Culture and Economic Life with Specific Reference to Criminal Activities

Molly Charles
Dr. Uday Mehta
Mr. Gabriel. Britto


This paper focuses on the role of Culture in determining and shaping economic life, especially in the area of criminal activities, and not being dependent solely on legislation, control measures and economics. In traditional society, the definition of criminal activities and intervention measures were bound by cultural norms both at the formal and informal levels. With development there has been a shift towards emphasis on strengthening of powers and areas of control especially at the formal level and ignorance of the role of informal norms. Accountability on the individual has increased and whereas those on the part of the system has become redundant or non-existent. In this context the paper analyses the role of culture in determining and redefining development at the micro level given the absence of ethical accountability of the systems formulating, creating, implementing development programme, that create exclusion of the marginalized or weaker section of society instead of integration.

Role of Culture in determining involvement in Criminal economic activities

In traditional societies it is the formal norms along with informal norms that determined definition of crime, criminal activities and interventions in case of non-adherence to cultural norms. Unique systems of control also existed and persisted because of cultural vastness and presence of many languages along with innumerable dialects and thereby ensured cultural isolation. There was limited influence of common formal norms as is seen today through legislation and its relevant mechanisms for intervention.

Under the British systematic effort was made to create central governance and control, whereby formal norms were enforced with meticulous commitment. However, discrepancies between enforced formal norms and existing cultural norms were ignored. British efforts at systematising cultivation and trade in opium later shaped the drug trade in India. At the level of trade in opium it is the Parsee community, who were not averse to dealing with non-vegetarian western1 that had a central role to play. This facilitated them in capital formulation, and at the same time the cultivators were forced to cultivate poppy, the coercive methods led to surplus production of opium in an area alongside numerous deaths through famine. For the farmers were banned from growing food crops and they had to grow them within the poppy fields without being detected to avoid punishment.

2) Role of Ethics and Politics in shaping exclusion process.

After independence India followed the path of industrialisation implementing measures to ensure that those involved in creating and strengthening capital formulation were protected from unfair competition. As the programmes were not targeted at creating sustainable development at rural level, it led to displacement of marginal groups from their cultural setting to cities for the purpose of capital accumulation. Though the members from the elite group did migrate, this change was a result of cultural group support that ensured support for members of specific communities (for example, groups from Gujarat) in business or other ventures. For example in case of migration and settlement in Bombay it has been in line with cultural and community affiliations. In case of the displaced population from marginal group (economically, socio-culturally and politically) this did not offer any security for seeking change in flux situation. With development taking the form that it did distribution of wealth was not evenly undertaken, rather it followed the trickle down approach to bring change, whereby making sure the majority of the population were slowly but surely being excluded. The continuous absence of sufficient emphasis on sustainable development leads to rural income generation activities becoming redundant for many and thereby ensuring migration.

III) Silent Violence of the State

It is what has been termed as 'silent violence' that affected the poor through the decades and it has gone unaccounted for. While visible physical violence gets the attention of the system at times, silent violence which ensures stimuli of discrimination, alienation, being worthless and along with limited illusions of hope that are being reinforced on certain population for years, never gets acknowledged and when it does it is targeted at ensuring the response of fatalism at the unconscious/sublimal level.

The impact of this is seen in the areas of health, education, sports and susceptibility to be held accountable by mechanisms for control of the State. In the area of health, the discrimination is seen in terms of accessibility, being affordable and quality of care. Besides, there has been no political support towards strengthening or modifying existing body of knowledge or local wisdom collected and sharpened through the years, instead the focus has been to popularise modern systems of care as the solution to health care. This has ensured the systematic and slow erosion of local wisdom, though some of it that has been preserved is being tapped by pharmaceutical companies who are funding bio-technological research in Universities to collate and then identify those that can be produced on a large scale purely for economic benefit. In earlier system there was something beyond economics that was and in some places continues to be an integral part of health care that is "commitment to humanity and perseverance of humanness for itself". This lead to a quest to add on information towards empowering the body of knowledge passed on through the generations. The skewed focus that health care has taken on in India, is nothing but the reflection of the International emphasis on modern medicine and the price paid for assuming human freedom to be linked strongly to wealth accumulation. This emphasis on spreading a specific perspective or body of knowledge has lead to cultural imperialism even in the area of food, consumer and luxury goods, this is possible because the multi-national companies are able to sustain initial losses to throw competition out of business and then change the price structure.

