Should we allow economics to run our temples?

Happy Shivratri to ME viewers..

I have been wanting to write this post for a while but kept missing it. Today is perhaps the right time given the day. One usually goes to the temple on this day and the experience strikes you. These are just random thoughts and comments/suggestions welcome.

Temples are meant to be places for worship and have a huge following in India. Temples have served as one of major centres for public for mainly spiritual reasons.

However, over the years these temples have become an interesting place for economics. One sees plenty of economic lessons these days in temples with some interesting and some not as much. Infact one wonders whether the temples are any more about worship as economics has taken over almost completely.

First what are the economics lessons one gets to see. There are couple of actors/agents who try and get as much  money from the worshiper.

  • Shoe-keeper – This person takes your shoes and charges a nominal sum for his services. Though because of lack of change and inflation, these costs have gone up significantly. Infact on particular days like shivratri, enterprising people set their one day shop to take care of shoes.
  • Shops outside the temple – These are usually selling things like prasad, flowers, coconut etc to offer at the temple. In few popular temples, these shops offer a combo as well. If you buy from them they keep your shoes for free!
  • Temple gates – With rise in population and rise in faith, temples have become really crowded. So temples use all kinds of strategies to segment people. In micro we call this price discrimination of sorts. Some temples have started charging different kinds of fees for different kind of lines. The higher the price , the quicker you can move in. Some keep one line fully free which is ofcourse crowded and charge those who do not want to wait and are willing to pay for saving time.
  • Inside the temple – This is where things have become really bad and nasty. One sees priests selling all kinds of prasad inside and pushing people to pay for this and that. In some popular temples this has become really nasty and priests even hurt and curse those who do not pay. The one major shrine has given way to plenty of smaller shrines within the temple and in each one is expected to pay something in kind. They also use clever nudge strategy by placing certain amount of cash on the plate which one uses to get the aarti..So people feel guilty by not paying and sometime the priest may even show you an eye for not budging..And then one does not even get enough time in the temple. There is continuous filtering of people as there is so much crowd especially in popular temples. So here technology has come to rescue as temples have placed large LCDs etc giving view of the holy lord to those who cannot really make it inside.

    Another kind of practice becoming common across temples is donations. So people are asked to pay as per their ability and get their name inscribed at the temple wall. The big celebrities or super rich people are seen paying for some or the other thing for glorifying the lord. These could be dresses for the statues, jewellery, golden shoes etc etc.

    Then there are memberships just like club memberships which allows one to come anytime missing queues and some other priveleges as well. Some have built guest houses etc within temple premises where one can stay for as long. There could be temples of similar society in other cities and one can use the card membership there as well. So just like any club membership.

    Some temples also organise various kinds of poojas for different ceremonies for a hefty sum. It is like this menu card available where one gets the prices for various kind of poojas. Infact similar menu is available for donations as well which will specify the benefits as well. You pay so and so and you get so and so in return.

So, we have multiple kinds of economic lessons from price discrimination to free services (which aren’t really free as wait could be really long), from coercion to nudging, from traditions to using technology and so on. Temples have become as commercial an organisation as one can imagine. I mean it was not a joke when there were suggestion to go to Tirupati to solve our currency crisis and satiation for gold last year.  The temples have enacted different strategies to absorb/extract as much consumer surplus from the temple visitor. And like all thriving industries, there is an entire ancillary units (shoekeepers, shops etc) which have developed.

So an economist would be really happy to see such things. As there is a demand for spiritual services temples are supplying it and hence the price comes into the equation. Without a proper pricing system there will be a market failure as there will be too many people wanting the service  for free. The temples which were seen as  a public good was susceptible to failure (like other public goods) has been converted into a kind of club good.

And as people are willing to pay there must not be anything wrong here. After all people are free not to pay. The econs may suggest a different and a more efficient structure of management as temples are not as well managed. By adding more services and cleanliness, may be more consumer surplus can be extracted. The temple services can be made into a better experience good.

But then how does it all look when we look at all this from Michael Sandel’s lens. It all looks gross and disgusting. Temples are no more seen as places for mental peace where one can go and meditate/pray. But they take you back to the same mad world one is looking to escape of money and greed. These are places one could go freely and just be in peace. But now there are all kinds of extortions on the way and all people want to do is run away from the temple. But as temples remain an important part of Indian life one cannot escape it either. It is like this income tax which one wants to avoid paying but has to pay as there is no choice. Children in India are taught about the importance of temples etc from the very beginning and they become part of the psyche.

Now not all temples have become this way. But largely this is how the whole system has become.

It is highly irritating when there are two queues one a really long near-stationary one and another one which is relatively empty as it is a paid/club good category. People are unsure whether they are visiting a temple or a theatre with one queue to the balcony/box and other to a dress circle (the old style of theatre functioning).

In all how does one manage this conflict of choices. Should there be a regulatory body to manage temples as they resemble so much like an economic unit? Any talk of this will obviously lead to a hue and cry. Ideally these temples should function as a self regulatory body ensuring the basic spirit of temple services remain. But Gordon Gekko seems to have inspired the current temple management big time and money is all that matters.

In all, even going to a temple has become such a stress point. One does not know where else to go..

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