The curious case of Andhra’s 72nd rank on the happiness index

Within a month of CM Chandrababu Naidu announcing the creation of a Happiness Department, media reports claimed state had obtained a happiness score of 5,368 points

Ever since he took oath as the chief minister of the truncated state of Andhra Pradesh (AP) on June 8, 2014, all his speeches – whether intended for self-help group women or farmers in drought-prone Ananapur district or video conferences with officials, numbering as many as 8,000 on some occasions, or invited CEOs at leadership conclaves in Delhi or Davos – have essentially been torrents of statistical data. Perhaps it is his long association with multilateral bodies such as the World Bank (WB), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and consulting agencies such as McKinsey, that has made a magician out of the politician Chandrababu Naidu; the 66-year-old consistently employs the wand of statistics, which invariably obfuscates ground realities and conjures up a non-existent heaven for the people of Andhra. Factor this: he has claimed that under his leadership, Andhra will become one of the top best performing states in India by 2022; that he will transform AP in India's number one state by 2029 and that by 2050, the state will be one of the top three economies in the world.

Naidu's pet statistical contribution in the political domain is on the happiness index. One fine morning, much to the surprise of all, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leader announced that his new goal is to achieve a “Happy and Globally-competitive society” by 2029. In April 2017, he chalked the Happiness Department, and gave up the portfolios of energy, industries, tourism and commerce in order to head the new department. His “Sunrise Andhra Pradesh Vision 2029”, which is stuffed with all sorts of statistics, claims that, “Happiness of the people of Andhra Pradesh is the supreme goal of the government...”

Naidu's deputy in the state's planning department, C Kutumba Rao, was quoted at the time of the happiness department's launch as saying that parameters would be set for a happiness index. “The idea is to see that each family gets Rs 10,000 income and the new index will be measured from data sourced,” Rao had said.

And voilà, within a month after the launch of the happiness department, there were media reports about the state taking the 72nd spot on the World Happiness Index 2017. Never mind that the Index does not rank states, but assigns numeric values solely to countries. Still, here's what a report in the Vijaywada edition of The New Indian Express on 17 May 2017 stated: “Andhra Pradesh has got 72nd place in the World Happiness Index 2017, while India has ranked 122 among 155 countries.” The report stated that the state's happiness score is 5,368 (more on this shortly). Citing an “official press release,” it noted that “Srikakulam, one of the backward districts in the State, has topped the list of the Happiness Index, followed by West Godavari. Prakasam district has figured last in the list. Chittoor, the native district of Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, is in the 12th place among 13 districts in the State.”

The state’s happiness index from the ‘Sunrise Andhra Pradesh Vision 2029’ report. AP has been mum on the survey source

The final paragraph of the news report, also published online by MSN and UK Pressform, stated that, “AP is the only State in the country which had the survey conducted to assess the happiness levels of its people, so as to modify its policies accordingly.” Sounds utopian? There's more. About two months ago, on December 27, Naidu said: “AP is a happening state. Our state has attracted the world's attention, and many countries are showing interest in working with us.”

While Naidu's words might've persuaded imaginary nations to put their money into the state, it certainly doesn't hold true for research agency Gallup, which conducts the survey for and plots the World Happiness Index for the UN body Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).

On the 72nd position on the 'World’ Happiness Index 2017 is the Philippines. Not Andhra Pradesh. When asked about the discrepancy, a Gallup spokesperson said the agency does not release state-wide data. “I’m not sure where the state level data came from in the release,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. The Chief Minister's Office and the state's Planning Department did not respond to emails asking about the ranking and the survey. Rao failed to respond to text messages and shrugged aside the question on phone (This feature will be updated if Rao or any of the state departments respond).

What about AP's purported 5,368 happiness score? Well, the happiness score, which leads to the rankings, is based on six factors - GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support, trust (measured by a perceived absence of corruption in government and business), perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity (measured by recent donations). And guess what, the World Happiness Index 2017 does not record a score of 5,368. The closest scores to that number are obtained by Serbia (ranked 73rd with a score of 5,395) and Jordan (ranked 74th with a score of 5,336).

What, then, about news reports of AP's 72nd rank? The New Indian Express report quotes an “official press release,” but fails to cite whether the release was issued by the state government, the Happiness or the Planning departments or by SSDN/Gallup. Indeed the state's Vision 2029 document points to a report, which lists the global happiness rankings alongside the values of the state's districts on five parameters based on the Gallup survey questions put forth to 16,159 persons. In true professional manner, these values are tabulated, put in graphs, depicted on a map of Andhra Pradesh besides putting forth the research methodology. What's missing is the fine print: who conducted the survey exercise for the state? Over what period of time? And how did the results emerge within weeks of the happiness department being formed?

(With inputs from the SW. team in Hyderabad)

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