A recent study suggests that India's religious beliefs are holding back its economic growth.

If India discards religious beliefs that perpetuate caste and gender inequalities, it could more than double its per capita gross domestic product (GDP) growth of the last 60 years in half the time, according to an IndiaSpend analysis of a new study.

Secularisation precedes economic development and not the other way around as is commonly believedsaid the study, Religious Change Preceded Economic Change In The 20th Century, published in the journal Science Advances. The study used data from the World Values Survey, which mapped people’s changing values and beliefs, to estimate the importance of religion in the 20th (1900-2000) century.

India stood 66th among 109 nations ranked by secularisation. China was first, Pakistan 99th, Bangladesh 104th and Ghana last.

Related article: Financial inclusion—The key to closing India’s gender gap

India’s per capita GDP per annum grew 26 times between 1958 and 2018. “This increase could have been higher if Indians were less rigid in their religious views,” co-author Damian Ruck, a post-doctoral researcher at the Bristol Centre for Complexity Sciences, University of Bristol, told IndiaSpend.

What are the dominant religious beliefs that could be holding back India’s growth from reaching its maximum potential? IndiaSpend research found that these relate to the two most vulnerable social groups in India—women and marginalised castes.

The proportion of scheduled-caste individuals in the lowest wealth bracket was close to thrice that in other castes.Both groups are allowed to play a limited role in India’s economy. Consider caste: the proportion of scheduled-caste individuals in the lowest wealth bracket was close to thrice that in other castes—26.6% as against 9.7%—according to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 (NFHS-4), as IndiaSpend reported in February 2018.

Social and cultural factors restrict women from working outside their homes in India, IndiaSpend reported in this nation-wide investigation. At just 27%, India’s female workforce participation is amongst the lowest in South Asia. Between 2004-5 and 2011-12, the year of the last census, 19.6 Indian million women left their jobs, according to an April 2017 World Bank report.

India’s secularisation (and its tolerance rank, 69th) would suggest that its per capita GDP per annum should be higher than it actually is. “Our model thinks that India should be around Rs 457,015 ($6500) per person richer than it actually is,” said Ruck. “What this suggests is something else is holding back the Indian economy but that is for Indian specialists to analyse.”

But India would still stand to benefit considerably from increased levels of secularisation, estimated the author. “If India were to reach secularisation levels seen in western Europe (like Germany, which was ranked 6th of 109 nations), then it could expect to see a Rs 70,175 ($1,000) increase in per capita GDP over 10 years, Rs 196,490 ($2,800) over 20 years and Rs 350,875 ($5,000) over 30 years,” said Ruck.

religious beliefs
Photo courtesy: Pexels

To put this in perspective, India’s per capita GDP increased 2682% by Rs 133,613 ($1904) over the last 60 years, from Rs 4,982 ($71) in 1958 to Rs 138,595 ($1975) in 2018.

China, whose development India aims to emulate, has been ranked first in secularisation. The US, a developed country where hate crimes in the 10 largest cities touched a decadal high in 2017, stood 57th.

It needs to be noted that the study, jointly conducted by researchers at the University of Bristol in the UK and the University of Tennessee in US, did not establish that an increase in secularisation drives economic activity. It only established that secularisation precedes high growth. It did, however, rule out the belief that religion loses its importance once material development begins to satisfy the needs of a society.

Why Indian economists can’t ignore links between economy, religion

In India, religion has not lost its place in society though the country has seen economic development: More than 90% respondents rated religion as “very important” or “rather important” in the latest round of the World Values Survey.

India and Kyrgyzstan are the only two nations where the percentage of people who considered religion an important part of their lives grew by over 10 points over the decade through to 2014, with India logging 12.1% growth, from 79.2% to 91.3%, according to the survey.

A key takeaway of the new study is that policy makers looking to boost economic growth, particularly inclusive economic development—a stated aim of the incumbent central government—need to consider the linkages between religious thought and economy.

