Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Economic Times : What's the economics of art & freedom?


[ MONDAY, JUNE 11, 2007 02:20:36 AM]

A few weeks ago, an art student in Baroda was arrested, following protests by a group against his apparently blasphemous paintings. The head of the Art department of the university was suspended by the vice chancellor. Some time back, an art gallery of Hussain’s paintings was vandalised in Ahmedabad, and continuous harassment by vigilante groups has now forced him to live abroad. Threats by similar groups prevented the release of a film, Parzania, in Gujarat.

Similar incidents in different parts of the country point to a growing climate of intolerance, of an insistence on staying within a framework defined as “correct”. The boundaries of the permissible are laid down by any group that is able to resort to violence in support of its cause. Sadly, in most such cases, the government has been an apathetic bystander quite happy to turn a blind eye and to abdicate its responsibility of upholding an individual’s right to free expression. Worse, the government itself has sometimes got into the act — by banning books or seizing “objectionable” material.

Mob rule is not limited to religious sensitivities; it extends to moral policing of couples in parks, violent disruption of any Valentine’s Day activities, enforcement of bandhs and strikes, protests about composition of the cricket team, etc. None of these are aimed at the government or its policies. Instead, they are generally directed against individuals and are a means of coercion aimed at making the individual fall in line. This is, of course, the recognisable trademark of fascism.

Tolerance has long been a trait that we associate with India and are proud about. Yet, our track record on this, especially in the last few years, has been rather depressing. The level of rigidity and intolerance has scaled up dramatically. The slightest incident is blown into a huge affront, with organised groups ready to immediately throw stones, burn buses and beat-up people. The ability to laugh at oneself has disappeared and respect for dissenting opinions has ceased to exist.

The political and sociological impact of the growing vigilantism are numerous and serious. This piece, however, focuses on a different aspect; the implications for the economy. There is the obvious effect of loss of wages and production due to strikes, and because of absentees resulting from violence and disruption. Undoubtedly, there is also an impact on investors — both Indian and foreign — who would be wary of investing in a violence-prone or volatile area. These, however, are short-term impacts, which are surmountable.

Of far greater concern is the long-term impact, one in which psychology affects economics. This has to do with the importance of innovation as a driver of economic growth, and the link between innovation and a psychology of freedom. It has been well-established that creativity and innovation flower best in a milieu that permits free thinking. Communities that permit — and, ideally, encourage —– diversity of thought and opinion are more likely to produce theories and products that are different or innovative. In contrast, regimented communities, with narrowly defined norms of dress, language, behaviour — and even thought — are unlikely to produce anything significantly new or different.

In this, India begins with an exceptional advantage. Few countries, if any at all, have the diversity that we have in culture, language, dress, food, ethnicity and religious belief. This variety has, over the centuries, made us tolerant of differences. Not only is it routine to see people dress in various ways or behave differently, but it is completely acceptable to have people thinking differently. After all, in how many countries can you nod your head either vertically or horizontally to say yes?

Our system of governance has built on this inherited diversity. A free-wheeling democracy, as practiced in India, has lack of discipline as a very visible aspect. This, unfortunately, makes for chaotic traffic, an absence of orderly queues and general disorder in all public places.

This absence of respect for rules and defined processes has one (possibly only one) positive element: it is greatly conducive to “out-of-the-box” thinking. Motorbikes that by-pass traffic jams by driving on the footpath, cars that drive on the wrong side of a divided road to avoid even a short detour, multiple queues at a single counter — these are some commonplace examples of “different” thinking, with little regard for rules. On the other hand, creations like the auto-rickshaw, mud-pot “refrigerator” and the desert cooler testify to the positive impact of thinking beyond the given.

If innovation is the future — especially in the era of the knowledge economy — what should we do to encourage and promote it? An eco-system to incubate and foster innovation has many requirements. Of these, as briefly argued above, an important one — in which we have a natural advantage — is diversity. Recognising and building on our inherent diversity is, therefore, a necessity.

However, this can be of concrete value only when it extends into diversity of thought and expression, and the confidence that such freedom will be fully protected. Innovation will be stifled and killed in an atmosphere of fear and restrictions. It is for this reason that recent incidents from the art world have a direct bearing and consequence in the domain of economics and business. Business and industry need to recognise this and raise their voice against such assaults on freedom — both, for the sake of democracy and in their own economic interest. Ultimately, artistic freedom is as important to the economy as good monsoons or prudent management of the fiscal deficit.

The next stage of India’s growth will be driven by creativity, knowledge and intellectual capital. Innovation comes from adversity and diversity: one a curse, the other a blessing. As we try to get rid of the first, let us focus on developing and exploiting the second. Tolerance is the life-blood of diversity. A tolerant society is not only a humane and compassionate one, it is also more creative and productive. If not for the first cause, will corporate leaders speak up for tolerance at least for the second?

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