The state of Maharashtra wants its citizens to be happy, and plans to achieve this by setting up a “happiness department” in the government. On Monday, the Indian Express reported that the state government has set up a seven-member committee to plan the formation of a happiness department under the state department of relief and rehabilitation.

The concept of a happiness ministry in a government is not new. In 1979, the king of Bhutan coined the term Gross National Happiness as an alternative indicator of a country’s development, and incorporated the term in Bhutan’s constitution in 2008. Since then, countries like Venezuela and the United Arab Emirates have also set up government ministries of happiness.

In India, Madhya Pradesh became the first state to set up a happiness department in August 2016, and Andhra Pradesh followed suit this April with a “happiness index” department to measure development in the state.

While Andhra Pradesh’s experiment with this new department is barely two months old, Madhya Pradesh has completed nearly a year of incorporating happiness into governance. What has the state’s happiness department achieved so far?

The department’s website and its officials claim they have been organising a range of festive events in villages and schools to promote the idea of inner well-being, and boast a membership of more than 32,000 “happiness volunteers” who are setting up happiness clubs at the ground level.

On the ground, however, social activists and journalists believe that the idea of a happiness department is nothing but a publicity stunt. In a state that is known for its low human development indices, they claim that ordinary citizens are barely aware of the existence of the happiness department.

Happiness festivals

In April 2016, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan announced plans for a happiness department soon after a spate of student suicides in the state. Happiness, according to Chouhan, could not be measured only with the economic growth rate and material possessions – people also needed positivity in their lives.

The happiness department began functioning in August 2016, with the stated aim of equipping citizens with means to lead a balanced lifestyle with inner happiness. On its website, the department’s listed objectives include finding ways to measure and define happiness, mainstreaming the concept of fun and creating action plans to promote happiness in the state.

The department also set up a Rajya Anand Sansthan, or a state happiness society, a body that includes members from the government’s education, sports, culture and health departments, to promote collaboration between them while planning activities to promote happiness.

The Sansthan invites citizens to sign up as “anandaks”, or happiness volunteers who help carry out the department’s promotional activities on the ground. So far, the Sansthan claims to have more than 32,000 citizens as registered volunteers. They help the department carry out village-level events like anand utsav (happiness festivals) and anand sabhas, which include cultural shows, sporting matches and speeches about having positive mindsets.

‘Manufactured misery’

The idea of positivity is also central to a “happiness calendar” posted on the department’s website. The calendar describes itself as a “self-help manual” designed to help people “practice” happiness, because through “conscious and concerted effort”, it is possible to be joyful even without external reasons or happenings.

The calendar instructs readers to take the suggested activities “without pretense”, and goes on to dedicate each month to a particular theme and a list of activities to be ticked off daily. By totalling the ticks at the end of each month, a citizen gets their “Anand account”.

June, for instance, is dedicated to gratitude. July is dedicated to sports, and the list of suggested activities includes “regularly play field games” and “take nutritious diet”. In the month of August, which is dedicated to “pause”, the calendar notes that “if you will not pause, your mind will continue to manufacture misery”.

A page from MP's happiness calendar.

On May 22, the Madhya Pradesh government announced that it had enlisted the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur to develop a happiness index for measuring the well-being of citizens. Chouhan also announced that the team at IIT would develop online certificate courses on happiness and fulfilment.

“Other government departments have the responsibility of providing people with their most basic needs,” said Pravin Gangrade, the director of the Rajya Anand Sansthan. “We work towards the psychological well-being of people.”

‘Just a cosmetic effort’

Among the citizens of Madhya Pradesh, however, almost no one seems convinced that the happiness department is worth having in a state so notoriously underdeveloped.

For the past 50 years, Madhya Pradhesh’s districts have consistently featured in the periodic lists of India’s 100 most distressed districts. A 2011 United Nations Development Programme report ranked Madhya Pradesh at the bottom of the inequality index with respect to human development indicators. Even in a recent survey conducted by Public Affairs Centre, a Bangalore-based think tank, Madhya Pradesh was among the worst three performers on the human development index, along with Assam and Uttar Pradesh.

“MP has among the highest rates of maternal mortality and malnutrition deaths,” said Anand Rai, a right to information activist in Bhopal. “Everyone from farmers to Dalits and tribal groups are agitating or upset with the government. What has this government done for 15 years? Give us proper governance, and we won’t need any happiness department.”

Hemant Garg, a journalist from Barwani district, has seen numerous “happiness festivals” being organised in the district in the past 10 months, but claims they have had very little impact on the people. “It’s basically just propaganda. All of these cultural and educational events used to take place earlier too, but now they call it anand mela or some such thing,” said Garg. At one cleanliness drive, for instance, local politicians gave speeches about how citizens would be happy if they kept clean and built toilets. “I don’t think the participants in these activities even remember much the next day,” said Garg.

Activist Ajay Dubey, founder of non-profit organisation Prayatna in Bhopal, described the state’s happiness department as a “cosmetic” effort. “There are awards these days for innovative governance ideas, and the government is just wasting people’s money,” he said.