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Religion is big business in India, says Cambridge

Last updated on: March 24, 2011 13:17 IST

Religion is big business in India, says Cambridge

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Prasun Sonwalkar in London

Religious organisations in India not only operate as business entities, but their 'business model' has seen a diversification of activities to retain the loyalty of their followers and attract new devotees, according to a study conducted at the University of Cambridge.

Led by Indian-origin academic Dr Sriya Iyer, the study reveals that new areas where religious organisations diversified included cow-lending, computer-based learning; sewing and aerobics classes. The study's findings are detailed in the latest edition of Research Horizons.

The Cambridge team from the faculty of economics and the Cambridge Judge Business School spent two years surveying 568 Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh and Jain religious organisations across seven Indian states to examine their innovations in offering religious and non-religious service provision

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Photographs: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters
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Religious groups may act like businesses

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The survey is believed to be one of the first of its kind in India, with researchers finding that although India is becoming more powerful and wealthy, rising social inequality -- especially in the poorer states -- means religious groups often fill the breach left by the lack of social welfare, especially in the fields of education and healthcare.

Dr Iyer of the faculty of economics and St Catharine's College said, "We have found that the resilience of religion draws from the ability of groups to undertake innovation and innovative behaviour, similar to the behaviour observed in business firms."

She added, "In the same ways a business tries to stay ahead of its competitors, religious groups are showing the same rational economic responses to changes in the political, ecological and economic environments in which they operate."

Examples of religious and non-religious offerings across the seven states included weddings and other religious ceremonies telecast over the internet in real time for overseas friends and family to witness, blood donation, eye camps, drug rehabilitation, old age homes, widow welfare programmes and organised mass marriages for the poor.

The survey also found that religious groups may act in the same way as businesses in competing to offer unique selling points when it comes to matters of ideology. In addition to religious offerings, they provide more non-religious services in response to perceptions about increasing income inequality.

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Religion has positive effects

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With rising income inequality, the poor demand more non-religious services and organisations respond to this demand by providing these services more, the study says. Dr Iyer said, "What is also interesting is the seemingly paradoxical notion held by many of these groups that although India is getting richer and growing economically, inequality is also growing.

"So people may become 'consumers' of religion based on a religious group's ideology -- but also the cost and wealth benefits from membership of a particular organisation such as education, health, food distribution, employment and its other services."

The survey took place in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Gujarat.

In total, 272 Hindu religious groups were interviewed, along with 248 Muslim, 25 Christian and 23 Sikh and Jain religious organisations. Dr Iyer also points out that many religious groups have very positive effects on their followers and the wider community.

She said, "Counter to some analyses of religion in India that have mainly studied the negative consequences religion might engender, we are emphasising the positive role of some religious organisations in India today, and the work they do among the wider community".

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Religious groups step in where State provision is less

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One of the most striking innovations the team found was the cow-lending scheme in Gujarat, where people from the community can borrow a cow, for as long as they like, at no cost. Researchers said they were also surprised to find activities such as aerobics classes.

Dr Iyer said, "The way religious groups are innovating is fascinating. The offerings made by Muslim and Christian groups may differ from those made by Hindus, but across all religions we see the ways in which these groups act in a business-like manner in response to their competitors and in response to income inequality, but also out of a willingness to do good and help where State provision is inadequate."

She added: "We found evidence that organisations of all religions in India have substantially increased their provisions of religious and especially non-religious services in order to substitute for the lack of State provision and this is related to their perception of inequality and poverty. This is especially the case in poorer states."


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