The great degree of unhappiness in Indian society has a lot to do with the way the law and its institutions operate
Until the beginning of the publication of the United Nations World Happiness Report in 2012, happiness was not considered an objective of governance. But it has now emerged as a new measure of the quality of governance. The connection between law, governance and happiness has been gaining considerable attention over the years. This is because the report has shown time and again that countries with a higher GDP and higher per capita income are not necessarily the happiest.
The United Nations World Happiness Report of 2021 ranks India 139 out of 149 countries. Happiness was measured by also taking into consideration the effects of COVID-19 on the people and their evaluation of the performance of governance systems. The report shows that COVID-19-induced social distancing had a severe impact on happiness as sharing and community life were hugely affected during the pandemic.
India’s dismal performance on happiness is crucial if we look at governance and the law. Happiness has never been considered an explicit goal of public policy in India. The trust and confidence enjoyed by public institutions are quite pertinent in the happiness score sheet. Guarantees of rights, participation, dignity, and social justice are crucial in the determination of happiness in a society like India.
We tend to limit the role of law to a mere sanctioning instrumentality which satisfies the retributive instincts of people. However, the law is capable of creating many positive obligations, which may lead to a collective conscience, care and cooperation. It is capable of making people feel that they have a role in resolving their problems through distributive justice. “To feel that your lost wallet would be returned if found by a police officer, by a neighbour, or a stranger, was considered to be a measure of happiness than income, unemployment, and major health risks,” the report states.
Law ought to bring happiness to the lives of people. The great degree of unhappiness in Indian society has a lot to do with the way the law and its institutions operate. People live in pain and anguish as their legitimate grievances remain unaddressed by the legal system. It is erroneous to believe that every case that is decided by the courts brings happiness to the people. According to the World Justice Report, as many as 40% of people live outside the protection of law in the world. More than 5 billion people fall into this ‘justice gap’. India’s share is very big in these figures. The estimated figure of 3.5 crore pending cases in various courts of the country is not merely a number as all those connected with these cases are in a state of anxiety. They are certainly not happy people. Typically, the criminal justice system for these people is a source of unhappiness.
India’s rule of law rank was 69 as per the World Justice report 2021. It has a chilling effect on the right to life, liberty, economic justice, dignity and national integration. Justice in India hardly seems to espouse the goal of happiness in society. Criminal justice drastically impacts the lives of people. It is capable of providing safety but it also leads to fear, stigma and repression. People are rarely satisfied with the police and courts in this country.
Lower crime rates, happier societies
The data suggest that happy countries have lower crime rates. Crime and its resultant suffering are a major source of unhappiness. For instance, in Finland, Denmark, the Philippines, South Africa, India and Sri Lanka, at least one of the four crime variables share an inverse relation with the happiness score of the nation. It means that individuals living in nations with high crime rates are less happy and satisfied than individuals living in nations with comparatively lower crime rates. Countries scoring high on the Rule of Law Index also score well on the index of happiness. Second, in the report, happiness levels were significantly determined by various socio-demographic factors like health, education, crime rate, criminal victimisation and fear of crime.
Nations are now responding to the happiness index. The United Arab Emirates was the first country in the world to have set up a Ministry of Happiness. The Ministry monitors the impact of policies through a happiness meter and takes measures to ensure a better life. Bhutan introduced Gross National Happiness as a measure of good governance. Rothstein and Uslaner (2005) say that honest and effective governments can create more socio-economic equality. This leads a greater number of people reposing trust in their government, which is an important condition for happiness.
G.S. Bajpai is Vice-Chancellor at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab. Views are personal