Sampath G

Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

Will you please brand yourself, please?

In Business, Management, Politics, Satire, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Of late, for some reason that is not clear to me, I’ve been getting lots of mail offering to help me ‘reinvent my brand’. One such mailer I got yesterday beseeches me to attend a programme where I will be trained to “brand my brand”.

Sure, these days you get spammed by all sorts of mails, from those promising to enlarge your penis, to those desperate to transfer a billion dollars to your account, to those peremptorily asking you to “revert on the business proposal”. So initially, I thought I was being mistaken for a consumer product of some kind, which perhaps needed a stronger branding. But my name does not (at least to me) sound like the name of a washing powder or a tooth paste, or….well, Sampath Condoms, anyone?

But then, as a marketing whiz friend explained to me, with a duh look on his face, Hey, you don’t have to be a condom in order to be a brand. You can be (and have to be) a ‘brand’ so long as you wish to sell yourself or any aspect of yourself to anyone anywhere in any market. And this applies to each one of you reading this who is there in the job market, and in the ever-expanding celebrity market.

Just as an exercise, why don’t you try segregating all the subtly self-promotional mails you get from your so-called well-wishers/friends/networking contacts? From newspaper articles they have written, to books they have published, to the awards they have won (and secretly sponsored), to the hot/cool people they have bedded, to the parties they’ve attended and taken pictures of, to the expensive holidays they’ve enjoyed, to the videos they’ve made of themselves shaking hands with Roger Federer  – it is all one big ‘personal branding’ exercise. Or maybe not: perhaps they just figured, accurately, that you were genuinely interested in their personal milestones and they were only doing their best to assuage your hunger for the boring details of their exciting lives.

So, if you thought, like I did (and secretly still do, in the middle of the night, when my ‘Brand Custodian’ is not watching) that all talk of ‘personal branding’ is just gas, well, fart again! Sorry, think again. It does not matter any longer how good you are at what you do; nor does it matter how long you’ve been doing it (not even if you’re a brand of dentures); and it matters not at all if your ‘brand image’ is the exact opposite of what you really are.

What does matter is ‘perception management’. And if anyone knows the value of ‘personal branding’ in Indian politics today, it is the one man who needs it the most: Narendra Modi. He has hired the world’s most powerful lobbying and PR firm, known, incidentally, for its respectable clientele of war mongers. In what must go down as a brilliant case study in the annals of image management strategy, Modi has, in a short span of time, gotten the world to merge the identity of Gujarat with that of his own. So today, Brand Gujarat and Brand Modi are inseparable – and the visit to SRCC was all about investing the ‘brand equity’ of Brand Gujarat for longer term ROI on the national stage.

But brand positioning is not a simple art. As any PR executive will tell you, the whole process begins with what they call a ‘perception audit’. In Modi’s case, such an audit today would still throw up a giant bucketful of stuff that could dissolve into irrelevance even the most painstaking of brand campaigns. All the chemicals of Apco cannot wash the blood of the hands of a man who presided over what everyone knows he presided over in Gujarat in 2002. I don’t even have to say what it was – that’s how powerful Modi’s brand is, and here I am not talking about the ‘brand’ that he and his minions were trying hard to ‘build’ through his SRCC event.

Unlike Rome, brands are built in a day. All you need is money to spend. Our brave new brand-enriched world is one of smoke and mirrors, where, as Macbeth’s witches famously observed, “fair is foul, and foul is fair.”

So here, off the top of my head, is a list of entities that could do with some help in ‘reinventing’ their brand: the Indian army in Kashmir, politicians as a class, Delhi police, Dow Chemicals, Suresh Kalmadi, and that news anchor who keeps yelling on TV. Happy branding to you all!

Ek Tha Tiger: The other side of the coal scam

In Business, Environment, Politics, Uncategorized on October 17, 2012 at 7:47 pm

I’ve spent the past few days reading a couple of page-turners that I recommend strongly to every Indian who cares about her country: the CAG’s audit report on coal block allocations, and a new report released by Greenpeace, titled ‘How Coal-Mining is Trashing Tigerland’. Both are freely available online, at the CAG and the Greenpeace websites respectively.

Till now, the media has focused primarily on the CAG report. But you have to read both together to get the full picture about the implications of coalgate.

