Jesuit priest plugs his mission

October 25, 1996

John Joseph Puthenkalam has an intimidatingly impressive academic record. It begins with bachelor's degrees in economics, philosophy, theology and education in his native India and from Japan; goes on to master's degrees in economics and theology and a diploma in counselling, and most recently includes a PhD at Glasgow University's Institute of Russian and East European Studies.

The 40-year-old Jesuit priest, whose studies have been interspersed with working with refugees in Africa, is shyly cordial in person. He simply comments that the Society of Jesus has played a major role in the church through its educational contribution, and that there has always been encouragement for anyone wanting to undertake intellectual training.

Father Puthenkalam chose to come to Glasgow for its links with economist and philosopher Adam Smith, taking an MSc in economics, and then completing a PhD in only two years. He has now begun teaching socio-economic analysis at the East Asia Pastoral Institute in Manila.

His thesis on economic growth in East European nations argues that genuine development depends on a concern for democracy and human rights, and means a permanent improvement in meeting people's basic needs. Even if certain sectors are making a profit, this is not achieving economic development if there is a widening gap between rich and poor.

While war could create economic growth in the bomb manufacturing sector, says Father Puthenkalam, this would not lead to an improved quality of life for the general population.

He calls for questions on the distribution of wealth and the eradication of poverty to be seen as central to national fiscal policies alongside the concern for economic growth itself. There is no global template, he stresses, each country must analyse what stimulates or stagnates its economy.

"I think many nations consider their traditional cultures so sacred that they are not prepared to try to understand whether it's worthwhile to keep it all, or whether it is becoming a block to people's growth and development," he says.

He has to be coaxed into an assessment of Britain, insisting his views are based on "extremely superficial observations".

The country is economically healthy in global terms, he believes, but is still in thrall to its colonial past, and should take more responsibility for its future. "I must congratulate Britain for its contribution to the world economy, but it has depended on other economies for a long time. You were able to sit back and enjoy the wealth of nations, but now you are just another nation, and how much you are going to produce and distribute determines the health of your nation from now on."

He questions next year's celebrations of 50 years of Indian independence, suggesting that the word "independence" leaves the former colonial powers with a feeling of superiority.

"It's a very negative understanding of one's own freedom. I would rather, for the sake of India, call it 'Foreign Withdrawal Day'. Just because some people come and occupy a country, its freedom and independence are not lost."

Father Puthenkalam was raised in Kerala state, unique in India for having almost 100 per cent literacy. This is entirely due, he says, to the educational outreach of the Roman Catholic church.

"It was also the first state in the world to have a democratically elected communist government, in 1956. I don't think anybody in Kerala is afraid of communism," he says.

There has been no religious persecution, labourers are respected and well paid, and higher education is cheap and easily accessible, with hundreds of university colleges for the 25 million population.

The left continues to dominate coalition governments, but Father Puthenkalam warns of a downside in that many industries go to other states because of the strength of Kerala's trade unions.

Meanwhile elections in education institutes have become over-politicised, leading to tension and violence.

He feels that, worldwide, the present generation is "failing history" through a lack of intellectual debate on human needs.

Poverty engulfs two-thirds of the population, whose daily fight for survival prevents them thinking, "and there are other people who just enjoy all the riches and have no time to think".

But he is essentially optimistic. "I believe there is hope in the struggle. If there is no struggle, there is no hope."

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