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The Economics of Religion in India, by Sriya Iyer 

08 March 2019

Peter Day commends scholarship on religion and economics in India

ECONOMICS and religion are uneasy bedfellows. This scholarly book is an attempt to show why this ought not to be so.

Sriya Iyer is a Fellow of the Cambridge University Economics Faculty, and of St Catharine’s College. She grew up in India. Her book opens with a sensuous description of early morning in a temple town in southern India; it ends with the Christian hymn that she sang (as a young Hindu) in a convent school in Bangalore: “Father, hear the prayer we offer”.

But the bulk of this study is very academic: an analytical view of the religions of India and their impact on society. Central to the book is an analysis of data accumulated between 2006 and 2010 by the India Religion Survey. It was a hefty undertaking, led by Sriya Iyer and her colleagues: 52 “surveyors” in the field interviewed more than 560 religious institutions from five faiths in seven Indian states.

Many topics arise from this, often concerning the provision of religious and non-religious community services by religious organisations, overtly influenced by competition between the religions.

India is almost 80 per cent Hindu, and yet — Iyer thinks — the study of that faith has been neglected by academics, in comparison with Islam and Christianity. The country has experienced a notable rise in Hindu fundamentalism in recent decades, and an increase in religious riots.

On the face of it, this is puzzling, because of India’s strong economic growth rate, which might be expected to reduce the participation in religious activities (in which she includes attacks on other religions). But it seems that, even as prosperity increases, so does inequality, a seemingly significant factor behind the unrest, and the need for social services not provided by the State. I would have liked to learn much more about the continuing economic influence of the caste system in modern India.

One important chapter is devoted to a specific social service provided by religious groups: Muslim madrasahs, which are estimated to educate 12 million children, five per cent of all Indian school students. They have been growing fast in number in recent decades, and the relationship between religious schools and the secular education system is likely to be a controversial issue as the Indian economy grows and people prosper.

How can traditional madrasah curricula be extended to include subjects such as English, mathematics, and science? That education is failing students and society is a feeling that seems to be widespread in both the rich world and developing countries.

This is a dense book crammed with data and information, but the many questions that it poses are merely starting points. Iyer’s study is a milepost in the development of the study of religion from an economist’s point of view, and not just in India. Her approach could be very usefully extended to many other parts of the developing world.

Peter Day is a former presenter of Global Business on the BBC World Service.

The Economics of Religion in India
Sriya Iyer
Harvard University Press £39.95
Church Times Bookshop £35.95

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