The CAG’s audit report makes three things amply clear: one, in the last seven years, the government of India has given a major push to coal-based power; two, a lot of private players have made a lot of money out of coal, and more through speculation than by actually producing coal; three, the office of our beloved incorruptible prime minister was right in the thick of coalgate, having chosen to avoid a transparent process of competitive bidding — opting instead to award coal blocks through a ‘screening committee’ — despite being advised by its own legal experts that a competitive bidding process would not contravene the existing mining laws.

Yes, the corruption in the coal block allocation is mind-boggling. I mean, can someone even explain what Rs1,800,000,000,000 means – on a human, as opposed to a cosmic, scale?

But corruption is only half the coalgate story – the half that’s easier to tell, because it doesn’t challenge any of our assumptions.

Coal mining is the biggest threat to the tiger

The more significant story, in my opinion, is the one which will affect every one of us far more directly than the notional loss of Rs1.8 lakh crore ($33 billion). It’s the story of what’s in store for you (I’m referring here specifically to those Indians who are not NRIs, don’t have a second home or loving relatives abroad where they can run away to, don’t have a Swiss account nobody knows about, and are not planning to emigrate to New Zealand or Canada in the foreseeable future) when all the 150-odd coal blocks allotted by the Union coal ministry between 2004 and 2009 are mined.

The basis of the Greenpeace study is something you can try yourself: Take an India map. Referring to the CAG report, plot the locations of all the coal reserves and allocated coal blocks on this map. Then take another India map and plot on it the locations of all the tiger habitats and reserve forests in central India. Then superimpose one map on top of the other. You will discover a) that the bulk of India’s coal reserves fall in central India – covering the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and parts of Odisha and eastern Maharashtra; and b) that the coal fields in central India are contiguous with dense forests and intrude into the territory of India’s national animal, besides several other endangered species.

What will ensue if we allow coal mining in these forests is the worst kind of environmental and human disaster we’ll ever know (short of a nuclear calamity; but Manmohan Singh, the architect of the Indo-US nuclear deal, has that covered, too, viz Jaitapur, Kudankulam et al). To summarise in brief, developing our coal reserves in central India will involve the following: extinction of the Royal Bengal Tiger from this region; the decimation of at least a million hectares of native forests in central India (the biodiversity and forest ecosystems that took millions of years to evolve, we will gobble up, termite-like, in 40 years flat, turning lush forests into gaping, polluted, barren wasteland); destruction of the livelihood source of half of India’s Scheduled Tribe population; destruction of watersheds of major rivers, including the Mahanadi, Narmada, Tapti, Godavari, Indravati, and Damodar; incalculable loss of India’s bio-diversity and natural beauty that is a part of our national heritage (something which no agent of private capital masquerading as a public servant, least of all a Manmohan or a Montek, can understand the value of); and the shame and blow to national pride that the next generation of Indians will have to live with when they wake up to the monumental idiocy of their fathers in destroying so much for the greed of so few in so short a time, and that too for a dirty, climate-hostile, limited, non-renewable fuel that anyway cannot solve India’s energy problems.

What if we tried to attach an economic value to a loss on a scale like this? The Dutch research institute CE Delft did exactly such a study of the externalised global costs of the impact on human/ environmental health and climate change caused by coal-mining and combustion, and arrived at a figure of $452 billion for 2007 alone. That’s more than a dozen times the magnitude of the estimated loss due to coalgate ($33 billion). And the figure is especially scary when you consider that India is not only the world’s third largest coal-producing nation, but also the fourth largest importer of coal.

Why India can and should wean itself off coal

What’s really alarming is that, despite coal being in the news, nobody seems to be debating a simple question (where are you Arnab Goswami? The nation needs an answer to this one): Can’t India grow without increasing its reliance (pun unintended, believe me) on the dirtiest fossil fuel around?

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Today, more than 50% of India’s energy needs are met by coal. But it has been established that coal is one of the worst contributors to climate change – it contributes not only through greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but also through destruction of the forests when it is mined. [Forests trap atmospheric carbon in their biomass and are major carbon sinks. This is the basis of the UN’s REDD+ (Reduced Emissions of Deforestation and Degradation) programme which offers incentives to developing countries to preserve their forests – an incentive India is well-placed to tap, IF we keep away from coal and leave the forests alone.]