With opening of the economy many of the limited options that gave the marginalized poor to have hope for change are being eroded and decimated. One such clear example is the present government's policy towards education, by making higher-level education beyond the reach of the common man it is ensuring exclusion from the system is fortified through generations. On the other hand, through entertainment media the youth are exposed to life styles far beyond their dreams and told that these are signs of success or of being counted. It is not surprising that for some youth then the act of being a part of criminal groups becomes one of courage and determination to changes one's destiny - be it for a short while. This ensures new candidates made available for less $ 50 to murder individuals and these are aspirants coming from other states to seek opportunities.

IV) Creation of deviant groups for economic and survival reasons

The initial period of the growth of gangs involved in criminal activities began with small groups participating in small time ventures, in Bombay city they were from Patan community a migrant population from Afghanistan. The opportunities available for them were limited and some them used their best asset- their physique to obtain income through force. They established the initial frame of later gang formation in Bombay city, in terms of working on fear and settling disputes.

The subsequent gang formation that took place in Bombay city was linked to certain economic activities be it smuggling in the port area or illegal trading of silver from India. At the same time the actors in these gangs emerged through cultural and community affinity. As the marginalized groups also settled in areas retaining their cultural or community identity as the base for geographical proximity, certain spots became important in the later creation of criminal networks and their functioning.

V) Government policies and Organised Crime

The growth of illegal economic activities were influenced by the government policies, for they determined the profile of actors required and strengthened the involvement of white collar criminals with gangs for safety from State intervention and at the same time gave scope to ensure sufficient distancing from the acts, so that justice based on technical accuracy never had adequate evidence to prosecute. This is seen in case of gold and diamond trade, drug trade, ensuring control over real estate and entertainment industry.

VI) White collar economic crimes and Organised Crime

The impact of selectivity of justice and attitude of winner's take it all do create ground for adherence to different norms than the one that is acceptable to society. With a shift from manufacture-oriented capitalism to predatory capitalism (with emphasis on speculative investment) these aspects have become prominent and significant. This situation is seen in case of drug trade and organised crime and white-collar crime in Indian setting. The support from criminal networks for sustenance and white-collar crime is evident from the initial involvement of gangs in settling tenancy and land disputes in India. This aspect has expanded and got well entrenched within and outside the system through the years. It has led to an attitude of justifying big time fraud 'as winner's take it all'. The outcomes of these crimes take a predictable course, of sensational reporting, at times imprisonment for a short period and then release. After some time the whole matter is forgotten and ignored, the accused retains his wealth and social status, the only individual that bear the burnt are the common man and those who invested with the expectation of making a profit. Some of the stock market frauds have also been made possible by the tendency of specific business community to invest based on the suggestion given by members of their community.

The attitude of winner's takes it all and lack of accountability of the system is seen also at the international level, the recent scamps are evidence of the same. The concern here is that as these firms are not restricted to a specific country the repercussions are felt across the globe and the accountability is difficult to enforce.

VII) State intervention and corruption of the system

State interventions are based on the assumption that justice and peace can be ensured through control measures, but they fall short as they too become tools for the powerful to ensure that the excluded and disposable are made accountable and the systems for intervention get corrupted and dysfunctional. This is seen in case analysis of records under NDPS Act (legislation for drug control) or those related to other crimes.

In addition to this there are also persons available for a price to own up for the crime and spent time in prison. Besides, corruption has ensured that prisons instead of being places for reform are recruiting ground for different gangs and their domination continued even within the prison environment.

