Sometimes it’s hard to know what to make of the country
Even casual observers of India quickly realize it is a jumble of self-contradictions that often defy simple explanation. The latest evidence for this proposition comes in the form of two new opinion polls that present contrary data regarding the national psyche.
Yesterday the Gallup organization released a survey of 5,000 Indians that reports 31 percent of them say they are suffering, compared to 24 percent last year and 7 percent in 2008. And just 13 percent of Indians claim they are currently thriving. These findings are being reported in the media as symptomatic of the country’s darkening prospects.
The rapid increase in feelings of dissatisfaction is all the more striking given that people also state that their material circumstances are markedly improving. In a land racked by deep poverty, only 13 percent say they do not have enough money for food, compared to 35 percent in 2006; and just a tenth report they do not have adequate resources to secure shelter, compared to 24 percent in 2006.
Highlighting India’s difficulties in moving surplus workers from the inefficient farm sector into more productive occupations, the poll shows an increase in suffering among agricultural workers. This specific finding is especially disconcerting given the large resources Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government has poured into the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, its headline initiative that provides a hundred days of annual (often make-work) employment for adult members of rural households who are willing to do public-works related manual work at minimum wage.
Another concern flagged by the report is the low level of optimism among India’s young adults compared to their cohorts in other nations. This is a worrying development given the widespread conviction that the country’s favorable demographic profile all but guarantees its ascent as a global power.
So why have Indians become unhappier even as the country maintains some of the world’s highest growth rates and more people report that their basic needs are fulfilled? Gallup officials warn that the economy is failing to keep pace with popular expectations about the future and even speak of the possibility of political upheaval similar to those that convulsed the Arab world last year.
This is sobering data from a country that once boasted about the dawning of the “Indian Century.” But it is also belies information released just a few months ago by Ipsos Global, which reported that Indians were among the world’s most contented people. According to its research, 43 percent of Indians claimed that they were “very happy” in their lives while another 46 percent said they were “rather happy.” Another recent Ipsos poll found that Indians are the second most optimistic people in the world when it came to the state of their national economy.
A survey of 2,000 urban adults published last fall in Outlook magazine contains data reinforcing the Ipsos findings. It reported that huge majorities in many of the country’s major cities rated themselves as content. Interestingly, however, only the barest majority (50.9 percent) in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat, one of India’s fastest-growing states, classified themselves as happy.
I’ll leave it to others to reconcile these contradictory findings and probe their significance. I’m just content to marvel at how India’s vastness and diversity continue to confound those who seek to understand it.