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Cultural Dimensions of Economic Development

Over the years, since the end of the Second World War and the emergence of newly liberated countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, the meaning and connotation of development have undergone a sea change. In the beginning it was thought that a sustained increase in GNP (Gross National Product) was sufficient to eradicate poverty, illiteracy and socio-economic and cultural backwardness. Thus all the emphasis was put on economic growth, i.e., increasing the total production of goods and services in the country. This could be done by employing greater amounts of factors of production without any change in their productivity or by raising their productivity even though their quantum remained unchanged or by increasing both the quantum as well as the efficiency of factors of production.

Soon this was found inadequate to realise the goals. In a number of countries GNP increased very rapidly because of the discovery of oil or some other natural resources but the majority of their people remained steeped in poverty and backwardness. The increased GNP was appropriated by the top social layers and spent on military. To take care of the situation, a new term, economic development, was brought in. It included not only growth, i.e., a sustained increase in the GNP, but also technical and institutional changes by which it was obtained. While growth was indispensable, it alone was not sufficient. Equitable distribution of national income, eradication of illiteracy, better health and sanitation facilities, reduction in mortality rate in general and infant mortality in particular, better infrastructure facilities, eradication of superstition, gender equality, refashioning legal and judicial systems, promotion of democratic institutions and values, etc. were no less necessary. Three ideas, namely, secularism, egalitarianism and nationalism, became dominant.

Secularism, in the words of Malcolm B. Hamilton, meant “the disengagement of the society from religion. Here religion withdraws to its own separate sphere and becomes a matter of private life, acquires a wholly inward character and ceases to influence any aspect of social life outside of religion itself.” Egalitarianism rejected the view that there was any inborn difference between man and man. To quote from Modern Economic Growth by Simon Kuznets, one of the earliest Nobel laureates in Economics: “Egalitarianism means a denial of any inborn differences among human beings, unless and except as they manifest themselves in human activity. The connection is obvious between science (which demands testable evidence), secularism (which makes man paramount and life on this earth his main concern), and egalitarianism (which makes every man a full-fledged participant in the community of men. Of course, the notion is subject to limits imposed by nationalism, but within such limits no allowance is made for innate distinction hallowed by untestable myth or by some association with powers beyond this earth. Indeed, one could go further and … argue that it is the increased power of man over resources provided by science that constituted the basis for the view of man as captain of his destiny in this world (secularism) and erased the need for mythological bases to justify the otherwise necessary higher economic returns to an upper-class minority (egalitarianism), since the general rise in per capita economic product made the remaining inequality tolerable on purely rational grounds.”

In the course of time the connotation of development was widened to include cultural liberty and environment protection so that it could really become human development in place of mere economic development. Human Development Report, 2004 hereinafter The Report), just released by UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) stresses that denial of cultural liberty can lead to “significant deprivations, impoverishing human lives”. The cultural dimensions need to be stressed for three reasons. To begin with, it allows people to live as they would like and choose the best option to earn their living. Second, instead of glorifying irrational and outdated aspects of traditions and harping on the inevitability of clashes of civilizations, the importance of freedom in cultural spheres need to be stressed. Ways should be explored to defend and expand cultural freedom of the people. Third, without cultural freedom, neither poverty can be fought nor many a social problem solved.

According to Adam Smith, poverty leads not only to hunger and physical deprivation, but it also to inability to take part in social and cultural life of the community. As The Report puts it: “being relatively poor in income in a rich society can generate absolute poverty because of one’s inability to afford the commodities that the established lifestyle in that society requires—even though the person may have a higher income than most people in poorer countries elsewhere.”

Deprivation often reflects itself in processes of cultural exclusion that may take two forms. If we look around, we shall find them in our society. First, the cultural exclusion of a person (or group) may prevent him (or it) from participating in the society as others are allowed or encouraged to do. This has been termed “participation exclusion”. In our society dalits, tribals, women in general and widows in particular, and members of the minority communities are victims of this. These people are prevented from availing themselves of the existing educational facilities and employment opportunities. Besides, they are effectively excluded from political processes and not allowed to take part in political decision-making. The Report rightly says: “Arguments used to justify such exclusion tend to invoke alleged cultural correlates of the groups involved. Particular ethnic groups are said to be lazy or irresponsible, members of minority religions are suspected of having loyalties to religious authorities and to the state and so on…. These cultural correlates…very often bogus…clear the road to discrimination and exclusion.”

The second kind of cultural exclusion results from a strong dislike for the lifestyle that that a group has. The dominant group insists that others should ape its own lifestyle. What they should eat, drink, read, etc. must be in accordance with its wishes. We have seen in recent times how certain dominant groups have insisted that they have the monopoly over defining Indian culture and preventing films not in accordance with their definition from being exhibited. Similarly they have burnt books not liked by them. This is known as “living mode exclusion”. To what absurd limits this kind of exclusion can go has been very aptly described and documented by Prof. Azar Nafisi in her widely circulated book Reading Lolita in Teheran.

Following Lord Tebbit who had prescribed “cricket test” (which laid down that a legitimate migrant must cheer for England in test matches against the country of the person’s origin), certain communal elements insist that a Muslim inhabitant can prove his loyalty to this country only when he does not cheer Pakistani team when it plays test matches with India.

So long as cultural freedoms are not granted in full and unhindered manner, neither trust nor social cohesion can be strengthened nor the creative energy of people unleashed. In view of what happened in Gujarat and elsewhere during the last regime, The Report has remarked: “Although India is culturally diverse, comparative surveys of long-standing democracies including India show that it has been very cohesive, despite its diversity. But modern India is facing a grave challenge to its constitutional commitment to multiple and complementary identities with the rise of groups that seek to impose a singular Hindu identity on the country. These threats undermine the sense of inclusion and violate the rights of minorities in India today. Recent communal violence raises serious concerns for the prospects for social harmony and threatens to undermine the country’s earlier achievements.”