Monday, May 09, 2005

Pursuit of happiness

Times of India, May 08, 2005

We would be pretty sceptical if Laloo Prasad happened to promise us happiness. Most of us sensibly believe that human unhappiness is a private matter, and is the result of things like unhappy marriages, ungrateful children, losing a promotion, or even the lack of faith. We know too well what would happen if our government got into the act: Chidambaram would tax ungrateful children, Sonia Gandhi would ban divorces, Manmohan Singh would create a promotions commission, Arjun Singh would detoxify faith, making atheism illegal. So frankly, I am glad that our wonderful Constitution is silent, unlike America’s, which enjoins the state to the ‘pursuit of happiness’.

Yet governments can help promote happiness. Knowing I will not be attacked when I step out of the house is central to my well being. I am a relaxed entrepreneur if I don’t have to see the excise inspector. I am a contented phoolwalli if I don’t have to pay hafta. I am a happier farmer if I don’t have to bribe the patwari. Seven out of ten Indians live in a village. Even if tiny, most have a parcel of land, and once in their lifetime they must transfer its title when their father dies. Surveys show that it takes 100 days of running around to affect this transfer. It is also a 100 days of humiliation, and by the end one has lost all dignity and self esteem. The insolent revenue official has not changed his attitude since the British Raj and continues to lord it over the helpless peasant.

A 123rd rank on corruption implies, in a sense, that we are behind 122 countries in our chances for happiness. If you are rich money may not bring happiness but it can make a huge difference if you are poor. An effective poverty program can bring many smiles. Good primary schools and health care centres will do the same. Although the state doesn’t have to run them, it needs to be an enabler. Good governance is thus central to my happiness, and the makers of the American Constitution may have had a point.

I had taken Manmohan Singh at his word and had hoped that happiness would have begun spreading across our land by now. On taking office he had promised that governance was his top priority. Well, we have been waiting. Instead, he has gone and broken our hearts and announced the umpteenth administrative reforms commission. Now our only hope for good governance is that our economic reforms continue, the Indian state keeps shedding its illegitimate functions, and government slowly gets out of the way. As this continues, I also hope we will get around to deleting the word “socialism” from our Constitution, one of Indira Gandhi’s pernicious legacies from the Emergency. The word “socialism” has a precise meaning: it is state ownership of all means of production. No one believes in this any longer, not even Karat, the new head of the CPM.

As to personal happiness, I go along with Freud. I believe that if you can get absorbed in your work and love the person you live with, you will be happy. To this recipe I would add Panchatantra’s advice: have a few good friends. It says, “mitra is a two-syllable gem, a shelter against sorrow, grief and fear, and a vessel of love and trust.” Aristotle too had the same idea, although he did not express it as poetically. So, it as simple as that–love your work, love the person you live with, and have a few good friends. Like all things, however, it’s easier thought than achieved.

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