Of course, the reality is that many of our policy wonks are climate sceptics who believe it’s OK to use up all our coal reserves before we look at alternatives to coal. As writer Peter Dolack asks in his blog, Systemic Disorder, “There is delusion, and then there is willful fantasy. At what point does the first pass into the second?” Well, if you too are a climate change sceptic, here are some hard facts:

The 20 hottest years on a global basis have all occurred since 1987
9 of the 10 hottest years in recorded history have occurred since 2001
June 2012 marked the 328th consecutive month that the global temperatures exceeded the 20th century average
For 2010 and 2011 combined, 27 countries recorded an all-time national high temperature while one recorded a national low
There is complete consensus among climatologists that anthropogenic climate change (global warming caused by human activity) is REAL. The debate is only about how much time we have before the rising temperatures go into a destructive feedback loop. The seeds of doubt are being peddled only by a bunch of think tanks funded by the oil and natural gas industry. Exxon Mobil reportedly spent $16 million just between 1998 and 2005 funding denier groups, according to a Monthly Review article in May 2012. And in India, we have our own bunch of industry-sponsored ‘experts’ who want to limit the debate on India’s energy future to two equally moronic, dangerous and completely irrational choices: nuclear energy (dirty but clean) and coal (dirty but cheap).

The alternative to coal is renewable and doable

Renewable forms of energy accounted for half of all new electric capacity added globally in 2010, and delivered 20% of global power supply. They are cleaner, their costs of production are rapidly coming down, and India, specifically, is superbly placed to tap all three major renewables – solar, wind and biomass.

Yet it is only rarely that we hear of the most rational option around which to secure our future energy needs: a diversified basket of renewable energy produced in a decentralised manner. Why? Because decentralised renewable energy (DRE) models based on solar, wind and bio-mass don’t give a tiny elite with a monopoly over power and money, an opportunity to make “windfall profits” (that’s the CAG’s term, by the way) in as short a time with as much ease and secrecy and as little transparency as centralised mega-power projects such as nuclear power (sorry, national security, so we won’t tell you anything) or coal (just get a ‘recommendation’ from the state government and you get a coal block absolutely FREE! What a scheme! If I were a businessman with political connections, I’d love it too!).

Renewables, on the other hand, are decentralised by design. They can be community-owned and controlled instead of being state or corporate owned. They could be home solar panels, biogas plants fed from farmyard manure, or wind turbines in farmers’ fields. Damian Carrington has written in the Guardian about a small German hamlet called Feldheim whose inhabitants produce all the power they need locally, from some 43 turbines scattered across their fields – they don’t need the major utilities anymore (read: they are fine without coal or nuclear power).

Incidentally, another rigorously researched Greenpeace report asserts that India can have 92% of its energy needs met from renewable sources by 2050. Germany increased the share of its electricity produced from renewable sources to 25% in 2012 from 6.3% in 2000, and has already made investments to make this 35% by 2020. We have far more MW (megawatt) of renewables at our disposal than Germany. So why can’t we? Who stands to benefit if India doesn’t pursue this option and goes for expensive nuclear energy and dirty coal power instead?

he shenanigans of the coal lobby

But the frightening reality is that we are going all out for coal, even when it’s clear that it’s a fuel we neither need nor want but are merely addicted to for the present. And this addiction is partly by design. Why were so many coal blocks given away for free to private players, many of whom had no background in power generation or even manufacturing? Why were more coal blocks allotted than were needed to meet our production targets as per the 11th Plan? Why were private players allowed to set up so many coal-powered thermal power plants (71 in water-scarce Vidarbha alone, but that’s another story for another day) without any prior infrastructure or arrangement for coal supply?

One answer: it’s an old ploy employed by India Inc. Once you’ve already set up a hundred coal-powered power plants, then you can always talk about ‘demand’ and ‘shortfall’ and pressure the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) into clearing more coal blocks. This was how the No Go zones – areas of dense forest cover, tiger corridors and bio-diversity hotspots – which the MoEF and the coal ministry had provisionally agreed on in 2010, were scuttled by the latter under pressure from the industry lobby.