Initiatives to get women and scheduled castes better access to resources could boost overall economic activity, but are unlikely to change their social status.“Economic theory tells us that a competitive environment—one without different types of stratification, of market—produces the best possible outcomes for consumers and society,” said Amaresh Dubey, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, School of Social Sciences at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. “But by precluding a huge section of the population, women and scheduled caste people, from equal access to resources such as capital and know-how, in India, religion majorly impedes economic activity.”

Women are, in large part, low-skilled informal workers in India, engaged in work that requires low productivity and offers low pay, as IndiaSpend reported in March 2018. The inequality between what men and women earn in India is far worse than gender skews in pay noticed in South Africa, Brazil and Chile, if we consider the gender gap in median earnings of full-time employees.

Caste is another divisive factor in development. Scheduled-caste individuals are among India’s poorest people, as we said. “Caste, kinship or family, either or all these can hamper economic progress if they impose restrictions,” said Andre Beteille, professor emeritus, department of sociology at the University of Delhi.

But sociologists see a problem: Initiatives to get India’s women and scheduled castes better access to resources could boost overall economic activity and promote individual well-being, but they are unlikely to change their social status, according to Dubey. Casteism is so deeply entrenched in India that even scheduled caste converts to Islam and Christianity continue to carry their dalit status, he said.

“As religions go, Islam and Christianity do not practice caste segregation but we see dalit converts call themselves dalit Christians and scheduled caste Muslims,” he said.

Development will be ‘short-term’ in times of communal strife

India’s per capita GDP has trended upwards since 2014, according to the United Nations’ World Happiness Index 2018, IndiaSpend reported in May 2018.

India also saw rising intolerance in this period, available data show. The year 2017 recorded the highest death toll (11 deaths) and the most number of incidents of hate violence (37 incidents) related to cows and religion since 2010, according to an IndiaSpend database that records cow-related hate crime.

Related article: Why we aren’t closing the gender gap at work

Does this simultaneous increase in the annual per capita GDP and the decline in secular values defy the findings of the new study?

Apparently not. “What we measured are the slow changes in public opinion on secularisation and tolerance that occur over many decades as new generations replace older ones,” explained Ruck.

Nations can see a rapid increase in intolerance over the short-term but it can be associated with different forces influencing public opinion, he said. The scholar described these as “period effects”.

“In the current political climate, prominent identity qualifiers such as caste, religion and gender are being stoked for short-term gains, creating negative emotions of distrust, hate, prejudices and so on against the ‘other’,” IndiaSpend reported in May 2018.

But “rapid changes are not linked to sustained economic development and tend to be temporary and average out over time”, said Ruck.

The story was originally published on IndiaSpend, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit.

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IndiaSpend is a nonprofit that utilises open data to analyse a range of issues with the broader objective of fostering better governance, transparency and accountability in the Indian government.

Charu Bahri

Charu Bahri

Charu is a freelance writer and editor based in Mount Abu, Rajasthan. She writes for a number of Indian platforms covering subjects such as business, health, interiors, social issues, spirituality, and technology. She also does part-time cost accounting and computer programming for a health NGO in Mount Abu.


  1. Saunak Bhattacharyya Reply

    Dear IDR team, please don’t feed us trash. Women in India are confined to a district – more because of the law & order and social benefits from the native state. And look who speaks about women equal pay or cream jobs – the US? or even worse UK? Give me a break – China? Have you ever been to China – even Shanghai or Beijing? Forget about the thousands of factory.
    Dear editor, IndiaSpends can spare few minutes and read couple of articles published in IDR itself. If the university or IndiaSpends would have spent some time in the field – they would understand how baseless this research is. No mention of the temple tourism, employment generated by religious activities?
    Such articles brings down the quality of publication by IDR. Such articles bashing religious practices are common to get web traffic – but neither have any academic basis nor policy impact. Disappointing !

  2. Ken Cuthbert Reply

    What a joke – China is #1 in “secularisation” ! China has been long at war with its religious citizens – burning churches, mosques and brain-washing its people. To call China “secular” and to attribute a high GDP to its religious suppression must be like Viagra for the dead comrades Lenin, Marx, Mao. Also, conveniently forgotten to mention are the GDP of other “secular” countries like North Korea, Cuba.

