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Five reasons for an unhappy India
The picture about India’s happiness quotient presented by the World Happiness Report 2021 is quite disappointing.
The world has arrived at a broad agreement on happiness rather than GDP being a more representative metric of overall well-being. Founded upon this agreement are several attempts to measure happiness, one of which is published by the World Happiness Report — a product of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. As is tradition, the World Happiness Report (WHR) 2021, the ninth iteration of this publication was released on 20 March, observed as the UN International Day of Happiness. The picture about India’s happiness quotient presented by this report is quite disappointing. Therefore, it is imperative to take a deep dive into the insights provided by this publication to understand the reasons for a largely unhappy India.
The WHR ranks happiness on the basis on what are referred to as ‘life evaluations.’ These evaluations are obtained from the World Gallup Poll which asks its respondents to assign themselves a position on what is known as a “Cantril Ladder,” which measures the quality of life. The highest quality of life corresponds to standing on top of the ladder with score of 10, while the worst quality of life is equivalent to being on the bottom of the ladder with a score of 0. Respondents that score seven or more on the Cantril ladder are classified as “thriving” in terms of their quality of life. Those scoring between four and seven are said to be “struggling” while those who score four and below are termed as “suffering.” The aggregate score for each country is arrived at by using weighting procedures that yield nationally representative averages. Based on this procedure, India scored a dismal 4.225 in 2020. This figure considers the data solely for the year 2020. This implies that, on average, an Indian citizen is “struggling” as far as life satisfaction is concerned.
The WHR 2021 has identified key variables that can explain international differences in life evaluations. These include household income, health, generosity demonstrated by citizens, freedom to make life choices, perceptions about corruption, social support by friends and relatives enjoyed by citizens, education, employment, age, gender, marital status, and trust in institutions. Not surprisingly, it is a subset of these variables only that shine the light upon why an average Indian citizen is “struggling” to seek happiness in life.
Reason 1: Declining incomes and unemployment
The year 2020 is a testimony to how an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc around the world. One of the immediate responses to the onset of this crisis was the imposition of a lockdown in many countries. India was one of them. In fact, Oxford University stringency index christened India’s lockdown as one of the world’s strictest. This lockdown dealt a severe blow to the Indian economy. The most severe repercussion of this lockdown manifested as the migrant crisis in the country. Loss of livelihoods and a consequent decline in incomes were inevitable. Of course, consistent with the timing and relative stringency of the lockdown, the steepest decline in incomes were witnessed in April 2020, of 19 percent and 41 percent in rural and urban India respectively. This decline corresponds to an economic degrowth of 23.9 percent and an unemployment rate of around 24 percent. Recovery in both employment and income have at best been patchy.
"The year 2020 is a testimony to how an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the immediate responses to the onset of this crisis was the imposition of a lockdown in many countries — India was one of them."
Decent employment and an adequate source of income may definitely not be sufficient to ensure life satisfaction, as is often argued, but are surely necessary for the same. What worsens the situation in India is that about 90 percent of the workforce operates in the informal sector. Consequently, they are deprived of social security and the kind of income security that ensures savings and resources that can act as a buffer in the face of shocks like the one levied by the ongoing pandemic. As such, the economic burden of the pandemic was disproportionately heavier and the misery that followed was much more for the informally employed.
Reason 2: Unfavourable perceptions about corruption in the country
On the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2020, India scores 40 on 100. Scores in between 90–100 represent a very clean nation, while a score in the range 0–9 represents a highly corrupt nation. India ranks 86 among 180 nations on CPI 2020. There are experts who believe that this score fails to capture the true greater extent of corruption in India. Echoing this belief are the findings of the survey called the Global Corruption Barometer Asia, published by Transparency International. According to this survey, India has the highest overall bribery rate (39 percent) and the highest rate of citizens using personal connections (46 percent) in Asia. To quote the findings of the report, “Of the people surveyed in India, who came into contact with the police, 42% had paid bribes. The use of bribes was also rampant (41%) to obtain official documents such as identity papers. Use of personal connections was also largely made in dealings with the police (39%), procurement of identity documents (42%), and in relation to courts (38%).”
Reason 3: Lack of social support
The national scores on social support are the national average of the binary responses (either 0 or 1) to the question “If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?” India attained a score of 0.617, higher only to the scores of three countries out of the total 95 nations for which data was collected in the 2020 survey. In other words, as far as social support is concerned, India ranks as low as 92 among 95 nations for which data were available.
Reason 4: Low levels of educational attainment
Table: Percentage Distribution of workers by educational qualifications (2018–19)
|Education Level||Regular Formal||Regular Informal||RWS||Self-Employed||Casual Workers||Total|
|Literate without formal education||0.04||0.19||0.13||0.43||0.50||0.38|
|Literate below Primary||1.25||3.90||2.83||5.67||8.03||5.56|
|Graduates and above||51.48||18.09||31.65||8.51||1.06||12.22|
Source: PLFS unit data (2018–19)
As the table above indicates, 87.79 percent of the workforce have higher secondary education or below. Jobs with social security, a written job contract and other employment benefits generally employ those with higher educational qualification — which represent a minority in India. Jobs that engage highly qualified people are usually those that are amenable to becoming digital. For instance, a labourer’s job cannot move online while many dimensions of the knowledge economy can easily make such a shift. In the COVID-19 era, it is obvious then that those with higher educational qualifications and in turn better job prospects are better placed to cope with the impending economic disruptions. No wonder then that education is an important driver of life satisfaction and more so in the COVID-19 era.
"Jobs that engage highly qualified people are usually those that are amenable to becoming digital."
Those with higher educational attainment are likely to find it easier to migrate to digital modes in maintaining social relationships which are crucial for life satisfaction.
Reason 5: Age composition of India’s population
India’s demography is predominantly young. About 67 percent of India is in the age -group 15–64 years. The WHR 2021 informs us that there has been a significant reduction in the frequency of reported health problems from 23 percent to 20 percent for the population as a whole, while such increments being more pronounced among those above the age of 60. As far as India is concerned, these gains went to a minority of the population thanks to its youth-dominated structure. Furthermore, life evaluations are considerably higher among those below the age of 30 and above the age of 60. Roughly 50 percent of the population lies in these age intervals. Gains in life evaluations enjoyed by this half of the population might have very well been offset by the worry, anger, and sadness experienced by the loss of livelihoods and income experienced by the remainder half of the population. As already argued, the burden of these losses was heavier in the Indian context. What was once celebrated as an opportunity to reap demographic dividends has now turned into a national liability, given the unemployment levels in the country.
"Gains in life evaluations enjoyed by this half of the population might have very well been offset by the worry, anger, and sadness experienced by the loss of livelihoods and income experienced by the remainder half of the population."
There is much to ponder upon as far as India’s happiness quotient is concerned. No better words than that of the late President Pranab Mukherjee to summarise the key takeaway. To quote him, “A narrow vision focus on economic development may have given us a better GDP and increase in per capita income but moved our focus from environmental sustainability, social welfare, emotional and mental wellbeing of our people… The quest of happiness is closely tied to the quest for sustainable development which is a combination of social inclusion and environmental sustainability.” Indeed, for pursuing progress in its truest sense which is reflected no better than in happiness, India has to embrace sustainability and inclusivity in all economic, social, and political dimensions.
Renita D'Souza (ORF)
13 April 2021