An annual extravaganza such as the Rio Carnival, Munich’s Oktoberfest, or Japan’s Hanami usually characterises as well as boosts the economy of the place. And, ‘Durga Puja in Kolkata’, for sure. UNESCO has now accorded it the 14th entry from India in its ‘Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ comprising about 500 elements. But would that influence the Durga Puja economy?

According to UNESCO, cultural heritage “includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts”. Intangible cultural heritage is “traditional, contemporary and living at the same time”, “inclusive”, “representative”, and “community-based”.

The director of UNESCO New Delhi was “confident that this recognition will offer encouragement to the local communities that celebrate Durga Puja.”. They include the local idol-makers of Kumartuli in North Kolkata, people engaged in the lighting industry in the nearby Chandannagar town, marginal folk artists engaged in the theme designs of the pandals (marquees), and the dhakis (traditional drummers) from rural Bengal. Thousands of colourful and thematic pandals at street-corners and parks — around 2,500 in Kolkata — are temporarily built during Durga Puja. The streets are flooded in lights and millions of people are out pandal hopping, with every pandals averaging 2/3-lakh footfall daily. There’s little room left to flourish in these aspects.

What Durga Puja really lacks is the number of foreign tourists that perhaps the biggest street festival in the world should attract. Munich’s Oktoberfest, for example, attracts more than 70 lakh visitors annually. Rio de Janeiro had more than 15 lakh tourists during the 2018 Carnival, nearly half of them foreigners. And an estimated 6.30 crore people travel to and within Japan to view the springtime symphony of cherry blossoms during Hanami.

A carnival in its own style? In her 2015 book In the Name of the Goddess: The Durga Pujas of Contemporary Kolkata, historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta aptly describes Kolkata’s Puja as “a mega consumerist carnival and a city-wide street exhibition.” Well, since 2016, the West Bengal government has been organising a Durga Puja Carnival — a parade of popular pujas along with cultural performances, to attract global attention for the festival and to boost tourism.

The importance of the intangible cultural heritage in the economy was discussed in a 2016 paper in Procedia Economics and Finance by Tudorache Petronela of the Bucharest University of Economic Studies. “Safeguarding intangible cultural heritage is a valuable source of the economy,” said Petronela.

Estimating the value

Despite limited studies, the importance of Durga Puja for the economy of West Bengal is enormous. A much-cited 2013 Assocham study estimated the size of the Durga Puja industry at ₹25,000 crore, logging a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of about 35 per cent. While such a CAGR is unlikely to continue for long, at this rate, the estimated size of the Durga Puja economy could be about ₹2.75-lakh crore in 2021, had there been no pandemic.

A recent British Council study focussed on ten creative industries that drive Durga Puja and indicated that a ₹32,377-crore ‘creative economy’ was generated during Puja 2019 in West Bengal, accounting for 2.58 per cent of the State GDP. The complete Puja economy, however, may be much beyond that. Corporate funding and outdoor advertising account for about 90 per cent of the funding of today’s Pujas. Consequently, the serious issue of ‘over-commercialisation’ would keep Kolkata’s Puja haunting, for sure.

Would the inclusion in the UNESCO list help boost the Durga Puja economy, mainly by attracting more tourists and creating more tourist-friendly infrastructure? Maybe, but not quite clear though. “The economic value can be determined by measuring the gross added value, the multiplier effects on the economy, tourist visits and their consumption,” Petronela wrote on intangible cultural heritages. Well, would any significant “gross added value” or “multiplier effects” be included in Kolkata’s biggest public art event with its newly added Heritage tag? Let’s keep track.

The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata