India Suffering? New Research Shows Over 30% of Indians Have Bleak Outlook

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People walk through a market in front of Jama Masjid mosque on March 29, 2012, in Delhi

Gallup research released today offers a worrying glimpse into the psyche of people from all income levels living across India. When asked how they felt about their present and future lives, 31% of adults — equivalent to some 240 million people — rated their prospects low enough on a scale of 0 to 10 to fall into the polling organization’s category of “suffering.” An overwhelming 56% identified at a level that Gallup qualifies as “struggling,” while a scant 13% rated their lives high enough on the scale to be considered “thriving.”

The data, gathered from individuals living across 90% of the country, reflect a retrograde direction in Indians’ feelings of dissatisfaction with both their personal and professional lives and their perception of public life in the world’s largest democracy. In 2006, during the days of headier economic growth and optimism both captured and buoyed by the famous “India shining” slogan of an earlier government, 21% of people across all income levels rated their lives at levels categorized as “thriving.”

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Such a sharp downturn in the national mood should be a big red flag both for officials and for leaders in the private sector. Gallup’s research does reveal some bright spots in the government’s recent efforts to alleviate poverty. People who reported not having enough money for food, for instance, dropped dramatically from 35% in 2006 to 13% in ’12, and the number for people who said they did not have enough money for shelter dropped from 24% to 10%.

But overall, the new data paints a picture of a nation that is failing to deliver on the hopes whipped up by its high growth of recent years. Amid growing frustrations with government and societal corruption, people’s expectations for their lives are clearly outpacing what improvements are being made, creating an imbalance that Gallup chairman and CEO Jim Clifton warns could be destabilizing, as it was in so many other parts of the world last year. “You need a matchstick event like that vendor in Tunisia,” Clifton said at the Gallup India Behavioral Economics Forum today in New Delhi. “The question is, Are the conditions right for a fire?”

Some would certainly argue that they are not. India’s democratic process, while flawed, does offer the “safety valve” of freedom of expression that many of the Arab Spring countries did not have, Rajesh Srinivasan, the Asia regional director of Gallup World Poll, noted at the forum. But he did caution that India has fallen alarmingly behind on its promises of a better life for most of its people. “It’s very dangerous to create expectations and not be able to fulfill them,” Srinivasan said.

India has also fallen behind other BRIC nations in key social indicators like education and its people’s feelings of physical, financial and social well-being. Improving access to education, which the government hopes its new Right to Education Act will do, emerges from the data as one of the most direct ways to improve the outlook of society. Only 8% of people with a college degree or higher reported feelings that qualified as “suffering,” compared with 35% of people with less than a secondary school education. “There is no better investment than education,” said Srinivasan. “It’s a no-brainer.”

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That’s because education grants access to rewarding employment, a commodity that could be key in steering India out of the murky waters of shrinking growth and weakening foreign investment. Worldwide, there are only 1.2 billion of what the polling organization defines as “good jobs” — meaning jobs that offer more than 30 hours a week, a real paycheck and consistent work. But there are 3 billion people who want those jobs, according to Clifton. He says successful economies will be defined by their ability to deliver good jobs to the portion of their population who want them because global customers will instinctively gravitate toward emotionally healthier economies. “Outcomes of countries are going to be determined by [their employees’] engagement,” Clifton said.

The argument is not a perfect fit for India, where gainful and satisfactory employment comes in more shapes and colors than a 30-hour workweek, but the underlying principle applies. In a democratic system, it’s hard to grow on the back of a population that senses something is fundamentally wrong about the direction their lives are headed. The darkening mood in India may not mean a fire, but the infectious optimism of the past decade is a commodity that India’s public and private sectors cannot afford to burn.