I was recently reading an article on the human development rankings of countries, and while India was way at the bottom, the headline (proudly) mentioned that we were (at least) above Pakistan. It is interesting that when comparing India with other countries, we have mostly been content with "putting Pakistan behind". Considering how little social development we achieved through such a myopic attitude, it is high time we started looking elsewhere: perhaps at the unique Scandinavian nations of Norway and Sweden (and neighbouring Finland) — those shining stalwarts of social progress.
I myself was unaware of the wonder that was Scandinavia until I befriended someone from there. Hearing her stories about the unique experiments in "gender neutrality" and human rights (her school class was shown a film about teenage lesbians to sensitise them to homosexuality) in those countries, I was simply awestruck. Given where the world is right now, people are tempted to dismiss Scandinavia as a one-off "utopia". However, "today’s utopia is tomorrow’s reality", and despite the fact that the Scandinavian countries too have their own problems, there are several lessons on pragmatism that we can learn from them.
Education, health care, and gender equality are three important areas where they have achieved astounding success. Finland’s education system, envied by most nations, places more emphasis on "each student learning in an equally good school" rather than preparing "star" students to go to the "most prestigious" universities. All institutions are government-funded, and the Finnish system does not encourage any competition between them, its entire focus being on equality. Every school teacher has a Master’s degree, with payment similar to that of doctors and lawyers. This unique policy of emphasising "equality, not competition" has paid off extraordinarily well for Finland, with Finnish students consistently performing well in international standardised tests.
For India, where generally, the amount you earn dictates how well you get treated (medically and otherwise), Scandinavia offers some wise health policy lessons. What broadly defines their success in healthcare is extensive government participation. India pales in comparison, as our politicians hardly prioritise health. In Norway 85 per cent of all nationwide health expenses happen through the government (India’s figure is 32 per cent). They have what is called a single-payer health system, where there is a single agency (the government) which insures all citizens, eliminating the need for multiple private insurance companies. And while private hospitals do exist, there is little difference in the quality of care provided by them and government hospitals.
In 1974, Sweden became the first country to replace maternity leave with "parental leave", encouraging fathers to participate more fully in raising children. Currently, Swedish parents get 16 months - yes, 16 months - of paid parental leave, the longest in the world. Therefore, parents need not worry about their careers getting affected if they want a baby. Sweden has a dedicated "minister for gender equality" since 1954 and, despite having no constitutionally mandated quota for women, 45 per cent of the Swedish Parliament is comprised of females. While India struggles to increase women’s parliamentary presence using the legal compulsion method, Sweden has an interesting insight to offer: from the 1970s, their political parties started having voluntary quotas for women, and have since never looked back.
Culturally, India and Scandinavia cannot be more different: while government officials here routinely call for pornography bans, the Swedish government is known to have financed pornographic films. Many believe that only because Scandinavia imposes high tax rates, and is small and less diverse, can it conjure these "miracles". That is cynical thinking. While India surely is huge, its cities and districts are manageable in size: local administrators here, in fact, should be lapping up these readymade guidelines from the Scandinavian experience, especially because progress is sustained best when begun at grassroots. Even Scandinavia is known for the extensive autonomy its municipalities enjoy. Besides, these nations achieved their current enviable state through intelligent socio-political policies over only the last few decades. Back home, Kerala has set the ball rolling through the Kerala Perspective Plan 2030, through which it aims to "combine growth with social security like the Nordic countries". It is high time other states acted.
National-level policymakers also have a lot to learn, especially the internalisation of a strong political will for the welfare of each and every citizen. The continuing commitment of Swedish politicians to their citizens was demonstrated this May when they announced the addition of another month of dedicated parental leave for fathers. And that brings us to the most important lesson: stick to the basics. We are a nation so morbidly obsessed with religion, caste, and personality cults, that our politicians are hardly known for thinking seriously about the day-to-day concerns of common citizens. Scandinavian ministers most probably don’t waste money erecting giant statues of past leaders, or time fighting over the names of roads, or money and time implementing nationally divisive bans — neither do their citizens throw garbage on roads, or kill and maim for religion and caste. These people have always had their priorities sorted, and we need to learn from them what not to prioritise.
Of course we can keep cribbing that we don’t have the money and resources to do what they have done. Or, we can take the nation ahead by blending what they did with what our beloved Mahatma Gandhi once said: "The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed."
(The author acknowledges the generous contribution of Roosa Sofia Tikkanen, US-based and Nordic-raised health policy researcher.)