Tuesday, 31 August, 2010

Why does the universal become the peculiar in India?

An article in today’s FT (Search for a workable solution by Amy Kazmin) says, “Not every Indian company looks to the state to churn out the skilled manpower it requires. Larsen & Toubro, India’s largest engineering and contracting compnay, tries to bridge the skills gap with seven Construction Skills Training Institutes it runs across India… Yet L&T has struggled to find enough recruits, given the deep disdain for manual labour embedded in Hinduism’s hierarchical caste system. ‘It is not attractive because of the physical content of the job,’ says Mr Jayakumar. ‘There is a social aspect also; this will take time to change.’”

In a country where people carry human excreta for a living, why is Jayakumar feeding this rubbish and why is Kazmin swallowing it?

Anyway, I am yet to hear of any society that (as a whole) prefers manual labour to desk jobs. So why blame Hinduism for something universal?

And is there no chance that L&T’s curriculum or marketing is at fault?

Elsewhere, the article says, “In reality (…) corporate executives have quickly found that progress depends on the attitude of the training centre’s principals – most of whom are risk-averse career civil servants who still report to a sclerotic state bureaucracy.

Ms Gautam acknowledges that ‘there are teething problems’. At her training institute, for example, she has proposed letting hair and beauty students take commercial customers in their training salon, which would generate revenue to cover ongoing expenditure, such as hiring a technician to maintain the centre’s 100 computers. However, the idea has met with fierce resistance. ‘The principals are scared,’ she says. ‘For them, commerce is a very dirty word.’”

Kazmin obviously doesn’t think anything may be learnt by talking to any of those principles. For example, the principle in that particular school may have been reluctant to start commercial activities because that would mean competing with the very parlours that employ her students after they pass out. Or she may be plain lazy and not want any extra work.

Or she may believe, as other academics do, that places of learning should not get into commerce because there are potential conflicts of interest. There is nothing utopian in this. Many businesses would want the status quo and want academics to approve, if not praise, whatever they are doing; yet business as a whole benefits when research breaks the status quo, doesn’t it?

Anyway, why can’t the students simply be apprentices in regular parlours and pay more fees? Doesn’t that happen in many schools, including business schools? Why does the school have to be a shop?

My problem is not with this particular institute, of course, but with this type of one-sided reporting about the Third World, which by giving half or quarter of the picture only harms business. But somehow business likes it, or market forces should have brought in better journalism.


Arya Chatterjee said...

The problem is not that people don't like manual labor jobs, its that the manual labor jobs don't pay very well. If you do an honest days work in the west, you get paid close to 70 dollars. In India, you might make 2 or 3 dollars.
As a civil engineer graduating from a good college, you might make Rs 10,000 a month starting out. As a s/w professional you stand to make Rs 25,000 a month. Its economics, not wanting to sit in a room. That is a bonus. When I used to work for a s/w company, we had a batch of people joining who used to work for engineering firms and were transitioning to s/w. They all wanted to come to s/w because of the pay, not because it was less menial.
The culture of commercialism has nothing (or perhaps very little) to do with the lack of industrial research in Indian institutions. In my opinion, it has got to do with trust - whether Indian businesses trust that research. During my PhD I did a couple of these "industrial" projects. One was for this candle company and we learned later that the company implemented our recommendation. They paid us a little money for the research and we used to buy some equipment. In India, the company will say, unless the Americans say that this research is worth anything, we will not do anything new. They want proven technology, licensed or better still stolen. No R&D to generate new technology - be it themselves or be it from the colleges. A great difference between India and the US is this technological innovation. Even though there is a big market for such things, new technology come out of only a few houses in India - perhaps the Tata's build a Nano once in 30-40 years. Whereas Bajaj has never come out with a safer, more comfortable model for the Auto Rickshaw in lord knows how many decades. Isn't there a huge market for those things? There has been tremendous innovation in the internal combustion engine - have our cars imbibed those?
I was looking for a mechanical bull a few months ago. It will be a boon for India where most people still use bulls to till the land. A mechanical bull is much cheaper to maintain. Why are they not common in India? Marketing? Availability? Initial expenditure? Lack of knowledge?
My wife tells me that the biggest reason people are poor in the villages is because they are lazy. They would rather steal or hoodwink than do an honest days work. Perhaps you can blame it on education. After all, you can claim, they don't understand that if they steal from the employer, they loose a steady stream of income. But its an interesting perspective. We of the middle class have always felt sorry for the "villagers", but perhaps they are no less to blame for their own plight.

Nabanita & Pabitra said...

I guess we agree on the first point, though I still want to see the society which, all else being equal, prefers manual labour to desk jobs.

About research, I suppose businesses everywhere prefer status quo to tackling innovation. I was not comparing Indian and American companies' attitudes to research but comparing business's and acadmia's attitude, in general, to the status quo.

As for villages, I was wondering the other day: Why do they still use wooden wheels in carts? Wouldn't pneumatic tyres be better? Surely they have seen tyres.