By Mohammad Badrul Ahsan
Oct 7 2016 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)
Persistent indigestion may point to the cancer of esophagus, throat or stomach. This prognosis is a sufficient hint for the wise to understand why development without democracy isn’t good for a nation. It’s no solace for people to know that highways and bridges are being built unless they also feel connected to their country, because it altogether misses the point. A free country is desirable so that people can enjoy, not the freedom of luxury, but the luxury of freedom.
This is the reason why people are ready to die thwarting foreign subjugation. This is why Pakistan sought independence from the British Empire in 1947, and Bangladesh sought independence from Pakistan in 1971. This is why millions have shed their blood across the world fighting for the felicity of making their own decisions. Independence of a country isn’t so much about minding the projects as it’s about projecting the minds.
Birds in captivity forever cherish the open sky despite the safety and comfort of a cage. Scotland wants to leave the UK. The Kashmiris want to break from India. The Palestinians refuse to accept Israeli occupation. The human desire for the right to self-determination is as natural as the reflex of an eye blinking to puff of air.
The US Declaration of Independence gives three examples of the inalienable rights given to all human beings by their Creator. Thomas Jefferson, who composed the original draft of this document, argued that governments are created to protect these rights. Throughout history though, despotic rulers have always turned that game on its head. They have crushed the rights of people to protect unlawful governments.
It goes without saying that people must work hard to build their country. The GDP is definitely an unmistakable indicator of that correlation between human endeavour and growth of an economy. The plantation economy ran on that underlying principle that justified slave trade. It’s believed that there are more slaves in the world today than any other time in history; an estimated 45 million.
An idea must start somewhere, and it did in a tiny kingdom named Bhutan, which since the 1970s has rejected traditional development indicators such as GDP. Instead it measures its citizens’ gross national happiness. The kingdom values the mental and spiritual well-being of its citizens more than their material growth, and the results look impressive. Between 1970 and 2000, the average life expectancy doubled and net primary school enrolment increased from 23 percent in 1978 to 86 percent in 2014.
Ideally, a nation should be like an amusement park run by governments elected every five years. And these governments are like the park management, whose job is to keep the park clean, enforce security services, maintain rides, sell tickets, and plan expansion. The management should not tell visitors which rides to take unless certain rides are risky or temporarily out of order.
That idea has lately dawned on countries other than Bhutan. The United Arab Emirates has appointed its first-ever minister of happiness to oversee “plans, projects, programmes and indices” that improve the country’s overall mood. Last July, Madhya Pradesh in India decided to create a Ministry of Happiness. The Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur is supposed to open a centre this month to study the science of happiness where students will be able to take a 12-14 hour microcredit course on happiness. India’s unhappiness problem is reflected in the mental health of its citizens. One in five to one in 10 Indians suffer from depression at some point in their lives.
American economist Jeffrey Sachs pioneered the idea that the satisfaction of citizens was an important part of economic development. That brings the issue of development to contention when people have dissatisfaction bottled up inside them. Nobody can be wise on an empty stomach, and neither can a full stomach make people wise.
The best balance to strike is having happy people build a happy nation. Happiness doesn’t mean high level of development for the same reason money can’t buy sleep. Nothing satisfies like satisfaction, which is a measure of contentment like the proof of the pudding lies in the eating.
One of the biggest satisfactions of free citizens in a free country is drawn from their right to choose their own government. Development without democracy puts the cart before the horse. It gives people a creeping sense that they are strangers in their own land.
People can be fed through tube, or they can eat with their own hands. While both may ensure nutrition, the latter is much more fun. When people cast their votes, they feel empowered and recognised. Nothing gives the taste of freedom like this small exercise, which is why development without democracy is an absurd proposition. It forces people to enjoy a delicious meal while their hands are tied.
The writer is Editor of the weekly First News and an opinion writer for The Daily Star.
This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh