All men have the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, wrote Thomas Jefferson in the American Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was an epicurean, but a pragmatist: He knew people will look for happiness, but he also knew that most people wouldn’t find it. Hence the guarantee, in the American constitution, of the right to “pursuit of happiness” and not of happiness itself.
A sharp-witted polymath, Jefferson would have fitted in with the host of eminent persons who graced the Manorama News Conclave on Happiness, the first-of-its kind conclave in Kerala held at Le Meridian in Kochi on June 3. Across several sessions of stimulating discussions, on themes as varied as governance and spirituality, and economy and arts, they shared their views on how Malayalis ought to pursue happiness.
The timing was appropriate: A survey conducted in the weeks leading up to the conclave had revealed that the happiness index of Malayalis stood at a dismal 4.4 out of 10. Most people worried about corruption and social security of the elderly. Apparently, the fact that most of them were satisfied with their health and living standards was not reassuring enough.
In the session titled ‘State of Happiness’, Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar suggested that people did not realise that happiness was within them. “Someone asked me, in Los Angeles the other day, ‘What makes you happy?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ I am happiness.”
While Ravi Shankar’s spiritual insights drew much appreciation from the audience, the man who succeeded him on stage, NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant had material matters on mind. With the Gulf boom coming to a close, he said, Kerala was at the crossroads. It needed to discover growth engines, get rid of rules that kill businesses and tourism, and focus on sustainable development.
“The Malayalis must get it into their minds that there is nothing wrong in creating wealth,” said Kant. “Even in Bhutan [which relies on gross national happiness index], the king has said that the people must have the freedom to create wealth.”
‘Breaking News or Happiness’ had journalists Barkha Dutt, Vinod K. Jose and Dhanya Rajendran and writer N.S. Madhavan talking about the state of the Indian media. Dutt said people had been cribbing about what they watch keenly, while Jose said the rich and the powerful should not dictate journalism.
IPS officers K. Sethuraman and Merin Joseph and IAS officer Sriram Venkataraman discussed the role of bureaucrats. “We think most people want to do their job in peace,” said Venkataraman, whose moves to evict encroachers in Munnar ruffled many a political feather recently. “But think of a sub-inspector of police. Would we be able to lead a peaceful life if he is bent on avoiding conflicts? For some people, peace is not synonymous with happiness. They derive happiness from doing their duty.”
The session on ‘Gender of Happiness’ had actor Manju Warrier as moderator and writer Anita Nair, Olympian Anju Bobby George and Divya S. Iyer, IAS, as participants. Anita Nair said that the pressure on women to exercise moderation had never waned in Kerala. “The male scrutiny defines what a woman does,” she said. “Othukkam (modesty), which is religiously preached by our society, is a product of that.”
In ‘Happinomics’, Tourism Minister Kadakampally Surendran, opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala, noted bureaucrat V.J. Kurian and entrepreneurs Azad Moopen and Navas Meeran roadmapped Kerala’s economic progress. ‘Manifesto of Happiness’, on the importance of credible politics, crackled with the witty banter among panellists: Jairam Ramesh of the Congress, Subramanian Swamy of the BJP and Nilotpal Basu of the CPI(M). Basu set the tone, saying that he was surprised that he was invited to the conclave, “because the common refrain about us, the communists, is that we try to discover unhappiness”.
The concluding session, ‘Cinema: Happy with the Big?’, explored whether blockbusters like Baahubali were boon or bane for the Malayalam film industry. “A bane, no doubt. It will kill the ecosystem that fosters creativity and talent, two factors that make Malayalam films great,” said award-winning filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Art director Sabu Cyril, who was part of the Baahubali crew, partly agreed, saying, “Malayalis need not make big-budget films; we can watch the ones others make. It is all about setting your priorities and budget right.”
In his valedictory address, Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said, “Don’t survive only on remittance economy. Keralites have a lot of potential. Keep it up with good governance and good politics.”
Earlier in the day, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had inaugurated the conclave. He said people in Kerala were reluctant to see others unhappy. Happiness, according to him, had become a basic right here. “The government is duty-bound to provide maximum happiness to all,” said Vijayan.
It was a happy coincidence that, an hour after he left the conclave venue, the chief minister boarded the Kochi Metro to inspect the operational aspects of the project. The metro will form the backbone of the proposed integrated public transport system, which is expected to significantly ease the traffic woes of Kerala’s commercial capital. Vijayan took a ride on phase-I of the metro, which will be inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 17. For most Malayalis, Kochi Metro is a dream come true, one that symbolises a giant leap in their pursuit of happiness.
Jefferson would surely have approved.