By Rupa Subramanya Dehejia
The Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence Bill, 2011, is due to be tabled in the upcoming monsoon session of Parliament. The draft has already courted controversy, with critics suggesting that among other things it encroaches upon the power of state governments. Other critics believe that the bill is not politically neutral as it seems to take its cue from the Hindu-Muslim violence in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Hindu-Muslim violence has been part of the fabric of modern India since Partition and even earlier, so it’s customary to see it as flowing from residual communal resentments stemming from historical animosity. It then becomes simply a given that is not subject to analysis.
The question remains though, would a suitably drafted bill in fact put an end to communal violence? As with many other forms of organized violence, such as the Maoist insurgency, are there economic roots that help explain the incidence of communal violence? As I argued last week in a different context, legislation alone cannot be the answer to social ills as long as the underlying causes are left unaddressed.
Social science scholars have suggested that economic stagnation is one important cause of communal riots, and that on the flip side there’s a lower incidence of riots in a growing economy. It’s not hard to see why. In a stagnant economy, the size of the economic pie is fixed, and the battle for resources is a “zero-sum” game: one person’s gain is another’s loss, a state of affairs mirrored darkly in the looting element of a riot.
By contrast, in a booming economy, the pie is growing and people have much to gain by getting along as everyone potentially gets a bigger slice of the growing pie that could be threatened by communal violence. The “opportunity cost” of participating in a riot is higher when times are good, both because it takes the perpetrator away from a more productive activity and raises the stakes if caught or killed.
By the same token, when times are bad, instigators of communal violence will find it easier to recruit discontented and unemployed youths who have little to lose. A related argument is that opportunistic politicians may choose to stir up communal tensions during bad economic times to distract their supporters and channel their frustration in another direction.
Harvard University economics professor Benjamin Friedman in an important book, “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth,” has noted for instance that the racist Ku Klux Klan thrived in the American South during the economic downturn at the end of the 19th century, not in the prosperous decades following the end of the Civil War.
For India, an interesting recent study has attempted to test whether economics-based explanations of communal violence hold water in the case of Hindu-Muslim riots. Political scientists Anjali Thomas Bohlken and Ernest John Sergenti use a statistical approach to test whether more rapid economic growth is associated with a lower incidence of riots. They deploy a unique dataset on Hindu-Muslim violence between 1950-1995, compiled by political scientists Ashutosh Varshney and Steven Wilkinson from news reports in the Times of India.
Ms. Bohlken and Mr. Sergenti’s headline finding is that, controlling for other factors, a 1% increase in GDP growth led to a more than 5% decrease in the number of riots during the period 1982-1995.
But what about Gujarat, which during that period had both the highest average rate of growth and the highest incidence of riots in India?
The authors point out that there’s no contradiction, as their results are driven by differences over time in the growth rate within a given state. For instance, in three out of the four years that Gujarat experienced double-digit growth rates, there were no or very few riots. And in the years when it saw lower growth it experienced a larger number of riots.
Does a negative correlation between growth and riots really mean that higher growth will lead to fewer riots, as the authors claim? Not exactly.
A potential problem is the possibility that the researchers could be looking at “reverse causality.” Say, for example, riots lead to destruction of property and the closing of businesses. That will show up as reduced growth for the period of time that the riots occurred. But that doesn’t mean that the lower growth caused the riots, in fact, quite the reverse.
A related problem is that a third factor could be driving both growth and riots. For instance, Professor Varshney in the context of India has documented that the strength of inter-communal ties such as through civic associations reduces the incidence of communal violence. Suppose now that stronger civic ties also foster more rapid growth, say because communally harmonious regions are more attractive for investment, which in turn leads to more rapid capital accumulation and therefore faster growth. Again, we would observe the negative correlation between growth and riots, but the real driver would be the stronger civic ties and not the growth per se.
But none of these critiques suggest that economic factors are not important in causing communal violence, just that they interact in a complex way with other variables that make it problematic to distil everything down into a simple binary relationship between growth and riots. Common sense tells us that economic factors must be important. After all, in rich countries of the West, there are relatively few if any episodes of communal violence in recent memory.
Debates around the lower growth forecasts that peg growth at about 8.5% for the next couple of years are usually cast in terms of their economic consequences, such as trade, foreign investment and India’s emerging role on the world stage. But as Professor Friedman reminds us, growth has an important moral dimension too. Sustaining a high growth rate is not just an economic necessity in a poor country such as India, it may be an ethical imperative as well.
Rupa Subramanya Dehejia writes Economics Journal for India Real Time. You may follow her on Twitter @RupaSubramanya.
Via: India Real Time