime Minister recently felt that the plea for forest conservation was an obstruction to economic development. Perhaps he meant that mining and other such activities should be allowed even in the reserved and protected forest areas, though we have only four per cent area reserved for wildlife. Bhutan has almost 50 per cent area under forest and has decided to keep it that way. The model of development in Bhutan may have contradictions but it has lessons for the global community to learn. We all know that one cannot enjoy happiness without bouts of sadness. But, the sources of sadness determine the authenticity of happiness. If we are sad because of social iniquity, denial of basic freedom to people, the inability of birds and other animals figuring in our community of sentient beings; then overcoming asymmetry may trigger genuine or inclusive happiness. Can we maximise happiness, or we maximize satisfaction or we just be happy.
Once a few students in shodhyatra course in laddakh had walked ahead of others , climbing the peaks on the way. I was walking in the end with some who had faced difficulty in walking in low oxygen environment. After we all reached the village for night halt, we met and discussed about what happened in the day. Those who had come ahead of others by then had realised that by leaving those weakling behind, they had probably not set a very good example. Sensing my uneasiness at the turn of the events, one of them said, “sir, we realised some thing valuable today. If you are on the top and have no one to share, you are not there”. Having someone to share is fundamental to experience happiness.
Even before human societies evolved languages, they had made cave paintings more than 50, 000 years ago to express their creativity and happiness. Would not measurement of happiness index thus rest among other factors on the extent to which various institutions, incentives and indicators are aligned to measure a) social and ethical capital embedded in various action, b) willingness sof participants in any economic or social activity to take responsibility for well being of non-human sentient beings, c) the extent to which the cost of consuming natural resources are reflected in the actual prices of various good and service so that by externalising such cost, we don’t transfer the costs and sometime the irreversible burden to the future generation.
Achieving happiness through expression of creative potential of each segment of society will require a new model of the work, organization and indicators for tracking the progress. The social inequality in terms of not just economic indicators but also opportunity matrices will need to be addressed. The concern for fairness to not just other human beings but also non-human sentient brings will become central to evaluating happiness index of any society. The prime ministers will then not complain that taking care of wild life and environment is a hindrance to economic development, given the fact that India has only 4 per cent area under sanctuaries. We need to redefine the very purpose of growth and then means of achieving it will start getting realigned,. Consumptive society is going in a direction which we all have to realise is not sustainable. Do our grandchildren have any vote in our current decision making systems?
Anil K Gupta