In India, the myth of open markets does not solve poverty
by Anna Chiara Filice

Ambrogio Bongiovanni teaches interreligious dialogue at the Urbaniana University and mission theology at the San Luigi campus of the Facoltà Teologica dell'Italia Meridionale. In the last 30 years, India’s population almost doubled. Economic growth this year will be 7.7 per cent. The problem is that we cannot redistribute wealth because markets reduce people to the status of “mere consumers”.

Rome (AsiaNews) - In India "the myth of open markets has not solved the problem of poverty," said Ambrogio Bongiovanni, a professor of interreligious and intercultural dialogue at the Pontifical Urban University (Urbaniana) in Rome and founder of the Saint Francis Xavier Movement, a lay association.

Prof Bongiovanni lived in India for several years and been involved in South Asia for 25 years, doing research and working for the United Nations and the Industry Ministry.

In that country he founded the Maitreya (friendship) Xaverian Charitable Society to help rescue vulnerable girls and victims of human trafficking and encourages dialogue between religions.

Speaking to AsiaNews, he talked about the "market myth" which, in India as elsewhere, claims to have the magic recipe for reducing social divisions and underpinning societal democratisation.

"I am not criticising the market per se,” he said, “but the market that turns into idolatry, making people serve the market rather than the market serve people. This is the real ethical dilemma: the market must serve human needs, not vice versa. As consumers we must keep the market afloat. We are people, related individuals, not mere consumers, or objects to be controlled by business.”

India has seen fast economic growth, driven above all by the service sector. At the same time, its population has almost doubled in about 30 years, from 700 million inhabitants in the 1990s to around 1.3 billion in 2018.

At the end of this year, economic growth is expected to be 7.7. However, large segments of the population are not benefitting from development. At least 800 million people work in the agriculture, often employed by large landowners. Suicide has become a sad problem for debt-burdened farmers.

For Prof Bongiovanni, "India is a great democracy, not only in terms of numbers but also conceptually. It defines itself as a 'secular country' in which secularism is not based not on the separation between state and religion, but views religions as the something that can contribute to society."

However, the existence of a democracy "does not automatically mean that all problems are resolved, because there are obstacles to the process of democratisation that arise from the unique cultural complexity that characterises the country and which also represents its wealth."

Indian society "has to deal with various forms of discrimination: caste, gender, patriarchy. The risk of communalism and inter-communal tensions, clashes between faith communities, has always existed."

Moreover, the "gap between rich and poor is obvious, with a middle class in between that was once almost non-existent, but which today plays an important role, especially vis-à-vis the market."

In 1991, "following a serious crisis, India was pushed to open up to international business. Previously, it was an almost self-sufficient state with stiff regulations and high tariffs. At that time, it was thought, under pressure from the IMF and the World Bank, that globalisation and free trade in goods would solve all the problems of poverty."

Things turned out differently. "Certainly, open markets favoured the middle class, which has grown a lot in terms of income, and production has exploded. Since then growth is unremitting, as is the growth of large cities and expansion of infrastructures. However, environmental problems have also developed, and above all poverty has been radicalised."

The reason, Prof Bongiovanni points out, "is that it fails to redistribute wealth. This is an ethical problem inherent in capitalism and liberalism, which leads to crises. Such a market treats people like objects and consumers, not as subjects. Unfortunately, consumers are king and the market is built around them."

For this reason, it is no longer possible to claim that individual liberties come from the free market. "On the contrary, the free market is a system that in some ways dominates and controls democratic processes. It lacks an ethical focus. Take, for example, China, which has developed a free market under a Communist regime in which individual liberties are thwarted."

In India these "differences are even more strident because it is a modernising country. On the one hand we see excellence in satellites, telecommunications, software, nuclear power, medicine"; on the other, more than 400 million people living below the poverty line.

These problems are not the fault of the current government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. "They existed long before him and are found in all governments that buy into the market myth."

We must not however "demonise the market as such. On the contrary, among Christians for example, we could ask ourselves how businesses can rethink the relationship with the economy, in light of what Pope Francis’s says in Laudato si' in which he touches certain issues for the good of humanity as a whole." Ultimately, "I think we have to invest in ways to put capital to work for the good of the people."