Monday, May 05, 2014

The Mature Market of Spiritualism and the Role of the State

The Mature Market of Spiritualism and the Role of the State

This piece of writing does not evaluate the merits of the ideology behind gurus and institutions run by them. In fact, people are free to choose the best that suits them under the available conditions. And the freedom of choice allows them to optimally allocate not only there material lives but also their spiritual well-being. Hence critical in this context is not the belief of people but what a matured system of such beliefs could develop into. I wish only to objectively understand this state of development (in the context of Kerala) in terms of employment and production. In this context, I have two questions in mind and I am thinking aloud here:

1.       When most of the spiritual institutions create informal and formal employment; when they provide houses, schools and hospitals; and crucially food; and when it continues to do so; does it reduce the state’s role in all these fronts?

2.       How do we ensure that a free and competitive market survives under the mature market for spiritualism?   

In Kerala as elsewhere there is a growing market for spiritualism. Atheists, agnostics, believers, the lefts, liberals and all are turning to explore the avenues of spiritualism. Out of our 33 million people Kerala has close to four million unemployed; more women than men falling into this category. The state has been witnessing growth at the rate of approximately 8 per cent per annum in 2013-14. However, this growth does not seem to have generated enough employment. In budget after budget the state government announces multitude of schemes. None of these schemes have blossomed into fruitful career options. In this context enter the Gurus and naturally the materially deprived fall back to this option of spiritual attainment. In fact it seems highly appreciable that the number of people who find some employment, formal or informal, during each visit of these gurus to their institutions is high. Some are gainfully employed throughout the year and get to travel around the world to spread messages of their venerated masters.

The question is how much can the economy afford to depend on such seasonal and informal employment generation? What is the kind of revenue generated by these institutions and how sustainable is this model. I call this a model as it sometimes is more competitive than the state led employment generation programmes. For instance, given that MGNREGS has been a pioneering initiative, it still lagged in creating a competitive job market. People are given employment options for which they never had a choice. On the other hand people who work for these respectable gurus compete in efficiently performing their chores to be closer to their masters. The difference thus is that while in the former it is more of a gamble to survive the day, the latter is characterized by a system of hope that makes people look forward to the next day. The quality of employment differs. The question then is on the production part of it. To make such a system sustainable it is required that some amount of production is accompanied by it. One of the major productive initiatives that such institutions undertake is in fact the building of institutions itself. So we have a large number of schools, colleges, professional education centres, hospitals and so on which have sizable presence sometimes even to crowd out the state sector. And contrast it with the state, these institutions of spirituality run on charity and not tax. That’s one part which blurs as we ponder deeper into it. For this charity to survive, there has to be production elsewhere. Assuming that much of this charity comes directly as contributions from the private sector, and very little from state initiatives, we should believe that such a system encourages production activities of private sector in the state. Now that is a positive but consider that it might be the same people contributing these charities who are actively against taxation by the state.   

So we have a group of private individuals ready to give charity and wholeheartedly support such institutions. They offer because they are free to offer and not constrained to pay in a particular month or particular time of the day when the Guru deems it right. I am not against taxation but imagine people who voluntarily part with money given the freedom to do so? Isn’t that a cue to be picked up by the state? They don’t part with the same amount to the state because of mistrust, history of fatalities in such transfers and assumption that the state is likely to misdirect this money to some unintended pockets.

So if we suppose that allowing such spiritual Gurus to continue their quest to improve their institutions would also encourage private initiatives in unbridled expansions as well as in contributions, is it necessarily the right path of development? But will the market be competitive at least in many of these sectors? For instance, the ease of entry of such giant institutions into otherwise difficult avenues like education and healthcare makes me wonder how it was made possible. On the one hand private individuals find it extremely difficult to knock and enter these avenues while at the spiritual incarnations neutralize the thin line between the private and the public. They are formless, omnipresent and translucent: even closed door hold no barrier.   

These activities of the spiritual institutions are sometimes categorized under philanthropy and volunteerism. Similar models are replicable but the question is who will take the lead. Many exemptions seems to favour the Gurus but the market is often seen as difficult to enter for the private individual. This creates suspicion of one of the major challenges we face in modern India: the problem of cronyism in the spiritual market. This also takes us to a crucial question. What do we want the state to be in such a situation? What roles should it continue to assume say twenty-five years from now?   
Rahul V Kumar

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