An important lessen for S’pore: Progress- GDP not the only index

Dr RP Mishra, Manuj Features
Central Chronicle
6 Jan 2007

India’s economy is performing impressively. GDP is moving up fast – already accelerating past 8 percent and touching a record 9.1% in the second quarter of 2006. Inflation is moderate. Stock markets are soaring high. The rapid growth of India and China’s economies are expected to change the global landscape completely by 2050. However, in India and China, there is a growing concern if the pattern of growth is sustainable.

Outwardly, it all looks green. But deep down below the reality seems to be different. Why the Indian army, famous for its values and discipline, is in news, but not for the right reasons. They have had cases of a high-ranking navy officer passing out strategic secrets to enemy countries; another weaving a fake encounter to win medals and promotion, or yet another involved in a food-purchase scam.

It is not an exception to the army only. A politician is caught with millions of rupees in his bed, quilts and pillows; another defends a banned anti-national terrorist organisation; a policeman rapes a minor girl; a father rapes his minor daughter; a university professor caught in sexual acts with a student of his daughter’s age; students of well-to-do families commit chain snatching, bank robbery, send obscene SMS – the list is unending. Why?

With computers and Internet, the space and time have shrunk to zero. Yet, very tools that were meant to communicate with each other are sending them to isolation, creating feelings of dissatisfaction, frustration, aggression, anger, loss of self-esteem and self-confidence. Individualism and consumerism have taken over on all other finer aspects of human life.

Sadly, their current model of development and growth is one that brought the US, Western Europe and Japan to their pre-eminent economic positions. While the paradigm is faulty in many respects, it is the only means by which a nation’s progress is judged.

If the aim of progress and development is happiness and well being of the people, why then with development, the cases of emotional breakdown, depression and suicide are also becoming increasingly more common? Answer is: there must be something genuinely wrong in what we describe ‘development and progress’ of a nation!

Normally, the economic well being of a nation is measured by its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GDP assumes that if there were more goods in circulation, general welfare would automatically follow. At the a conference in Cleveland, a recent survey of citizen’s perceptions of well being across countries by the Gallop, surprisingly, revealed that Singapore, which is the richest country in Asia, after Japan, and one of the most efficient and least corrupt societies in the world, scores the lowest in the Well-being Index. Surprisingly, people in Singapore are less satisfied with their lives than much poorer and less efficient countries.

Evidently, according to the survey; to be respected as a free human being and to have the freedom to make personal choices– parameters on which Singapore give their society a low score–contribute much more to people’s feelings of well being than economics.

It is now being increasingly recognized globally that the nation is not merely economy, and GDP is not the only indicator to compare the success, happiness and development of nations. The sum total of development achieved by a nation or organization is, in fact, sum total of individual development. Therefore, unless man is taken as a unit of development, whatever might be achieved in respect of economic development, a nation cannot be considered developed.

What then are the parameters that define and measure the sum total development of a nation? Can a nation be described developed if it destroys all its natural resources and environment or if its people are unethical and valueless? Can an unethical person be happy? So, along with the GDP, a new indicator has been added to define a really developed nation: Gross National Happiness (GNH).

Surprisingly, the term GNH was first coined by Bhutan’s king Jigme Singye Wanchuck when he ascended the throne in 1972. He envisioned building an economy based on Buddhist values of right livelihood, compassion and sharing. It is a serious, evolving concept, which seeks to redefine wealth as a source of well-being. Gradually, the concept of ‘socially responsible investing’, is taking a concrete shape. This means that segments of market are now making room for moral and ethical values, including the social and environmental concerns.

A convergence of circumstances seems to be helping the concept of GNH to come of age. There are now various kinds of “Quality of Life” indices, which are becoming a powerful tool for judging the true wealth of nations. In early 1990s the UNDP introduced the Human Development Index (HDI). Since 1995, a San Francisco based think tank called ‘Redefining Progress’ has been annually assessing the American economy with an alternative yardstick called the Genuine Progress Indicators (GPI). The assessment presents a relatively a grim picture of American society. The GPI Index shows a steady decline in the in US after 1970s even as the GDP index has continued to steadily rise. This is because the GPI index gets closer to the reality of people’s lives by treating as a loss, for example, all money spent on either preventing crimes or divorces or on repairing damages caused by environmental degradation. At the core, GNH is a civilisational vision anchored in non-material values such as living in harmony with nature, social equality and spiritual quest for higher levels of being. However, the economists baulk at the induction of spiritual and moral concerns in economic policy. But that is myopic.

Alternative Model For Growth: The story of Indian women changing the world around them is highly inspiring and novel. In Andhra Pradesh 8 million women are members of self-help groups at the grass-root level. The group functions autonomously. They determine what help they need from a level of organisation above them. In turn, that level, in the village or mandal, determines what it needs from a level above it to fulfill its own role. Thus, from the bottom up, empowered women are scaling up an organisation that presently engages 8 million women.

In the prevailing model of development, the benefit flows from top downward and when it reaches the lowest in the society, it almost dries up. In the Andhra Pradesh model, it moves bottom-up rather than top-down for the movement to be sustainable. Second, the components of the system are individuals who seek dignity and freedom, and are agents of change and not merely beneficiaries of change produced by people above. Third, the model provides not merely what people want as consumers, but what they want as citizens. Finally, it ensures that foundations of a democracy must not be built only upon people spiritedly defending their own rights – which in individualistic societies is often the case – but on the respects for the rights of others.

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