Monday, May 30, 2016

We became a big loser of happiness in one year, just as we thought we were having acche din

We may gloat as much as we want about acche din, but the world's record keepers say that Indians are getting progressively non-happy. The World Happiness Report for 2016 has placed India at 118 among 157 nations, a peg below last year's 117th position. Worse, the fall in its index points makes India seventh among the biggest losers of happiness in the last one year.

How can this be true when our ministers at the Centre and in the states are full of happiness? Could this be another conspiracy by anti-national elements? It may be difficult to dismiss the World Happiness Report because it grew out of ideas that received support from the United Nations and bears the stamp of internationally known economists. It does not have the authoritativeness of GDP (gross domestic product, the measuring tape economists love), but it has a relevance to the realities of human life that makes its annual appearance an eagerly awaited event.

The idea of measuring national happiness rather than national product is said to have originated in the mind of the King of Bhutan in 1972. GDP, he said, did not convey a correct picture of his subjects' standard of well-being. The UN found merit in the idea and evolved, under the guidance of economists Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen, what became known as the Human Development Index. HDI aimed at moving the focus of policy planners from national income to human well-being. A Leicester University social psychologist had meanwhile developed the idea of a World Map of Happiness based on statistical data and subjective interviews with some 80,000 individuals.

The World Happiness Report that came out in 2006 found Denmark at the top of the list, Zimbabwe and Burundi at the bottom. Denmark has remained the leader except in 2015 when Switzerland, usually the number two, upstaged it. Others ranked among the happiest are Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden. Among world's populous nations, USA stands first (rank 13) followed by China (83), Pakistan (92) and India (118).

The report also lists those who lost their positions and went further down in the rankings. In this listing, only six countries have seen a bigger dip in their happiness quotient than India. But they had their reasons: Greece was lashed by economic breakdown, Egypt was hammered by internal revolution, Saudi Arabia was hit by fall in oil prices, Botswana was always in Africa's backyard, Venezuela was another victim of oil's dive, and Yemen was torn by civil war. What reason did India have to join this group of losers? That too, when we are on the way to a Congress-mukt Bharat?

The rankings reflect, in addition to GDP levels, factors like life expectancy, social support, generosity, freedom and perception of corruption. India is not bad in life expectancy, social support and freedom. Are we found wanting in generosity? Or could it be that corruption wiped out the plus points? Or are there character defects that we don't see?

India's ancient culture of meditation / yoga had a clear concept of happiness. Admitting that inner bliss was the mark of advanced souls, it related happiness to getting rid of mental toxins such as hatred, arrogance, greed, pride and envy and developing instead qualities like doing good to others. How many of us have come anywhere near this goal? A glance at the headlines in states that recently went through elections or a couple of minutes watching the debates in Parliament would be enough to show that hatred and arrogance are the hallmarks of our rulers. Greed drives them, pride and envy dominate their thoughts. Even spiritual pursuits have become indistinguishable from commercial pursuits. The old saying was that happiness came from pain. Today, even for our grand gurus, happiness comes from sales.

Gallop Poll took a somewhat novel route recently when it tabulated happiness in seven developing Latin American countries. What they measured were the frequency of smiles, how respected an individual felt, how well rested they were, and whether there was a feeling of accomplishment. Panama came first in that survey although 33 percent of its people are below poverty level.

Talk to the Danes and the Swiss and the Canadians. They are noticeably happy with their lives. Denmark is the happiest country in the world because they have a low unemployment rate, a relatively healthy economy and, most importantly, "people don't judge other people's lives". In that last characteristic perhaps lies the explanation for our fall.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Problem: Losers never acknowledge their mistakes, winners think they'll be winners for ever

It's amazing how politicians interpret every election in their favour -- irrespective of whether they win or lose. In this five-state election (a mini general election), the primary loser is the Congress. But what do its leaders say? The gist is: "We will review the situation and come back with renewed vigour". Not a word about its inability to present a new face in Assam in place of the tired old face of Tarun Gogoi, or the irrelevance it has achieved in Bengal, or its virtual non-existence in Tamil Nadu, or the way the entrenched Congress coalition in Kerala destroyed itself through corruption and the make-believe politics of Oommen Chandy.

The other parties, even as they taste bits and pieces of victory, are no different. The BJP can justifiably claim to have taken a step or two forward, but not enough to justify bravado (the Party President boasted that it was close to achieving its ultimate objective of a Congress-mukt Bharat), or to ignore harsh realities. While the victory in Assam is decisive, the twin factors that made it possible need to be kept in mind: the Congress's dismal state and the BJP's tactics of divisive politics. Is the first going to be permanent? How safe will be the second in the long run?

The party needs to remember, too, that it scored zero in Tamil Nadu, zero in Pondicherry, an inconsequential three in Bengal and one in Kerala. That solitary win in Kerala is a breakthrough, but locals will say that it was acceptance, finally, of the well-liked gentlemanly O.Rajagopal rather than of the BJP; the party's past and present presidents were again defeated. The party will also note, no doubt, that it drove significant sections of the minorities, including Muslims, into the Left camp -- a factor that is politically important in a state where the minorities constitute nearly half the population.

The Left, for its part, faces a crisis not different from what confronts the Congress: Inability to change with the times. History showed up Stalin's blunders and how they led to the dehumanisation of Soviet communism and its subsequent collapse. But eminent leaders like Prakash Karat still think that India's best course is to follow Stalinism. This school will now be stronger and louder with the more pragmatic Sitaram Yechuri line having suffered a setback in Bengal; the communists in that lost bastion got less votes than the Congress got. Besides, Kerala has installed a Communist Chief Minister who identifies himself with and sustains the hardline Karat school.

Will this lead to the Left missing the bus again in Kerala? Its impressive victory was not entirely due to its intrinsic popularity. More important were (a) the widespread desire to prevent communal forces from disrupting the relative political harmony in the state, and (b) disgust with Oommen Chandy and his singleminded backing of corrupt ministers. (The most notorious of them all, Excise Minister K.Babu, was defeated in his stronghold by the Left's M.Swaraj who was not only a newcomer to electoral politics but an "outsider" from a distant part of the state).

If the Left is to take advantage of the opportunity it has got, it will have to be less ideology-bound and more attuned to people and their everyday problems. Big-ticket "development" plans have become a smokescreen for governments to hide their non-performance in areas that affect common people's existential problems. Why should the state that receives the maximum rainfall in the country be starved for drinking water? Why should it have the maximum number of road deaths in relation to population in the country? Addressing issues like these must become the concerns of governments.

Mamata Bannerjee is a prime example of not addressing such issues. She made do by blaming the past communist rule for rapes, for infant deaths in hospitals and for job scarcities. She ignored the scandals that developed around her and had the gumption to say, in the wake of her present victory: "I am proud to say that there is no corruption in Bengal". This kind of attitude makes her a phenomenon that can only be a flash in the pan in historical perspective. A stubborn refusal to face facts is no virtue.

It's the gift of politicians not to face facts when victory and power make them blind. But victory is followed by defeat, and power passes. Eventually this type of politicians will lose meaning and the people will come into their own. But how long to wait, ye gods, how long!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Sad setback: In Bengal the election was violent; in Kerala Modi made a mistake -- a bad one

A disturbingly turbulent election season gets over this week. It was characterised by campaigns that often broke the letter of the law, to say nothing of its spirit. Violence was its signature tune in West Bengal. Illegal flow of unaccounted money marked the campaigns in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Overall, it was an election that again exposed the manner in which democracy was losing its soul in India.

The polling process itself went off well, showing that the Election Commission continues to be efficient, a model for the world. The way T.N.Seshan mobilised the Commission's forgotten powers has proved lasting. But the political class has not shed its devious ways. It continues to employ every weapon in its arsenal -- from murder and mayhem to bribing and deception. This means that, despite the correctness of the polling/counting exercises, the outcome of the elections will not in any way improve the quality of our politics.

That the Election Commission chose to conduct polls in West Bengal in six phases over a month and a half was a pointer to the inflammable nature of Bengali politics. The Commission secured the presence of one lakh security forces to ensure peaceful polling. The actual polling was indeed peaceful by West Bengal's standards. But before and after polling, violence prevailed.

Assaults were prompted by two factors -- sheer anger against opponents and the desire to intimidate voters. Marauding goons kept warning villagers that if they did not vote for the ruling party, they would have hell to pay. The Communists, veterans in the use of threat and intimidation, used the same tactics. This time BJP fielded its gangs, too, trying to keep up with the others. Result: Continuous clashes across the state during the election weeks. Twelve killings were reported, which were twelve more than in the other states that went to polls. With that record, what does it matter who wins? To whoever forms the government, the first priority will be settling of scores. Whichever party gains, Bengal will lose.

Tamil Nadu was perhaps the luckiest of the states because there the people were winning already irrespective of the fortunes of the parties. People were winning television sets, and jewellery, and cycles, and mixies, and scholarships and cash in a political race of competitive populism. Only Anpumani Ramdas decried the freebie culture, saying that it "made people beggars, alcoholics and lazy". He had nothing to lose because he was going to be nowhere near his goal: Chief Ministership.

Kerala went into an unaccustomed spin this time because the set pattern of Congress-Communist monopoly was challenged by the BJP. This seemed a propitious moment for the "outsider". Public disgust with the Congress-led coalition had reached unprecedented levels, largely because of the corruption scandals surrounding the Oommen Chandy government. In the other camp, Pinarayi Vijayan's dictatorial ways of enthroning himself as the Big Brother of the communist coalition alienated large numbers of people. The BJP was justified in thinking that it had the opportunity at last to "open its account" in the state Assembly.

But it suffered from a lack of credible local leaders. The available ones were constantly at war with one another, forcing Delhi to take decisions on its own. Delhi, true to form, was both unable and unwilling to understand local realities. So it made costly mistakes, like allying with the most discredited political pretender of the state, a toddy contractor turned leader of a section of the Ezhavas. But the biggest setback for the BJP came unexpectedly from its star campaigner, Narendra Modi.

He compared Kerala, of all places, with Somalia, of all places. BJP spokesmen later explained that the Prime Minister was only referring to the infant death rate among a section of Adivasis in Kerala. But even that offered no scope for comparison because Somalia was way down. The important thing is that people got the impression that Modi was comparing Kerala, India's number one state in socio-cultural parameters, with a country that had collapsed into wretchedness on all counts.

The angry uproar that erupted would have prompted any electoral tactician to make amends quickly. Modi had a golden opportunity to do so when he addressed another rally a day later. But he said not a word about the Somalia faux pas. That added fuel to the anger of voters. If the BJP does open its account this time, it will be in spite of Narendra Modi. What happened to the Modi who worked magic in the 2014 parliamentary election?

Monday, May 9, 2016

Rape combines with cruelty of the extreme kind to shame India and its moral pretensions

We are no longer a moral nation. May be our cultural heritage is 5000 years old, may be our moral codes were the noblest in civilisation, but today India is a nation that sees rapes mounting by the day. Not just rapes, but rapes of extraordinary cruelty. Among countries with the highest number of rapes, we come after the United States, South Africa and Sweden. But if there were a list of countries where cruelty ruled, we should be at the top.

The way a young law student was raped and tortured to death in Perumpavoor (Kerala) saw the country rise in anger and disbelief -- disbelief because it had happened in a supposedly progressive state, literate and socially advanced, God's Own Country. The girl had 30 stab wounds on her body. A sharp knife was used to pierce both her breasts. A hammer-like object hit her face, severing her nose. A pointed rod was driven into her and her stomach kicked until the intestines came out.

This was reminiscent of the way 'Nirbhaya' was tortured in Delhi in 2012 by her rapists. The cruellest of the gang was the youngster who raped her, then raped her again after she became unconscious, then, as the papers put it, "ripped out the intestines with his hand". This brute was virtually spared by the law because he was "under age" by a few months. He must be looking for his next victim.

Was the Perumpavoor criminal drawing inspiration from the Delhi criminal? Was the Delhi criminal copying the Gujarat criminals who famously cut open the womb of a pregnant woman during the riots in 2002? The urge to imitate is high among perverts because, obviously, these rapists are not out to merely satisfy their carnal desires; they are making declarations of power, assertions of invincibility over helpless victims, celebrating triumphs of the male ego. Psychologists will be able to explain the workings of these minds that seek savagery for the sake of savagery.

But we need no scientific expertise to realise that the spread of extraordinary cruelty against women across the country is a recent phenomenon and that it is directly related to the general fall in standards. There is a loss of faith in political leadership across the board and since politics affects every aspect of life in India, political deterioration means a general deterioration in life's values. There was a sense of values and morality during the days of Gandhi, Jayaprakash and the first generation of government leaders such as Nehru-Patel-Morarji. Today power wielders resort to any means to sustain power; government wheels do not turn unless lubricated with bribes. In a culture of greed, rapacity and abuse of power, those who cannot flaunt money or authority to massage their ego, resort to cruelty against the weak and the lonely. Fathers violate daughters, boys violate old women, boyfriends help their pals to gangrape their trusting girlfriends.

Add to this the mass influence of our television serials. In every language, these running shows highlight illicit relations, violence, cheatings, atrocities and in-family ruthlessness. These are avidly watched in our living rooms, the audiences gradually coming to the conclusion that illicit relations, violence and ruthlessness are the ingredients of real life. The media's intensive coverage of rapes and other crimes must also be spreading the impression that these are everyday happenings. This explains why statistically Kerala has higher rates of rapes than UP; in UP fewer cases are reported by the media.

