When they think of India, many people still have the shining image of it as a rising economy, one of the four most promising in the world, in fact. As one of the BRIC countries, along with Russia, Brazil and China, India’s rise from a long history of poverty raised hope for the rest of the developing world. So it’s startling when Fareed Zakaria recently asked on CNN, “Is India the broken BRIC?” In the same vein, Jim O’Neill, the most important global economist at Goldman Sachs, and the man who coined the term BRIC, considers India the biggest economic disappointment with its 5 percent fall in growth since 2010.
What makes the disappointment worse is that since the early 90s, as Western media and business people were jetting back and forth between India and China sizing up these two growing economic giants, business magazine covers, famous economists and top CEOs at conferences were saying, “India is the one to watch, not China.”
How did so many brilliant prognosticators miss so badly? As economists ponder what went wrong, the Gallup data gives telltale clues on the human side. Economics comes down to millions of individual workers and what they experience at work. The worker’s story from India is discouraging. A staggering 33 percent of employees are what Gallup scientists refer to as “actively disengaged,” meaning not only are they miserable at work, but they walk the halls and petition their colleagues to be as miserable and discontented as they are. On the positive end of the spectrum, a tiny 9 percent of Indian employees are engaged. These are the people who build new products and services, generate new ideas, create new customers and ultimately spur an economy to create more and more good jobs.
The workplace tends to be symptomatic of society as a whole, and here the picture is just as gloomy. India’s state of mind is severely troubled right now. Gallup’s World Poll, currently in its eighth year in the field, finds more Indians than ever are “suffering” — 31 percent — while fewer are “thriving,” just 10 percent. This is among the worst in the world.
When any society reaches a low point of well-being with a sizable number of people suffering, it is in trouble. When the quotient of suffering sharply rises (as it did in Libya before the Arab Spring and is happening today in Egypt), social turmoil often results. The street rioting over sexual harassment of women in India — an endemic problem that the government and judicial system turned a blind eye to for decades — is another warning sign.
What will happen next? Officially, India is being upbeat about its economic projections, with a forecast of growth between 6 and 7 percent for 2013 after falling below 7 percent for the past two years and generally underperforming since 2008, according to a recent story in the New York Times. In the Gallup data, 36 percent of the Indian population rated economic conditions as “good” or “excellent” in 2012, as compared to nearly half (46 percent) who thought so in 2008.
Of course, we are rooting for India’s economic uptick, but the human side needs deeper examination. In many ways India is facing a crisis of the soul. When only one person out of 10 is thriving, and around that number feel engaged at the workplace, it indicates that the vast majority are not reaching a desirable level of fulfillment — far from it.
A nation’s soul is the sum total of all interactions between all people in that society. Every moment lasts a few seconds and is positive, negative, or neutral. In those moments, people may make very tiny decisions that, as they accumulate, can profoundly change their day and even the rest of their lives. An old adage says, “Miss a bus, and you change the rest of your life.” In our world of unprecedented interconnectedness, that axiom may need updating: “Miss a bus and you change the rest of the world.” With India’s vast population, there are trillions of interactions per year. If they swing too far to the negative, the society’s soul is suffering a malaise.
Analysts point to large-scale problems, such as the widespread corruption that persists in Indian government, local and national, and the failure of reform parties to gain a strong political footing. But we think the story of moment-to-moment experience counts the most. What if every interaction with a bureaucrat brings expectations of obstacles, red tape or a bribe? What if every woman walking out alone expects catcalls, whistles and physical intrusions from men on the street? What if domestic violence and rape go hugely underreported and when reported lead to minimal consequences for the perpetrator?
India needs to come to terms with its soul sickness, and slowly, haltingly, it seems to be. Most Indians are lodged in the slot of low expectations. The Gallup data shows a surprising complacency, because despite the alarmingly low level of well-being, around 60 percent of Indians between 2006 and 2011 said that they were satisfied with their standard of living. The bubble seems to have burst since then, however, with that figure dipping below 50 percent in 2012.
There is something important here that India’s leaders — and all global leaders — must consider: A nation’s soul precedes its human development. Organic human development will not occur in India if the majority of everyday experiences are negative. Even so, India’s resilience and optimism — along with its resignation in the face of problems going back for generations — gives hope that the country will look to its soul. A great culture can only persist by doing so. We are pained to deliver gloomy news, but our deepest feeling is that the most spiritual nation on earth, and its largest democracy, can find a path to reform, with the well-being of its people held out as a primary goal.