The establishment of No Go zones was a brilliant idea. In one stroke, it would have resolved the uncertainty over environmental clearance for every individual mining project, while at the same time securing India’s basic environmental objectives such as keeping tiger territories inviolate and protecting reserve forests.

Does anyone remember the hue and cry that was raised when it was reported in 2005 that tigers had been wiped out of the Sariska reserve? Everybody, including, presumably, the tiger-loving, patriotic managements of corporate groups like the Adanis, the Tatas, Jindals, Bhushan, Reliance, Hindalco, Vedanta, and Arcelor Mittal must surely have been saddened by the dwindling numbers of India’s national animal. There are barely 1,700 of them left according to a 2010 estimate from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).

Yet these corporates are at the forefront of coal mining projects that spell doom for not one, not two, but at least ten tiger reserves in central India. All the coal fields in this region are in close proximity to the tiger reserves. Not just the mining activity, but also the infrastructure that goes with mining – a road and rail network, at the minimum – will destroy tiger corridors (between two reserves) and fragment their forest habitat in such a way that the reserves will no longer be able to sustain a tiger population.

But those who spend all their time thinking about how to make money tend to have a narrow kind of personality that simply has no mind-space for realities that cannot be processed through profit-loss filters. Some of these businessmen even cynically used the long blackouts on July 30-31 caused by multiple grid failure (which had nothing to do with a shortfall in coal supply) to lobby for environmental clearances for more coal blocks and coal mining projects. But the fact remains that the MoEF has given enough clearances to exceed our coal production targets right up to 2017.

In any case, our coal reserves (the ones that are economically viable for mining) will run out in 40 years. As of today, India has already lost 70% of its forest cover. If we went ahead and extracted all the coal we can mine, we would have finished off much of the remaining forest cover too [please note: in carbon terms, there is no comparison between afforestation initiatives (‘forests’ planted by man) and the native forests with their richness in carbon-trapping bio-mass. Afforestation can never match the carbon density and biodiversity of a destroyed native forest].

De-allocate the ‘coalgate’ mining blocks

There are three solid reasons for de-allocating the 150-odd coal blocks sanctioned under coalgate and putting a permanent moratorium on any fresh allocations.

First, the private players have already made their money. In fact, the CAG reports says that only one of the 57 blocks allotted to the private sector has been developed, which means that most of them have not spent money on developing the mines allotted to them, as they should have, as per Plan projections. In an insightful article on First Post titled, ‘Who wins, who loses from Coalgate? The markets know’, Arjun Parthasarathy, the editor of the appropriately named investorsareidiots.com, explains how the beneficiaries of the coal allocations have raked it in – they cashed in on rising market valuations on the back of their acquisition of coal blocks and land. When their stock prices crashed post the CAG report, it was the shareholders who lost the most.

Two, many of these mines are in No Go zones or zones which should be No Go if you consider the environmental implications rationally. If we decide to leave the forest alone, we can look at alternative renewable sources plus encash the forest cover under REDD+.

Three, because the process of allocation was flawed, it’s only fair (to those who didn’t get any) that they are all cancelled. And once you cancel them, it’s a good opportunity to have a national debate on whether we shouldn’t put a lid on coal-mining in forest areas once and for all.

From ownership to trusteeship

There seems to be a belief prevalent among our ruling classes that the state owns all of the country’s forests and natural resources. Hello – it does not. Not only do the forests not ‘belong’ to the state, it does not even ‘belong’ exclusively to all human beings taken together. Other living species, passport-bearing citizens of what a Greenpeace campaign describes as ‘Junglistan’, also have a claim on it. We humans are at best trustees, and as a representative only of humans, the state, too, is a trustee of the forests and rivers that fall within the man-imagined borders of the man-made entity that has no basis in the natural world – the nation state, and the parasite whose host it is, the corporation.

We need to look at our forests and national resources through the prism of trusteeship and not ownership. The problem is: try telling that to the mandarins who run the show in the PMO and the commerce ministry.

The twin ideas of capitalist industrialisation and endless economic growth were born at a time in history when human beings had no conception of ‘limits’ to natural resources. It was assumed that raw materials can be extracted wherever found, ad infinitum.

