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Gross National Happiness

The kingdom of Bhutan has been espousing the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) as opposed to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which is followed by every other nation and society across the globe. Given the negative externalities that a number of economic activities are now known to impose on the society, the need for devising a new measure of economic progress and a more comprehensive definition of the human condition becomes imperative. The concept of GNH is certainly not easy to translate into practical application, because happiness itself is a very subjective measure, which the state cannot possibly come to grips with. But it is necessary for a new set of values to be accepted, on the basis of which the measurement of economic progress would shift from mere production and consumption of goods and services to a set of variables that are more aligned to happiness and satisfaction of human society.

In case of Bhutan, state policy has been very conscious of the need to preserve the country's natural resources and more importantly preserving the culture of Bhutanese society. Culture and tradition are intangible assets that are difficult to measure, but clearly have a major role to play in creating a sense of pride and social cohesion that a society exhibits. This is not to say that culture and tradition are always positive factors in creating human happiness, because at different stages during human history and in different places, culture and tradition have sometimes proved harmful in respect of factors such as gender inequality; discrimination on the basis of caste, creed or religion; and even practices like sati, which cannot be defended on any rational or ethical grounds. But the world today is afflicted with the spread of monoculture. Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer prize-winning columnist and author, has rightly pointed out the downside of too many "Americans" on this planet. If everyone across the globe was to consume goods and services at the same level and on the same pattern as citizens of the US, we would probably strip the earth of its key natural resources, much as locusts devour an entire crop waiting to be harvested. GNH cannot rest on a culture of unbridled consumption, because that would be totally unsustainable.

Bringing about a shift to a more sustainable measure of economic well being, quite apart from the question of metrics, is really an issue related to attitudes and values. The appeal that the concept of GNH provides would be relevant only if this becomes the guiding principle defining the attitudes of society at large. If this were to happen, then possibly every human being would ask a question on how his or her actions would affect the level of happiness in that society. At the practical level, this could take the form of ensuring that no dumping of waste takes place in a public place or in observing traffic rules while driving on the road. In other words, GNH if imbibed by everyone in a society would create possibly a new ethos that respects the need to avoid actions which impact negatively on the welfare of others. Such a direction or approach would certainly not be smooth and devoid of tension. In case of Bhutan, for instance, the state has thus far maintained very successful and strict control over the number and quality of tourists allowed in that country. However, now that Bhutan has democracy and elected governments at all levels the question is whether the desire to make quick and easy money may lead to a dilution of existing tourism policy.

The contrast with Bhutan tourism policy is seen starkly in the laissez faire approach followed in most of our hill stations in this country. The result is that a hill station like Shimla that had a certain level of elegance and social order has now been converted essentially into a large sprawling slum. Much the same has happened to other hill stations like Mussoorie, Nainital and to a certain extent even Ooty. The desire to make a quick buck leads to violation of existing regulations, where they have been instituted, and certainly prevents effective regulations being put in place where they do not exist. The result is that civic services do not match up to the large pressure put on them by both permanent as well as floating populations in these locations, and as a result, therefore, quality of life suffers to the detriment of all.

With the rate at which urbanisation is taking place in India, the involvement of local citizenry in the governance of towns and cities becomes an important pre-requisite, and decision-making, therefore, needs to become inclusive in every respect. Pride in one's own habitat and the desire to preserve all that is good and pristine would only come from active involvement in decision-making by citizens and stakeholders in a particular location. All of this means that maintenance of environmental quality requires firstly a shift in values that would emphasise happiness in a larger social sense as opposed to consumption of more and more goods and services, irrespective of their harmful social impacts and a certain level of involvement on the part of the local community in environmental decision-making. Perhaps, the example of Bhutan, a country with a very small population, would be relevant even for a country like India with a large and expanding population. After all Indian society has traditionally practised some form of GNH, which we should not relinquish at this stage of our development. If anything, the time is ripe for us to draw this concept into the mainstream of economic policy as a substitute for gradual replacement of the measures of the GDP.

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