Several lucky Indians have taken their vaccine shots and flown abroad. With relief, they are getting back to their own normal lives. A year ago, all Indians were startled to be locked in. And shocked too that millions had to break out of the Lakshman Rekha for shelter, food, and even water to drink. The novel coronavirus pandemic had exposed the precariousness of their lives. Relief was rushed for them, and vows taken that when the pandemic passes, we must “build back better”, and create a new, more resilient, and more just economy.
In the country’s march to a $5 trillion economy, the Indian government and its advisers are keen to recover the many lost quarters of GDP growth. Have they lost sight of how poorly India’s economic growth has been serving its citizens? A Union Minister pooh-poohed the Global Hunger Index which places India 94 amongst 107 countries. International observers are wrong, he said, because Indians are very kind people, who even give sweets to a dog when she delivers her puppies, and such kind people would never ever allow a human being to go hungry.
The WHR20 Happiness Report released in March 2021 by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network compares citizens’ own perceptions of their well-being in 153 countries. According to the report, Indian citizens are amongst the least happy in the world: India ranks a very low 144th. Perhaps the Minister will say that Indian citizens themselves do not know what is happening in India.
Inequities have widened
Like aerodynamic stress-tests reveal structural weaknesses in the designs of aircraft, the pandemic has revealed structural flaws in countries’ economies. According to a report released by the World Bank, while India’s stock markets rose during the pandemic and the very rich became even richer, the number of people who are poor in India (with incomes of $2 or less a day) is estimated to have increased by 75 million. This accounts for nearly 60% of the global increase in poverty, the report says.
While the rich are beginning to buzz around their global world again, a new architecture of economic growth is required to create better lives for the majority in India. The old global economy was very good for migrant capital, which could move around the world at will, its life made easier by countries vying to attract foreign capital, even bending their environmental and labour regulations to make it easier to do business. The pandemic has revealed that the old economy was not good for migrant workers, however. Their “ease of living” was often sacrificed for capital’s “ease of doing business”.
The Indian economy must grow to create more incomes for its billion-plus citizens. Until the incomes of all rise, India will be a poor country from the perspective of the majority of its citizens, no matter how large its GDP. Moreover, economic growth must no longer be at the cost of the environment. According to global assessments, India ranks 120 out of 122 countries in water quality, and 179 out of 180 in air quality.
Think of new frameworks
India urgently needs a new strategy for growth, founded on new pillars. One is broader progress measures. GDP does not account for vital environmental and social conditions that contribute to human well-being and the sustainability of the planet. These factors are ignored as externalities by economists; they are trampled upon in a rush to grow the economy. Several frameworks are being developed now to measure what really matters including the health of the environment, and the condition of societies (public services, equal access to opportunities, etc.).
Most of these frameworks seek to define universally applicable scorecards. The items measured are given the same weightages in all countries to arrive at a single overall number for each country. This ‘scientific’ approach does enable objective rankings of countries. However, as the Happiness Report explains, this ‘objective’ approach misses the point that happiness and well-being are always ‘subjective’. What matters to people depends also on the conditions of others around them. Wealthy people can be unhappy when they have less wealth than other wealthy people. Moreover, everywhere, fairness, and trust in others and in institutions, contribute greatly to well-being. Therefore, countries in which the spirit of community is high, such as the ‘socialist’ countries of Northern Europe, come on top of well-being rankings even when their per capita incomes are not the highest.
The analysis of sources of well-being leads to the conclusion that the universal solution for improving well-being is for local communities to work together to find their own solutions within their countries, and in their villages and towns. Leo Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with the observation that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways. Locals know which factors in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals matter the most to them. Therefore, standard global solutions will neither make their conditions better nor make them happier.
Lapsing to the old ways
New ways must be adopted to create a new post-pandemic normal. Sadly, the old ways are returning. The government is back to chasing its $5 trillion GDP target. Wealth creators (large companies and wealthy individuals) are being touted as the solution for growth. Power is being centralised. Governance of the many by a few politically and economically powerful persons may work for a few, stroke-of-the-pen, bold reforms. However, like insufficiently tested vaccines and medicines, the side-effects of these bold solutions can cause great harm to the overall health of the system. The best medical treatments are those that help the system to heal itself. Therefore, communities must be allowed to, and assisted to, find their own solutions to complex problems.
What India and the world need to create a better world, post-pandemic, is a vaccine against indifference to the conditions of those less well off. The backwardness of backward classes is their god-given lot according to the religion of India’s majority. The purpose of their lives is to do the dirty work necessary to keep the upper castes clean. The philosopher Michael J. Sandel says in The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? that the ideology of ‘individualism’ — which believes that a person’s successes and failures are entirely that person’s own responsibility — is a disease that has infected societies in the West. It justifies indifference to the conditions of those less well off. It denies that societal conditions are responsible for the difficulties poor people have. It also conveniently hides that societal conditions have contributed substantially to the wealth of those well-off.
When only some shine, India does not shine. The government of India has begun a massive “India@75” campaign to celebrate, in 2022, the 75th anniversary of India’s independence. What is the scorecard of progress against which it will report whether India has reached the ‘tryst with destiny’ that it set out to achieve in 1947? The size of its GDP, the numbers of billionaires, the numbers of Indian multinationals, and the reach of its rockets in space? Or the condition of our holy Mother Earth ravaged by economic progress, and the conditions of hundreds of millions of citizens left behind?
Arun Maira is the author of A Billion Fireflies: Critical Conversations to Shape a New Post-pandemic World