By Nantoo Banerjee
If anything is singularly responsible for India remaining as one of the world’s unhappiest countries to live, it is the utter neglect of life here. The CIA’s world fact book, updated in July, this year, estimated 40.5 deaths per 1,000 live births — 39.2 deaths in the male child category and 41.8 deaths for female —in India in 2016. These unfortunate infant deaths partly explain why the world’s ninth richest country by GDP and yet the home of the world’s largest number of poor people is continuously slipping in the UN world happiness survey since its first report was published five years ago. It is not surprising that the sudden death of at least 64 children over six days at Gorakhpur’s Baba Raghav Das Medical College and Hospital, earlier this month, became an instant political hit with opposition leaders such as Rahul Gandhi even before the cause or causes of death were officially established and known to the public. Reports blaming the death are contradictory — one blamed lack of oxygen in the children’s word, other held the spread of Japanese Encephalitis responsible.
The public memory in India is very short, especially when it comes to unheralded deaths and disasters. Only two years ago, over 50 children, mostly newborn babies as in Gorakhpur hospital, died in a state-run Sishu Bhawan at Cuttack, Odisha’s premier pediatric hospital. Most of the children died there also suffered from birth asphyxia — when a baby doesn’t receive enough oxygen at birth. Other cases involved neonatal sepsis, a blood infection that occurs in infants younger than 90 days. In both cases at Cuttack and Gorakhpur, the political opposition went after the respective state chief ministers. Few were really interested in going into the causes of unnatural death and taking steps to stop the recurrence of such unfortunate incidents. Despite the official records of declining rates of infant deaths in the country, India still has one of the highest rates of such incidents in the world. As in the two-year-old case at Cuttack, the Gorakhpur case will also be forgotten soon. And, such unfortunate incidents may recur elsewhere in smaller or larger scale leading to similar media reports and political reactions without any genuine preventive action from the authorities. The saga of the common man’s suffering goes on.
Sadly, democratic India’s politicians — ruling or those in the opposition in states and the centre — care little for the people who vote them to power. The country’s economic policy focuses little on the wellbeing of the people by guaranteeing them proper healthcare, shelter, quality education, jobs, decent unemployment benefits, old age pension etc. Last 20 years witnessed a massive spurt in private healthcare centres, private schools, colleges and universities and services sectors, all making fat profits. These private institutions serve mostly the well-to-do. They have little social contribution. They offer mostly temporary, low-income and petty jobs to the country’s overqualified youth. The focus is mainly on human exploitation than human happiness. About 20 per cent of India’s population, who command over 80 per cent of the country’s wealth, may, in fact, be happier than their counterparts in most other parts of the world. Their total number is very large — almost 250 million — nearly equal to or much more than the entire population of each of the world’s richest and happiest countries. The high level business and political entities don’t seem to be truly concerned about turning India into a generally happy and welfare state. Policy makers and policy pushers don’t seem to be genuinely losing sleep over deaths — infant or old — coming from malnutrition and hopeless quality of life. If the trend continues, India, which now ranks 122nd position among the 155 countries listed in the UN world happiness report of 2017, may in due course vie with countries such as South Sudan, Liberia, Guinea, Togo, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi and Central African Republic for a rank among the bottom 20.
The World Happiness Report, first published in April, 2012, in support of the high level United Nations initiative on happiness and well-being of people in some 150 countries, then, is regarded seriously by nations. Increasingly, happiness is considered to be the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy. In June 2016, the 24-member Organisation of Economically Developed Countries (OECD) committed itself “to redefine the growth narrative to put people’s well-being at the center of governments’ efforts”. According to eminent economist Jeffrey Sachs, director at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and special adviser to the UN secretary general, “happy countries are the ones that have a healthy balance of prosperity, as conventionally measured, and social capital, meaning a high degree of trust in a society, low inequality and confidence in government.” Not many will disagree that emerging India hardly fits into such a ‘happy country’ definition.
Going by the latest World Happiness Report, India ranked behind even all SAARC countries in its region, including terror-riven Pakistan (80), land-locked Bhutan (97) and Nepal (99), Bangladesh (110) and Sri Lanka (120). SAARC member Maldives did not figure in the report. On the other hand, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden rounded out the top 10 happy countries. The rankings are based on six factors – healthy life expectancy, per capita gross domestic product, freedom, generosity, social support and absence of corruption in government or business. “The lowest countries are typically marked by low values in all six variables,” said the report. Healthy life expectancy seems to have little value in India, the world’s second most populous country where poor man’s sufferings and untimely death are regarded as part of destiny. (IPA Service)