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Friday / March 24.

Durga Puja – The Ethics and Economics

By Soumyajit Kar

Edited by Anandita Malhotra, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

It is that time of the year again when the streets of Calcutta bustle with unending life, the darkness never actually descends and everywhere spires of ‘perfectly competitive’ community Puja Pandals voice their identity crises. A lot has been debated and discussed on the normative issues of the mindless expenditure incurred. It’s pretty useless to argue on the moral aspects of things of such size. Rather, analyzing the entire process would better mirror the status quo.

Most people argue for a ceiling imposed by the government on Puja expenditure, citing reasons of stark poverty which still complement the oddity of resplendence. As long as putting an upper ceiling helps inject fuel into the economy, there is absolutely no problem with it. But, most of the expenditure comes out of the private funds as in individual’s pockets- a process which is almost fully voluntary. And nowadays, it is a convenient CSR portion of most large corporate houses. Not spending on Puja does not come with a guideline on where to spend. If not spent in Puja funds, the private money can be spent anywhere of which charity and philanthropy form a gleam share. So as long as the upper limit doesn’t come with a definitive alternative spending portfolio, it fails miserably in achieving what it meant. It is actually silly to expect charity from people as alternative to spending rather splurging in the festivities; it is nothing but a moral hazard. Taxing expenditure at a nominal rate beyond a particular cutoff might serve the purpose, if the government is out there to make money for its development projects. From my first hand understanding of the Durga Puja ‘commodity’, it won’t be really sensitive to taxing, because we like it or not, community Pujas have a prestige factor attached to them, hence the terms ‘commodity’ and ‘perfect competition.’ A substantial portion of arguments are presented in terms of the waste generated and the adverse environmental effects. That indeed is a valid argument. But the biggest contributors to pollution are the idols, which even by reducing Puja budgets won’t disappear.

Taking into account the economic aspect, according to a report by the IANS, West Bengal’s Durga Puja industry is growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of about 35 percent and is expected to touch Rs.40,000 crore by 2015 from its current size of Rs.32,000 crore. Limiting the expenditure will thus inflict a serious dampening effect on the industry. There are certain sections of the economy which function exclusively for Durga Puja and in a chain reaction- shutting them will affect every other allied industry. Just as an example as to how far-fetched that allied connection can be, a lot of films are shot in Calcutta during the period- both feature and documentary which is in fact a positive economic flow to the economy. Coming back to altruistic expenditure, a lot of Puja committees do charities. Every locality has performances by eminent artistes and bands and people get to see them for free. Just imagine, purchasing a rock concert ticket and watching the same thing virtually for free- is that still wasteful expenditure? Apart from that, there are a lot of occupational classes whose existence are in concomitance with the Puja- the Dhakis (drummers), light designers, sculptors. Reducing the size of the expenditure will directly affect their living and we are talking about people who do not have a steady and guaranteed source of income. How is reduction in spending planning to deal with the unemployment?

On the other hand, spending in Pujas is a ‘social investment’- it improves societal bonds, enriches the cultural nurturing and the entire objective of the festival is to foster solidarity. The biggest mistake would be to appraise the roots of the festival by communal glasses. It is far from being an exclusively Hindu burlesque. The evolution of the festival has been unique in this case- its uniqueness lies in the unifying factor- be it across religions or atheists and theists alike or linguistic groups- and I am not speaking in idyllic jargon; it is actually true. We justify expenditure incurred in space probes as scientific enrichment. So isn’t investment in a festival like this a cultural investment? After all ‘religion is the opium of the masses’ and as long as that opium translates religion to culture and culture to incentive and incentive to economics, there’s no logic in encumbering it.