Religion has always been a major driver of socio cultural and political forces in India over the centuries. Even today, we’re seeing religion play a predominant role in how the socio-political landscape of the country is shaping up. But while politics and religion have been bedfellows, often spoken about, economics and religion is an angle we often don’t really examine under any lens. This is why academician Sriya Iyer’s book ‘The Economics of Religion in India’ becomes an important work. The book explores how growth, inequality, education, technology and social trends both affect and are affected by religious groups. The book is based on data accumulated over ten years, surveying 600 religious organisations across seven states in the country. The book looks at how after liberalisation, religious organisations sought the route of offering services, filling a gap that the state had vacated. Her data states that religious violence is more virulent where economic growth is higher because of the obvious economic inequalities, which is then used to fuel sectarian politics, social polarisations and religious extremity. Her data though also looks at how religious organisations work towards socio-economic development and encouraging women to step out of the domestic and become more participatory citizens.
A Bibby Fellow and College Lecturer at St Catharine’s College and Affiliated Lecturer and Janeway Fellow in Economics in the Faculty of Economics at the University of Cambridge, Iyer is also the author of Demography and Religion in India. We spoke with her about her latest book, and why we need to take a good hard look at how religion impacts our economics.
I do not see the religious identity as being more or less important to the national identity – I think both identities coexist in most people quite easily.
Economics and religion are two very disparate disciplines. One is rational based on hard facts, the other is emotional, based on faith and belief. What compelled you to make this the focus of your study in this book?
I thought it might be useful to examine how economic theory and statistical tools could be used to evaluate the role of religion in society. Also, I was curious to see if economic incentives could also be partly responsible for driving more emotional decision-making. Religion is very pervasive in different parts of the world, and I thought it might be helpful to bring these two subjects together to further our understanding of these interactions.
Religion is very pervasive in different parts of the world, and I thought it might be helpful to bring these two subjects together to further our understanding of these interactions.
Was there any particular reason you decided to focus this on religion in India rather than looking at the economics of religion on the global spectrum?
There is a lot of existing research on the economics of religion in the US, Europe, and so forth. But fewer studies which focus on the economics of religion in developing countries. Given the importance of religion in India, which has one of the highest rates of religious belief in the world, it seemed important to me to focus on India to study it in further depth.
In countries like India where religion and politics are intertwined, how economically and politically profitable has the business of religion become?
This is a difficult question to answer as it is difficult to collect information about this. But my feeling is that religious organisations, like other organisations, have to provide public services, and these can be costly to provide, so they need resources for their activities. I would not say that they do this purely for a ‘profit’. My sense is that they view this service provision as part of their core activities of spirituality and service for the community.
In many cases religious organisations are stepping in where the welfare state should. How does this play out eventually in the building of religious identity over the national identity?
It is true that religious organisations are providing many welfare services in many different countries. These activities may reinforce the religious identity, but my feeling is that this would not necessarily displace feelings of national identity because most people have multiple identities – they would describe themselves for example, as ‘Indian’, ‘Tamil’, ‘Hindu’, ‘Woman’, etc., and all of these combines to form their collective identity. So I do not see the religious identity as being more or less important to the national identity – I think both identities coexist in most people quite easily.
You grew up in India where religion plays a dominant role in most lives. What are the similarities you find between how religion organises itself in India and perhaps business models?
I think religious organisations in India today are very organised. Especially if they are providing services such as education, health, food distribution, employment, child care and so forth in response to local community demand, they need to provide these services efficiently as well as to raise the resources in order to do so. Economics teaches us that decisions are often about trade-offs – having many ends but limited means to achieve them, and these trade-offs are I think evident in the work of religious organisations as much as they are in the work of other organisations, which are not primarily religion-based. So they do need suitable business models to operate, as much as other organisations do.
Economics teaches us that decisions are often about trade-offs – having many ends but limited means to achieve them, and these trade-offs are I think evident in the work of religious organisations as much as they are in the work of other organisations, which are not primarily religion-based.
Tell us about the most startling findings from the survey you conducted across religions in India.
The survey was a preliminary attempt to conduct an economic survey of religious institutions in India. It covered a sample of about 568 organisations, across seven Indian states. It also covered Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jain and Sikh organisations, so it has breadth and depth. Our main findings were that all religious groups provide many social services such as education, health, food distribution, employment, child-care and other services, and that this is sometimes in response to changes in local income inequality. As populations become more aspirational, they increasingly demand more of these services, and the organisations need to step in to provide services, sometimes to breach the gap left by state provision. This is true of all states and religions which we covered in the survey. There are interesting variations by religious groups as well, but overall the main message from the survey is the extraordinary range of services that these organisations now provide in India, and in my view, the ability to harness their activities in a positive way for economic development, along with the more formal role of the welfare state.
And finally, how do you think the interplay between society, religion and economy plays out in India versus how it does in other countries around the world, given the diversity of both religion and culture in the country?
In my view religious and cultural diversity in any country is only a strength and only a positive feature of any nation. India’s rich cultural and religious diversity is one of its greatest assets. We have a youthful, vibrant population with an enormous capacity for growth, innovation and economic prosperity in the future. So my view is that we need to think positively about the interaction between society, religion and the economy. If for example, schooling is provided by religious institutions which supplements more formal schooling from the secular sector in a positive way, then more people who need an education are simply getting the opportunity to have one. This can lift populations and economies out of poverty traps.
So my own view is that if religion, society and the economy work together positively and collaboratively, these are all various ways of collectively achieving a common goal of peace and prosperity for all, whether in India or in other countries.
Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV