Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Where Devotion Really 'Pays'

It’s no secret that millions of rupees are spent during the major festivals in India. Often it’s criticized that it’s blasphemous to spend so much money in a poor country like us for things of entertainment and fun. People tend to point out that such huge amount of money be better spent on other more constructive things like health and education. Yes, there’s no debate on the point whether we need more expenses on education and health care. We know very well that effective spending in health and education has to be done by the governments. The NGOs and the private parties can’t cover the length and breadth of such a big country like India. The huge amounts of money that are spent in the Indian festivals don’t come from the government’s fund. People may argue that much of the black money is also spent in such events. But then that money won’t have gone to government anyway. So even if this huge amount of money is not spent in the festivals our governments won’t have spent more amounts for health care and education. On the contrary this huge expenditure that India does on these festivals is actually a direct channel through which a large amount of money reaches the relatively financially weaker sections of the society very fast from the comparatively richer people. I don’t see any other channel through which money can change hands so fast from the rich to poor in so less time. So from that point of view, these festivals – which are manifestations of our devotions, actually pay off in distributing wealth in otherwise financially skewed society.

Let’s take some example. I’ve been trying to get an estimate of the amount of money spent in Durga Pujas and the Ganesha Pujas in Bengal and Maharastra, Diwali throughout India and Id in certain areas. Not many festivals in India result in so much of private spending. But unfortunately I couldn’t find any authentic estimate of the total private spending in any of these events. In this blog site there is some realistic estimate of the amount that may be spent during Durga Puja just in Calcutta by the various clubs that organize the Pujas. This expenditure doesn’t include any of the spending that the people do in terms of buying new clothes. As per this blog a very pessimistic estimate would arrive at a figure of $250million. An optimistic estimate can very well reach close to $1billion for greater Calcutta. For the time being we can stick to this figure of $1billion. It’s true that a big chunk of this amount may be black money spent by politicians or local ‘dadas’ (the Bong equivalents of the Bhais of Bombay) who patronize many of these Pujas. That shouldn’t bother us because at least the money is coming out into the Indian economy rather than being stashed away in Swiss Banks.

Now let’s see how this $1billion is being spent and where the money is actually flowing. The first name that comes to my mind is Kumortuli – the traditional Bengali name for the place where the idols are made by highly skilled people who have been doing this job for generations. Without creating the idols all these people would have had absolutely no other job, because the only thing that they know is to create these highly artistic idols. This form of folk art is one of the few surviving old arts in India. Even if the number of people involved in this occupation is not something big compared to the 1.2 billion people of India, still it’s not very insignificant also. More over from the cultural point of view it’s very important to preserve the heritage of any form of art. A good portion of this $1billion goes to these sculptors.

Next comes the thousands of laborers who get employment for close to 100 days just for putting up the pandals. Employment for 100 days for something constructive is something that even the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme fails to provide in many cases. I’m not aware of anything else where people pull in money to create guaranteed employment for so many people. You have to just see the creations of these people to believe what’s the level of skills and creativities they have. Undoubtedly the pandals created during Durga Puja are folk art, technology and creativity at their zenith. I don’t know if there is any other domain where all these unknown faces of the creative world would have shown their skills in this big a scale.

Then there are the people involved in setting up the fabulous lighting. People who have seen the Durga Puja in Calcutta and around would know how fantastic and terrific the lighting is. There also a huge number of people are involved who don’t have much to do otherwise throughout the year. Each of them has some specific skill which can be exploited to its maximum only during the Durga Puja.

The millions of people who throng the various Puja venues are catered to by few thousands of small time vendors who sell snacks, handicrafts etc. Never ever do they get so many customers. They wait for this period of the year for the most brisk business.

Dhak, a form of drum (dhol), very specific to Bengal, is an inseparable part of the festivities in Bengal. You can’t imagine a Durga Puja without the sounds of the dhaak beat. The people who play these instruments are surely as declining as the Royal Bengal Tigers. Lack of proper opportunity is killing these people who have been playing dhak for centuries. If it’s not for the Durga Puja, they would have been a Dodo by now.

Finally, Durga Puja is also a cultural festival. Almost all the Pujas have back-to-back cultural programs for all the four or five days. These give opportunity to many artistes from various fields of performing arts. Even the highest paid singers in Calcutta await these few days of Durga Puja for a good remuneration. There are many artistes who may hope to get some work only during Durga Puja. Their numbers may not be huge, but still Durga Puja plays a critical role in patronizing art – something that has been in a phase of decline since the death of royalties in India.

A very crude estimate says that there may be roughly 5000 Durga Pujas in Calcutta. Even by the most pessimistic estimate, each Puja requires the involvement of at least 20 people for at least a month. This means Durga Puja in Calcutta creates employment for at least 100K people belonging to 100K households, which translates into at least 600K people - a better estimate may put this figure close to a million (160K households), which is almost 10% of the population of Calcutta. This figure doesn’t include the many more thousands of the vendors that put up temporary shops outside the pandals and even thousands more people involved in the industries (mainly cottage and small scale) that supply the raw materials for putting up the pandals and setting up all other logistics involved. Taking the example of one Durga Puja in Bangalore where I’m personally involved, I can say that out of the estimated $1billion spent in Calcutta, close to 60-70% actually goes towards the wages of the people (estimated at 150K – belonging to 150K households of 1million people) directly working for the Pujas and buying raw materials, and 30-40% goes for cultural programs and entertainment – which in turn impact many thousands of households which are not that easy to estimate.

Had it not been for the Puja, almost this entire amount of $1billion would have been either not spent at all or spent for something else which would have taken much longer to percolate to these 1million people. For example, say you pay Rs.1000 towards a particular Puja. Had there not been this Puja then you would have either saved this money or spent on eating out or buying some CDs, or watching a movie or just chilling out in a pub. In all these cases also your 1000 bucks would have percolated to few of these 1million people, but off course not at the rate at which it does in the case of Durga Puja.

The same mathematics would apply for the other festivals also. So all these festivals, which are indirect or direct manifestations of our devotions and religiosity, actually play a great role in our economy. So devotions do ‘pay’ at times!!

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