Political nexus for different illegal acts and lack accountability of the parties to those who elected them has made election process but an act of selecting the least harmful from a bundles of inadequate options. In certain States it is common to find political candidates with criminal records, especially in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar etc. The public no longer expects any accountability and some with religious group affinity are able to strengthen the religious/caste divides and ensure the process of change is slow. The extent of exclusion visible through the decades in certain States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar has made them easy ground for obtaining new actors in criminal world. The involvement of the rich and the powerful in illegal criminal economic acts has ensured that many of the culturally isolated communities do not even dream of change.

While individuals are held accountable, the system and individuals from the elite class are rarely held accountable. The temptation to perceive this only as a national problem would lead to having a narrow view of the entire aspect, for in case of drug trade it is seen that when forfeiture of assets of individuals accused of economic crimes, there is no disclosure as to what happens to this money. In case Mr. A belonging to a developing country is caught in a developed country, then the assets are taken by the developed countries and there is no public declaration of what happens to it.

Legislation is framed supposedly as mechanisms for justice but has become tools for ensuring exclusion. This can be seen from the prison population of various countries especially with regard to use of mind-altering substances. The sad reality is that cultural imperialism continuous even today, for example the punitive paradigm for drug control was enforced in India, Nepal and Srilanka based on international pressure from the USA which used its clout with International AID ventures, to ensure that developing countries fell in line to their way of thinking. This form of international interference will become less discrete and more blatant after the attacks on US - "the Super Power" and there is no forum where any developing country can ask for ethical accountability.

The all-invasive attitude of state intervention in order to create/enforce accountability of individual is seen in case of support given for drug testing programmes. Often these efforts get established in US and then they are marketed across the globe as the strategy for drug use control. At the same time there is no discussion on the impact of harsh laws which racial divide and make a significant section of the youth population political powerless when caught under drug crime for the act is considered a felony with right for electorate being taken away. In addition to this there are no queries raised about the ethics of using development money meant for the black in order build and manage prisons for the black and Hispanics and these correctional institutes employ the white workers who have been displaced as a work force by giant monopolies, be it in farming or other rural ventures (Laniel, 2001 Seminar, 504- Aug,2001).

VII) Strengthening of formal norms and modification of informal norms

The present trend of emphasis on control as means of ensuring safety and security is making the role of formal legislative norms more concrete but ignores the role of informal norms. As pointed by R.K. Merton in his strain theory, there are individuals who innovate in the absence of legitimate means to attain societal goals. This deviation is seen both in case of white-collar crime and other criminal activities, but it is only the later that attains far more propaganda as deviant behaviour. Individuals who indulge in white-collar crimes gain respect not only in their elite circle but also respect at society at large. When innovation is undertaken in the area of white collar crime, these innovations gets strengthened and sharpened and the mechanisms bring more profit for smaller sections of the population, whereas in case of criminal or organised criminal acts it leads to distribution of resources over a larger section of the population and reduces the gains made per act especially for those involved in the activities lower down the ladder.

VIII) Intervention leading to exclusion through layering

As the route taken by development as a result of globalisation and absence of ethical practice or accountability by the State systems only sustains exclusions and through the years reduces the options available for the poor. With this process in place State intervention initiates further steps which reinforces layering for in criminal activities it is those who are caught with the contraband or who are directly responsible for murder, are the one's who get arrested and convicted. As a result whether it is through employment of more individuals or creating layering through other means, distancing from the act is crucial, this requirement ensures scope for more candidates to enter the field. In case of drug trade in India, in certain places (cities and cultivating areas) it has led to recruitment of women and children, as there is less chance of being detected and their wages are cheaper.

IX) Redefining economic Life and development

At the micro level the increase in options for change that are illegal leads to changes in informal norms governing involvement in these acts and leads to mores acceptance. As result more and more individuals are willing to join the process and try their luck and often the investments emerging from these acts are either in form of real estate, gold. At the level of white-collar crime, there is enhanced momentum when there is less risk or it is 'perceived' so, especially given the incentive of opportunity for large profit. The shift toward predatory capitalism is strengthening the process of exclusion and converting scam culprits into role models for the future generations.

Culture and Economic Life with specific reference to Criminal activities

1 The majority of the population especially those from the Hindu community avoided interaction with westerners because of difference in life style.