Inside India's first department of happiness

On a crisp weekday afternoon recently, hundreds of men and women, young and old, thronged a dusty playground of a government high school in a village in India's Madhya Pradesh state.

Hemmed in by mobile towers and squalid buildings, the ground in Salamatpur was an unusual venue for a government-sponsored programme to "spread cheer and happiness".

Undeterred by the surroundings and egged on by an energetic emcee, children in blue-and-white school uniforms, women in bright chiffon saris, and young men in jeans and t-shirts participated in games and festivities all morning. Under a tatty awning, people sprawled and a DJ played some music over crackling speakers. People left some food and old clothes for donation near a "wall of giving".

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On the field, children raced in gunny sacks. A dozen girls, hands tied to their back, sprinted to get their teeth into knotty jalebis, a popular sweet. Women, squealing with delight, competed in tug-of-war contests. Jaunty men from a dancing school vowed the crowd with hip-hop dance moves. A four-year-old girl provided a rousing finale with her Bollywood-style hip-swinging gyrations. At the end of it all, beaming participants received glossy certificates.

On the dais crowded with officials and village leaders, there was mirthful insistence that "happiness week" had kicked off well. Videos and pictures of festivities from all over the state poured into the phones of excited officials: these included grannies tugging rope and grandfathers running with spoons in their mouths, among other things.

Image copyright Prakash Hatvalne Image caption A week-long 'happiness week' saw girls participating in jalebi races Image caption ...and older villagers running with spoons in their mouth

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The fun and games were part of a week-long Happiness Festival, organised by the ruling BJP government in what is India's second largest state, home to more than 70 million people. They also provided a glimpse of the rollout of what is the country's first state-promoted project to "to put a smile on every face".

"Even in our villages, people are becoming introverted and self-centred because of TV and mobile phones. We are trying to get people out of homes, come together, and be happy. The aim is to forget the worries of life and enjoy together," said Shobhit Tripathi a senior village council functionary.

'Positive mindset'

At the heart of this project is the newly-formed Department of Happiness - the first of its kind in India - helmed by the state Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan himself.

The yoga-loving three-term 57-year-old leader of the ruling BJP believes the "state can help in ensuring the mental well being of its people".

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Under him a gaggle of bureaucrats and a newly formed State Institute of Happiness are tasked with the responsibility of "developing tools of happiness" and creating an "ecosystem that would enable people to realise their own potential of inner well being". The department also plans to run some 70 programmes and develop a Happiness Index for the state.

Mr Chouhan, who taught philosophy in a local college before embarking on a successful career in politics, told me he had been thinking for a long time on how to "bring happiness in people's lives".

He then had an epiphany. Why couldn't his government run programmes to help citizens have a "positive mindset"? One report said that he was prodded by a popular guru.

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