    Though thrown-out by most peoples around the globe. Communism is still alive in some people like Charu Bahri and organizations like IndiaSpend. Lets make sure that the last embers of Communism are stamped out of this world.

  3. The article seems to be biased. It also assumes that Muslims and Christians do no have a subcasts if such is he case ISIS would no have born in Muslim dominated countries and they would not kill other Muslims. Cannot understand the reason for concouding that women’s are under paid is not correct. In order to understand behaviour you need to study culture of this country and this will answer you. why within a certain community people behave differently or independently . Last but not the leaset when did people from other countries started p understand culture better hat our own people and scriptures which date back 1000 of years. Secularism is he most abused word in the world – while it has been discounted that some of the cultures promote this as part of their core values but these are treated as religious beliefs. It is also to be remembered hat because of these core values our is the only civilisation which is surviving while all other have vanished in thin air as they could not sustain themselves.

  4. saugat das Reply

    The basic assumptions and fundamentals in this article are wrong. There are no religion based caste restrictions followed in India with regard to any economic activity as such. Also, there always has been a good amount of unemployment in India. So, firstly, if women would have equally participated in workforce (the way it is assumed) at an earlier stage, official unemployment rate would have been much higher and not GDP. Secondly, majority on Indian population depend on agriculture. Women always played an important role in supporting agriculture through direct or allied activities in india which contribute to its GDP. Hence their participation has been always significant, though not recognised.

  5. Like the other commentors, I too feel that the article presents a biased view. The article does not encourage free market capitalism. Instead it seems to encourage leftist ideas of ‘equal rights’, etc. These ideas are as restrictive of competition as religious ones are. It is just that the discrimination is reversed.

    So the argument is incorrectly articulated. You cannot say that religion kills competition while pushing for leftist reforms. It makes no sense. If you really believe in competition, then you are a classical liberal and you will oppose any regressive policy, be it right or left.

    This itself shows that you are more interested in getting your agenda across …than really exploring the topic for understanding it.

    Leaving aside this biased leftist leaning, the argument still doesn’t make sense. You are conveniently ignoring that a counterargument to Keynesian economics does exist. Women when free to choose, tend to stay at home with kids. This makes the families save more money. The bank reserves swell and the interest rates increase. The economy improves. If women also start earning, kids and family are sidelined… and both men and women spend a lot of money. This definitely can jump up sales and free a lot of hidden money. But it is said that this may lead to a bubble which will eventually cause the Keynesian model to implode.

    Anyways, little real economics or politics in the article. Just a push for the agenda.

  6. This article is highly politically motivated, anti Hindu & is trying to portray that problem lies in Hinduism & followers of Hinduism.
    The purpose of this article is to break the social structure of India so that the chrisislamist can colonise India.
    The author of this article is leftist uneducated fool.

  7. Hello Charu, This is the worst argument which I have ever heard. First of all you have no idea about religion or for that matter Secularism in India. In India, Secularism means to appease the non Hindu community. This was done from the day one of our independence by the greats of Gandhi and Nehru just for vote banks.

    If you are considered Hinduism is a religion then also you are wrong as there is no religion called Hindu or any “isam” like other religions. What you are saying is true and If that is the case, then, in Maurya dynasty era it was considered as golden period. Then in Krishnadevaraya era in Hampi it was considered as golden era. There are still evidences in Hampi temple that people use to sell precious stones and Perls along with jewellery near the temple open area. What do you say about it ? In fact following our way of life which we call Sanatan Dharma is most secular way as our way of life does force or intimidate or force or bribe to change they way or behavior.

  8. This is a laughably simplistic articulation … theoretical and naive…

  9. Idontwishtobenamed Reply

    This is a rather poorly argued piece. There is a confusion of what constitutes ‘religion’ and indeed no definition of key terms such as ‘secularisation’. It also seems to pose ‘caste’ as a ‘religious’ problem rather than a social problem. I would question the article’s political motivations that seems to unquestioningly accept ‘economic growth’ as a progressive and desirable objective and religion (that too a specific religion) as only regressive.

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