Now the ability of technology to extract has far outstripped the ability of the planet to supply. And the large-scale destruction of the natural environment and phenomena like global warming are symptoms of this mismatch between the scale of technology and the scale of the planet. One sobering example of this mismatch is that humans have enough nuclear bombs to destroy the planet many times over, but no power to create another planet when this one is gone, eaten out from the inside by a particularly virulent strain of the human species that reports only to Capital and answers only to profit.

The deadly coalition

So, if we look at the big picture, and not just at short-term fixes, the writing is pretty much on the wall: we have to choose between coal and our tigers/forests. If we choose coal, we can enjoy our dirty electricity in the short term but we and our children (and those of you in your twenties now) will most definitely get screwed by environmental disasters in the long-term, and screwed in ways that many of us don’t yet have the imagination to fully comprehend.

So let the CAG and the Greenpeace report be a wake-up call. Read them both if you haven’t already. If there’s one message that leaps out from this exercise, it is this: India needs to decouple economic growth from fossil fuel, and most definitely from coal. And not only is this not difficult, it is also good business, and profitable in the long run. The only thing stopping us from taking this path is the all-powerful coalition of corporate giants and political dwarves. Corruption is just one name for this coalition and what it does. But it does not even begin to encapsulate the scale of damage that this coalition can unleash if left unchecked.

 

G Sampath is an independent writer based in Delhi. He is reachable at sampath4office@gmail.com

Can India Inc. face the truth about the Manesar violence?

In Business, Labour Rights, Management, Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on July 29, 2012 at 2:20 pm

It would be sad if the ghastly violence at Maruti Suzuki’s (MSIL) Manesar plant on July 18, 2012, in which a HR manager died, were to be understood simply as a ‘murderous workers’ vs ‘rational management’ kind of an incident. There is a history and a context to this violence, and how that is understood, and acknowledged, by India Inc. will indicate how serious we are about preventing such incidents in the future.

First of all, let’s begin with a game of call-a-spade-a-spade. When your profits go up by 2,200% over nine years (MSIL’s from 2001-02 to 2010-11), when your CEO’s pay goes up by 419% over four years (MSIL CEO’s from 2007-08 to 2010-11), when you get a 400% increase in productivity with just a 65% increase in your workforce (from 1992-2000), when your workers’ real wages increase by just 5.5% when the consumer price index rose by 50% (2007-11) (figures as reported by the researchers Prasenjit Bose and Sourindra Ghosh in The Hindu), when a worker can lose nearly half his salary for taking a couple of days leave in a month – you have a situation that free market economists are programmed not to register: extreme exploitation.

As per media reports, about 65% of MSIL’s workers in its Manesar campus are non-permanent – contract labour, apprentices, trainees, what have you. While the permanent worker gets a maximum of Rs17000 per month, the contract worker gets a maximum of Rs7000. The CEO gets a little more, about Rs.2.45 crore per annum (and this is a 2010-11 figure). And unlike the worker, who gets only two 7.5 minute tea/toilet breaks during an eight-hour shift, and has to run 150 metres to pick up his tea and snack, run another 400 metres to the toilet, drink tea and piss at the same time, holding his cup in one hand and you-know-what in the other, and run back to the assembly line before the seven minutes are up (as otherwise he could end up losing half a day’s pay), the top management does not, I think, get penalised if they spend more than 7.5 minutes at a time flooding the toilet.

The backstory

Apart from the physical and economic exploitation, what the workers were reacting to on July 18 was the sustained assault on their dignity. In 2011, there had been at least three confrontations – in June, September and October — between the workers and the management. All were totally non-violent. The workers had been agitating for an independent union in place of the ineffective ‘company union’ – the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (MUKU). After a lot of struggle, they registered the Maruti Suzuki Employees’ Union (MSEU) in October last year. But in the same month, the management reportedly got rid of the troublesome leadership of this union by offering them a VRS-type settlement.

The workers then formed a new union, the Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union (MSWU) with a new set of committee members. It was this union which had been negotiating with the management through 2012 – for wage increases, for transportation facilities, slowing down the robotic pace of work, and regularisation of leave benefits.