The devaluation of religious orders has also significantly contributed to the rise of crimes against women. Some outrageous crimes have occurred inside Christian convents of nuns, madrassa schools and the ashrams of self-styled gurus. Many of them have been booked by law, but only a handful punished. Add to this the procession of netas who insist on visiting the relatives of the victims. The Perumpavoor girl's mother was so harassed by VIP visitors that doctors had to call for an end to it. The cynicism of politicians is as condemnable as the sadism of the rapists.

The only possible solution to this national disease is strict laws and their strict implementation. Justice J.S.Verma had worked out model laws following the Nirbhaya case. His recommendations were watered down by the Government. Political influence is often brought to bear, especially when ranking politicians are the rapists and killers. Courts take years to pronounce judgments. If these crippling problems are not solved, all talk of Indian culture and Sanskritic glory will remain sheer hypocrisy.

Monday, May 2, 2016

From the time of Adam, prohibition did not work; awareness campaigns may help, politics won't

Does banning liquor really bring in the votes? We can imagine women feeling relieved that men won't come home drunk and create scenes. But female population is falling notoriously in India, so the votes gained from happy women will be less than the votes lost through resentful men. This is why it is difficult to understand why there is a race among states to declare total prohibition. Vote-wise it doesn't make sense. Revenue-wise it makes nonsense: Bihar will lose 3000 crore a year, 18 percent of its total revenue and Tamil Nadu as much as 30,000 crore, more than a quarter of its revenue. Kerala will lose 6000 crore, although its population is only 35 million compared to Bihar's 94 million.(For the typical Malayali, it's a matter of honour that once a bottle is opened, it must be finished quickly. Per capita consumption of alcohol is highest in Kerala).

Commonsense-wise, prohibition not only does not work; it produces contrary effects. This is because prohibition can only ban liquor; it cannot ban the demand for liquor. Such is the chemistry of the human mind that whenever there is demand, it will be met by supply. Which explains why prohibition has not worked anywhere at any time in history. There is a saying that prohibition did not work even in the Garden of Eden; Adam ate the apple that was forbidden.

The most tragic example of prohibition's counterproductive nature was Bombay under chief minister Morarji Desai in the 1950s. As a Gandhian, he introduced prohibition with conviction. Overnight Bombay's suburbs burst into underground activity. Such was the profitability of the illicit industry that crime syndicates got a stranglehold on life in Bombay. Unintentionally Morarji Desai made it possible for Haji Mastan and Karim Lala and, yes, Dawood Ibrahim to rise. In the official celebration of Prohibition Week every year, the liquor mafia was the most enthusiastic participant.

Gujarat has been under total prohibition for decades now. No one complains because truckloads of liquor arrive from neighbouring states every day to ensure that demand is met by supply. Besides, excise, transport and police officials are always kept happy. Prohibition is a great lubricant.

It is clear that for the Morarji Desais of the world, prohibition is an article of faith, an unviolable principle of life. For today's leaders it is politics. Nowhere is this more evident than in Kerala. For the state Congress President, V.M.Sudheeran, a local edition of Morarji Desai, prohibition is a living tenet. When the closing of bars in the state became a big issue with cases going to the Supreme Court, he took a stand against the re-opening of some 400-plus closed bars. This did not sit well with the excise minister who, neck-deep in scandals, was a confidante of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. As Sudheeran's opposition to the bars looked like making him a popular hero, the tactician in Chandy announced a sudden policy change: Total prohibition in Kerala in a few years. It was a game of political oneupmanship. It turned into a farce as verbal battles became the focus of attention and Chandy's excise minister devised new ways to please bar owners.

In 1995 then chief minister A.K.Antony banned arrack. Consumption of liquor did not go down by a drop. The flow of illicit brews increased as did the flow of hafta. Registers and computer floppies maintained by smart liquor contractors revealed that in the Trichur area alone Rs 14,000 was going to an assistant excise commissioner, 7500 to an excise inspector, 4000 to a preventive officer, 2700 to an assistant excise inspector and 3500 to a circle inspector every month, in addition to "bonuses" on occasions like marriages. Prohibition promotes bribery as nothing else does.

Public awareness campaigns are the only practical way to tackle the universal social problem of alcohol. Such campaigns have shown results in the case of smoking. A state-funded national advertising campaign in the US called "Tips from former smokers" claimed significant success. The state can create conditions that will enable civil society also to participate in action plans against alcohol. A pro-active government can enforce two policies -- ensure that there will be no demand for spurious liquor, and impose deterrent punishments for offences such as drunken driving. Policies based on mere sentiment will get us nowhere. Abraham Lincoln explained why: "Prohibition goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a mass appetite by legislation and make a crime out of things that are not crimes".