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Religion and Businesses

Religion is a key determinant of not just social harmony but economic development too. A large number of studies from across the world have found some correlation between the economic development of a country and the predominance of religion in its social life.

Arvind Saxena | New Delhi |

Are ‘samriddhi’ and ‘vikas’ synonyms? I heard a speaker on a recent TV show talk about the implication of choosing one over the other. While the import of the comment was lost in the large number of issues being tossed around in the loud debate, I thought it was necessary to pause and think about the observation.

A look at the dictionary clearly brings out the difference between the two. Samriddhi means prosperity, abundance, strength, success, welfare and development. Vikas on the other hand focuses on expansion, progress and development. Both include development, but the quality of development is different. The latter is more macho ~ it is acquisitive, assertive, combative and competitive.

It is something that can be compared in measures like GDP, share value and personal wealth. Samriddhi is more nuanced; it is difficult to measure but can be observed and sensed. The underlying element in the latter is harmony, equitable prosperity and development, not necessarily in money terms. So the question is what do we want for India ~ Samriddhi or vikas? Like most commonly used indicators, GDP is a poor measure of development. It effectively hides the disparity in incomes and the growing gulf between the rich and the poor.

It also does not take into account the availability of food, health, education, shelter, employment, sanitary working conditions, a degree of social security, human rights and a harmonious society where citizens can live in peace. These are the citizens who send up elected leaders to the legislatures to improve the quality of their lives and safeguard their interests in using the nation’s resources, of which they are equal owners. Unfortunately, since the early 1990s we have focussed only on “vikas”.

While this has undoubtedly lifted a very large number of our people above the poverty line, an equally large number of people have found their living standards pushed down in the same period. We lost organised employment opportunities, lost the voice of trade unions, lost our freedoms of privacy and questioning. This is jaundiced progress. It is the antithesis of “samriddhi”. So how do we bring “samriddhi” to our nation? To start with we must keep things simple yet focussed. Refuse to get into legalese and semantics, and keep things intelligible for the common man.

The first and obvious thing to do is to increase the size of the economic pie. Since the government cannot do this by itself, the corporate world will have to play its role. The simple caveat, in this partnership, is total transparency and public audit of all activities, to ensure equitable spread of wealth. Transparency builds legitimacy and there is growing evidence to show that good corporate governance adds to the share holder value of a company.

The second thing is to enforce the rule of law and protect public institutions to maintain their autonomy and integrity. All such institutions should also be open to public questioning and subject to statutory oversight. Finally, we will need to look at social harmony as a determining factor in the overall well being of the people. Religion is a key determinant of not just social harmony but economic development too. A large number of studies from across the world have found some correlation between the economic development of a country and the predominance of religion in its social life.

A 2014 study by researchers in Georgetown University and Brigham Young University, for example, identified that freedom of belief is one of the vital factors that contribute to economic success. The study looked at the GDP of 143 countries and found that innovative strength was more than twice as likely in countries with low religious restrictions.

The study noted: …“ religious hostilities and restrictions create climates that can drive away local and foreign investment, undermine sustainable development, and disrupt huge sectors of economies. Perhaps most significant for future economic growth… young entrepreneurs are pushed to take their talents elsewhere due to the instability associated with high and rising religious restrictions and hostilities.”

According to a study by Damian J Ruck, R Alexander Bentley and Daniel J Lawson, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (2018), if India discards its religious beliefs that perpetuate caste and gender inequalities, it could more than double its per capita GDP growth of the last 60 years in half the time. A question often asked is what is wrong if people are becoming more conscious of their religious identities? Why should anyone be afraid of this?

The best answer is that such a development should become a cause for concern if the assertion of a particular religious identity has a negative impact on others. Secularists seem convinced that a policy of ignoring or marginalising religious believers and groups is a necessary requisite for unity. Yet it is a fallacy to think that religious diversity is always at odds with social cohesion. Religion is not a genie to be contained; it can actually be a powerful counterweight to narcissist, supremacist thinking and a force that unites, not necessarily divides. Its potential must be recognised, not feared.

The real problem, in my view, is not increased spirituality, which by itself would most certainly be a welcome development; rather, it is the shrinking space for religious freedom, expression and most importantly, tolerance. Promoting tolerance at the community level is an area where intervention is required. The increasingly influential business community can play a vital role in rolling back the rising tide of intolerance.

It is a fact that no country can grow economically if it has to struggle with internal conflict, but the problem gets compounded when nations try to hide their poor socio-economic indicators behind aggressive religiosity, often claiming that their economic progress is being hampered because their resources are being taken up in their fight to protect their religion. Religion, however, need not always be viewed suspiciously or contemptuously. In a world where it has been hijacked by narrow interests, an unhealthy and unwarranted fear of religion is exactly what the zealots want.

Everyone must avoid playing into their hands. A country whose economy is not growing is bad news for the corporate world. Our business leaders have to understand that protecting religious freedom and promoting a culture of mutual respect and tolerance will help create a climate that is conducive to sustainable development. It is a sine-qua-non for generating long-term economic growth.

One of the ways business can influence the discourse is by articulating its opposition to intolerance and being proactive in discouraging religious confrontations. They can, nay must, step in as agents of peace building and actively help in formulating longterm strategies to foster cross-cultural understanding as part of their CSR initiatives. Together with religious leaders, they can identify places that are susceptible to outbreaks of religious hostilities, and support programmes to encourage inter-faith dialogue, social harmony and justice.

They need to wake up in their own ‘mercantilist’ interests and, of course, the interest of our country. It is evident that ‘materialistic and competitive vikas’ cannot bring about ‘egalitarian, just and harmonious samriddhi’. There are enough warning signs that we have to reconstruct our socio-economic development model before it is too late.

(The writer is a former Chairman of the Union Public Service Commission)