But with the MSWU apparently making little headway in the negotiations, discontent was simmering among the workers. And on July 18, when a floor supervisor allegedly misbehaved with a Dalit worker (Jiyalal), and instead of the supervisor getting pulled up, the worker got suspended, the new union was expected to deliver – to get Jiyalal reinstated. And when it began to look like they wouldn’t be able to, violence broke out.

The management has said that the workers unleashed the violence. The workers say that the management instigated it by getting hundreds of bouncers to attack the workers, who responded to that attack. But nobody seems to know what exactly happened. The truth might be closer to what a labour activist describes as a combination of karna, karwana and hone dena.

The permanently temporary worker

At the heart of this whole mess is India Inc.’s love for contract labour. My research tells me that manufacturing cars is not a seasonal enterprise – it happens round the year; nor is assembling a car in a factory incidental to the making of a car – it is not like gardening or mopping the factory floor; nor is it something that can be done with a few dozen workers. According to the law of the land – the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, and Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Central Rules, 1971, it is illegal to employ contract labour where “work is perennial and must go on from day to day”, “where the work is necessary for the work of the factory”, and “where the work is sufficient to employ considerable number of whole time workmen.”

It is the employer’s responsibility to follow the law, and the government’s responsibility to ensure that it is not violated. Not even the MSIL management can deny that they have been using temporary workers for permanent, core, production work. And this is not something that happens in this one plant of Maruti Suzuki. In the entire NCR region – in Manesar, Gurgaon, Faridabad, Ghaziabad, Noida – where there are thousands of factories of all sizes that carry out manufacturing work round the year, the average percentage of permanent workers in the total workforce is 15%. About 85% of the workforce is made up of non-permanent labour. And non-permanent labour includes contract workers, apprentices, trainees, etc. — add all of them and the percentage of temporary workers becomes as high as 95% in many factories. And these workers remain ‘temporary’ for years and years. I guess you could say that corporate India’s favourite worker is the permanently temporary one.

It wasn’t always this bad. The percentage of contract labour as a proportion of the total workforce doing core manufacturing work has been steadily rising since 1991, the year liberalisation began, and today, the informalisation and fragmentation of what used to be formal or organised labour has reached absurd levels. What this means, in human terms, for the workers, is exploitation of a kind that is not much different from slave labour.

To take a simple example, many factories have what is called the ‘night shift’ and the ‘full night shift’. The ‘night shift’ is from 9am to 1am and the ‘full night shift’ is from 9am to 5 am, resuming again at 9am. Yes, 16-hour and 20-hour shifts are pretty common in the NCR, about as common as the rampant violation of labour laws. And yet, we never hear about the appalling condition of India’s working class, or about how India Inc. routinely breaks the nation’s labour laws with impunity and gets away with it. Or is it possible that this is how we want most of our fellow Indians to live? We seem to care more about one Indian winning an Olympic gold than 700 million Indians living like insects in a drain. All we hear, instead, is how ‘labour law reforms’ are necessary to improve the ‘investment climate’.

Before and after Manesar

Such extreme exploitation is bound to trigger unrest at some point, and the Manesar violence is only the latest in a long series of worker conflagrations that we have seen in the past decade – in Honda Motors, Rico Auto, Orient Craft, EIRO, Pricol and many others. And they are not exclusive to NCR – similar unrest has been seen in other parts of the country as well, and they are only set to spread even more. There are four simple take-aways from all of this:

One: the growing irrelevance of the union. The workers’ unions can only represent the permanent workers. The vast majority of the workers are temporary ones, and the union means little to them, as it does not represent them. The union has traditionally been a management tool to control the workers. But in this scenario, where the union has little leverage, the management either has to play it straight (pay fair wages, give decent working conditions and benefits) or call bouncers and goons to control the workers.

Two: there is a clear nexus between the state and the corporate managements. The two have come together to maximize the exploitation of the worker. Haryana, where Manesar is located, has not even bothered to constitute the legally mandated board that is supposed to oversee the enforcement of the Contract Labour Act. The labour department is conveniently understaffed, and the cops, like cops everywhere, protect the exploiter from the exploited.

According to the workers, not just cops, but also bouncers, local goons, private security agencies, intelligence agencies (take a wild guess who put out the story about the ‘Naxal hand’ in the incident), and even the local village headmen (many of whom are huge beneficiaries of the recent industrialisation of the area – having made money from selling part of their land holdings, from renting out accommodation to workers, from getting into the transportation business, ferrying goods and material to and from the factories, as labour contractors, and other kinds of ‘middleman’ services) have been enlisted to ‘fix’ the ‘troublesome’ workers.

Three: the average factory worker in the NCR today, particularly in Manesar, is a new breed. Corporate India is very clear what it wants: absolute control over the Indian worker. But factory workers of today are not like those workers of 20-30 years ago. They are mostly ITI-trained diploma holders, young, in their twenties, mobile-savvy, net-savvy, and don’t have the time for good old ‘Down with Capitalism’ kind of sloganeering. They don’t care for the ‘communist’ stuff any more than your standard issue MBA. Though they have been hired as contract labour, unlike, say, construction workers, they are not from dirt poor backgrounds. Many are from lower-middle or middle-middle class families; they are exposed to the mall-bound luxuries of Shining India, and they want their rightful share of the GDP they busted their ass to produce. And: they care about their dignity more than they care about their jobs, and that’s easy, because they don’t really have a job anyway – they are temporary workers hired by a contractor, see?

And when such a worker is pushed to breaking point – not just worked to the bone, but taunted and humiliated, he is liable to lash out blindly. And when that happens, you get what happened at MSIL’s Manesar plant last week. It is not a rational or premeditated action – they gained nothing from it. Such violence serves no purpose. In fact, most of them are now busy hiding from the cops. But that is the nature of a rebellion – it is not calculated, it is not rational. And that is how we must understand the Manesar eruption: as a workers’ revolt.

Four: Capitalism is not sustainable without an independent union. If you look at the so-called golden period of capitalism in the 20th century, the US after the New Deal, up to the time Reagan and Thatcher came on the scene, it was a period marked by strong independent unions that managed to get the workers a decent standard of living, and Capital was forced to keep its ‘social contract’, as it were, with Labour. But then, this period, from the 1940s to the early 1980s, was also the period when communism had to be kept at bay; it was the period when capitalists had to show the world that capitalism is a better system for everyone (and not just capitalists) than any other system.

But today, of course, there is no alternative to capitalism, or so the masters of the universe want us to believe. And they also want us to believe there is no need for an independent union because they have a right to squeeze the worker as much as they want, and can. But history – and countless management studies – has shown time and again that a union which enjoys the confidence of the workers is the best tool that management can ever have to ‘control’ the workers. Hire temporary workers, take the union out of the picture – well, you’ll rake in super-profits for a while, but you’re going to have to pay a heavy price later in terms of worker unrest, and the kind of incident we saw at Manesar last week.

Yes, it is true that India’s labour legislation right now is a total mess. We have about 55 central labour laws and more than a 100 state laws, and they are all mostly observed in the breach. It is also argued that these laws make it unreasonably difficult to lay off a worker, and this is cited as the reason why employers want to keep their permanent workers to the bare minimum. The legislation in question here is the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, which requires companies employing more than 100 workers to seek government approval before firing anybody or closing down.

While this provision should be debated, with equal participation from all the stakeholders, India Inc. needs to look at it less as an unpleasant provision to be eliminated or circumvented, and more as a necessary reminder that a business enterprise always has a social dimension that is as important as profit, and which it ignores at its own peril. Trample on workers’ livelihood and dignity, and your profit is basically blood money – it won’t say so in the balance sheet or the P&L statement, but it will show up somewhere, later, if not sooner. It could be the money you pay to bouncers and private security agencies; or the money you spend on surveillance equipment; it could be an expensive lockout; or it could be the brain tumour caused by all the curses of your downsized workforce; or it could even be the death of one of your managers.

Instead of shedding crocodile tears about the worsening ‘investment climate’, the oligarchs who make up Indian Inc. and their MBA underlings would do well to engage in some soul-searching. For a change, they can ask themselves: Should I continue to treat the Indian worker simply as a cost factor that has to be reduced to zero, or can I treat them with a little more respect, so that they too can live, and work, with dignity?

 

G Sampath is an independent writer based in Delhi. He is reachable at sampath4office@gmail.com