Religion and business

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 scope of the commentary was lost in the large number of questions raised in the boisterous debate, I felt it necessary to pause and reflect on the observation.

A glance at the dictionary clearly highlights the difference between the two. Samriddhi signifies prosperity, abundance, strength, success, well-being and development. Vikas, meanwhile, is focused on expansion, progress and development. Both include development, but the quality of development is different. The latter is more macho ~ he is acquisitive, assertive, combative and competitive.

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

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

While this has undoubtedly raised a very large number of our fellow citizens above the poverty line, an equally large number of people have seen their standard of living decline over the same period. We have lost organized employment opportunities, lost the voice of unions, lost our freedoms of confidentiality and questioning. It is yellowing progress. It is the antithesis of “samriddhi”. So how do we bring “samriddhi” to our nation? For starters, we need to keep it simple but focused. Refuse to go into legal jargon and semantics, and keep things intelligible to ordinary people.

The first obvious thing to do is increase the size of the economic pie. Since government cannot do it alone, the business world will have to play its part. The simple caveat in this partnership is full transparency and public auditing of all activities, in order to ensure a fair distribution of wealth. Transparency strengthens legitimacy and there is growing evidence that good corporate governance adds to a company’s shareholder value.

The second thing is to uphold the rule of law and protect public institutions to maintain their autonomy and integrity. All these institutions should also be open to public questioning and subject to statutory oversight. Finally, we will have to consider social harmony as a determining factor of the general well-being of the population. Religion is a key determinant not only of social harmony, but also of economic development. A large number of studies around the world have found a certain correlation between the economic development of a country and the predominance of religion in its social life.

A 2014 study by researchers at Georgetown University and Brigham Young University, for example, identified that freedom of belief is one of the critical 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:… “hostilities and religious restrictions create climates that can deter local and foreign investment, undermine sustainable development and disrupt huge sectors of the economy. Perhaps most important for future economic growth… young entrepreneurs are pressured to take their talents elsewhere due to the instability associated with restrictions and high and growing religious 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 abandons its religious beliefs which perpetuate caste and gender inequalities, it could more than double its GDP per capita growth over the past 60 years in half the time. A question often asked is: what is wrong if people become more aware of their religious identity? Why should anyone be afraid of this?

The best answer is that such a development should become a source of concern if the assertion of a particular religious identity has a negative impact on others. The laity seem convinced that a policy of ignorance or marginalization of believers and religious groups is a necessary condition for unity. Yet it is a mistake to think that religious diversity is always at odds with social cohesion. Religion is not a genius to be contained; it can in fact be a powerful counterweight to narcissistic and supremacist thinking and a force that unites, not necessarily divides. Its potential must be recognized, not feared.

The real problem, in my opinion, is not increased spirituality, which in itself would most certainly be a welcome development; rather, it is the shrinking space for religious freedom, expression and, above all, tolerance. Promoting tolerance at community level is an area where intervention is needed. The increasingly influential business community can play a critical role in reversing the rising tide of intolerance.

It is a fact that no country can grow economically if it is to fight internal conflicts, but the problem becomes worse when nations try to hide their poor socio-economic indicators behind aggressive religiosity, often claiming that their economic progress is hampered because their resources are used in their fight to protect their religion. Religion, however, should not always be viewed with suspicion or contempt. In a world where it has been hijacked by narrow interests, an unhealthy and unwarranted fear of religion is exactly what fanatics want.

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

One of the ways in which companies can influence rhetoric is to voice their opposition to intolerance and to be proactive in discouraging religious confrontations. They can, or even should, step in as peacebuilding agents and actively help formulate long-term strategies to foster intercultural understanding as part of their CSR initiatives. Together with religious leaders, they can identify places that could trigger religious hostilities and support programs aimed at encouraging interfaith dialogue, social harmony and justice.

They must wake up in their own “mercantilist” interests and, of course, in the interest of our country. It is obvious that “materialistic and competitive vikas” cannot generate an “egalitarian, just and harmonious samriddhi”. There are enough warning signs that we need to rebuild our model of socio-economic development before it is too late.

(The author is a former president of the Union Civil Service Commission)

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