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OPINION / ANALYSIS

Modi's India Vs Bhutan's Gross National Happiness

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AVILASH ROUL
August 20, 2014

What doesn't get measured, doesn't get managed. This is the sad story of environmental deterioration around the world which has been religiously and rigorously measuring gross national product (GNP) to ascertain the growth of a nation. But, a tiny Himalayan country has deviated from such calculation of national progress. The Gross National Happiness (GNH), as Bhutan's economic path to development, has less talked about in mainstream economics. And, this is not a fairytale!  
 
It has come to limelight again in mid-June when 'Vikas Purush' as Indian Prime Minister being called by his party followers took Bhutan as his first foreign visit.  It is an appropriate juncture to compare India's path of development and elusive GNH of Bhutan. All environmental concerned citizens of India would rather ponder over this GNH and Gross National Product (GNP) with a future perspective.
 
Adam Smith's 'invisible hand' is still extensively in currency across the globe to sustain economic growth by exploiting natural resources. The GNP is the ultimate indicator of such growth. It is no joke that Mongolia's annual economic growth is expected to be 15 percent in coming years (top in the world in 2013 due to large scale mining of gold, coal and cupper). So be in India if green flags have pre-arranged to all mining proposals at Ministry of Environmental and Forest and Climate Change!
 
Despite many western economic model proponents discard GNH as 'primitive', the growing acceptance can be seen under progressive indices. As Bhutan has been freely supporting hydropower, even, the CSOs are questioning the GNH! However, the UN has unanimously endorsed for a green economy with inherent aspiration for GNH. Bhutan's GNH is a more evolved assessment that integrates the values held by a country with how developed it is.
 
The GNH of Bhutan is based on four pillars: sustainable socio-economic growth; good governance; sustainable use of the environment; care of the nation's heritage and promotion of its culture. The four pillars are further elaborated in nine domains: psychological well-being, living standard, health, culture, education, community vitality, good governance, balanced time use and ecological integration. Accordingly, it has developed 38 sub-indices, 72 indicators and 151 variables that are used to define and analyze the happiness of the Bhutanese people. For the Bhutanese, these goals are connected with the state of the natural resources that surround their existence. A Buddhism inspired holistic and sustainable approach to development which goal is happiness. Is it a real development strategy?
 
Depreciated value of our natural and national assets- soil fertility, water, air, forest or even monsoon- have been missing in our GNP or GDP calculation including annual state and union budget, five year plans and so on. Our economy keeps on harping on same natural resources without valuing its depreciation in ongoing planning. The stock exchanges like NIFTY or NASDAQ or BSE or Sensex won’t buzz if ground water level falls few meter in Vidarbha or Koraput-Bolangir-Kalahandi (KBK) in India.
 
Meanwhile, Prime Minister is becoming famous for his witty/catchy one-liner in his speech or posting on Twitter. He mentioned during his address to Bhutan's Parliament that 'B4B: Bharat for Bhutan' in a good neighbourhood context. Also he joked during dinner that Bhutan should add one indicator to its GNH as how happy is its neighbour.  Can we take some valuable thoughts on GNH? Can it be Bhutan for Bharat?
 
Like Bhutan, India also needs to look beyond western notions of development and growth. The eastern neighbour has shown us the way.  The recent deliberate leaked Intelligence Bureau (IB) report on economic impact of NGOs protests in India's retarding growth must be looked into in this context. The projects, that were being delayed or stalled by so called protests by 'foreign hand' guided NGOs, are heavily either dependant on or grossly affecting natural resources of India. Can IB would like to calculate, if they have such expertise, depreciation values of natural resources which would be used in such projects or already wasted by projects? If we are able to measure such aspect of natural assets, probably we shall protect our 'national security' from such invisible 'foreign hands'!
 
This squarely guides us to look deeper into a concept like GNH which is in use just across the border. In fact, Bhutan had drawn the interest of the world to the concept by hosting the first international conference on GNH in early 2004. Proponents of GNH strongly believe that it is a more accurate measure of social well-being than GNP in 21st Century. It probably is no coincidence that Western economies are rapidly degrading environmental life support systems.
 
Bhutan, which adopted the GNH in the 1980s, has had a fair amount of success so far in meeting some development goals (such as education and preserving and expanding its forest cover), but in other areas, like land reform and food productivity, problems continue. Balancing existing environmental conservation policies with emerging socio-economic needs is a challenge not only for Bhutan but for all countries. However, the focus on GNH, which makes ecological regeneration the axis for development, is the major learning component here. Definitely, India must make advances on research and development to codify ingredients of GNH to be utilised in India and beyond.
 
One of the Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) environmental Audit in India (not included depreciation value of environmental elements) has given a sorry state of affairs in India on waste management, water and air pollution, biodiversity management especially Tiger Reserves. Despite the limitation in audit method and capacity, able agencies in India must take queue from here to produce natural asset measurement prior to national budget presentations.
 
The green revolution has already revolutionised the fertility of soil in Northern Plane! Now, to cover up this negative fertility of soil, we have modified crop varieties or massive injection of pesticides to show off fruits of green revolution. This has further inflicted damage to already degraded soil as well as contaminating ground water, drinking water and making dead zones at sea.  If the country is thinking in line with an Odiya proverb 'dead elephant is as valuable as live one', it is in grave danger.
 
Nearly two months old government has been dilly-dallying on sustainable development. The opinions, not decisions yet though, so far on 'development first' coming from Ministries, have not gone down well with environmentalists. No one is or should stop or oppose any development projects if it passes through due diligence with all existing laws and procedures. The GNH may guide, at least, wellbeing and sustainability criteria in Indian projects which are lined up.
 
We are fast degrading our life support system, albeit, willingly. In rush hour of economic growth, at least for this BJP led NDA government, we must not ignore the fact that our future generation's ability to grow shouldn't be handicapped by our present decisions.

Dr Avilash Roul (Ph.D.), Senior Fellow at Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict (SSPC). An abridged version was published in Odisha Diary on 22 July 2014.