Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Where we stand

Where we stand
By Narendra Luther

Robert Orme was a civil servant of the East India Company in India in the 18th century. He wrote a history of India called ‘Historical Fragments’ which was first published in 1782. In that he observed that two English sawyers did the work of 32 Indians. For his calculation he made allowances ‘for the difference of dexterity and the advantage of European instruments’. He went on to say that had the Indians been given the instruments used by the Europeans they would have scarcely been able to wield them.’ In modern terminology he was saying that the productivity of an Indian was less than seven percent of a European.

This may sound preposterous today when we notice the great demand for Indians abroad particularly in the field of IT. Only the other day a friend of mine, who is a well - known consultant told me that he attended campus recruitment in the Cornell University in the United States. He found that the American companies gave first preference to Indian students, second to the Chinese, and the last to Americans. But we have to compare the productivity of Indian in India with that of the European or American in his own country. According to my observation, the Indian productivity is very low. It is due largely to the lack of availability of tools which impart greater efficiency to the hand than that wields them. Most of our workers are still in the ‘craft’ stage. In other words, they depend upon their individual skills and the use of hand without supplementing them adequately with tools. Our labour is cheap because it is poorer in quality.

The Craft System

Some time ago when we were having our house painted, the workers covered their hands and faces with rags. In Europe and America their counterparts would use overalls for the body and gloves for their hands. The latter are imported from India and under prevalent regulations, they have to be discarded within a fortnight. Again, to paint the outside walls the contractor made a sort of platform and hung it with ropes from the top. The workers stood, sat or lay on that depending on the demands of the task and painted the walls. Four or five workers standing on the roof manipulated the platform. I looked at that spectacle and prayed for the safety of the workers. I also wondered how that sort of work would have been done in Europe or America. There, they would have had power- operated ladders or crane and workers would have been fully clad with paint-proof clothing and gloves for their hands. The painting would have been done mechanically and the whole job would have taken half a day for two men, compared to half a dozen men working for five days here.

Currently, I am getting more insights from watching the construction of a neighbour’s house. The steel rods for making pillars are cut by a chisel and hammer. Then two workers jump with their bums on the rods to bend them. Some of them are children not yet in their teens. It can be dangerous and can hurt them – and passers –by.

For the construction, the existing parapet wall about three feet height has to be demolished. Two young boys do that with hammers hardly bigger than what I have for driving nails in the walls. From the last ten days they are breaking the mortar. I have seen that sort of thing being done mechanically with giant hammers in two or three hours. We discussed this and it was argued that it was cheaper for the contractor to do the way he was doing it than to use some machinery of equipment to demolish it quickly. My calculation showed that it could be cheaper for him to do it mechanically.

Productivity & Capital-intensity

He can improve his productivity by improving the quality of the tools given to his workers. With improved productivity he can utilize his employees better. He can thus earn more and do the jobs faster. Productivity entails capital-intensity to begin with. But in the long run it pays its way. A recent study by McKenzie showed that the productivity of a Chinese worker is three to five times that of an Indian. It is worthwhile studying how they were able to achieve that standard since today we are in competition with China.

In the first half of the last century, the American genius Buckminster Fuller said about the American house building industry that it was like ‘manufacturing’ your own car in your garage by assembling different parts bought from different shops. He suggested the concept of pre- fabricated housing. According to that, main parts of the house including walls and windows and floors etc., are prefabricated according to a standard design. They are then brought to the site and the house gets ready in no time. He also suggested the concept of what he called a ‘dymaxion’ car and a ‘dymaxion’ house. His concept of the geodesic dome is well known. It can cut off the sun and rain and provide a hall without pillars. The concept has been used on a limited scale to house exhibitions. He said that he could cover the whole Sahara under a geodesic dome and make it more habitable and productive.

BPO ‘Islands’

We have however to see how productivity can be increased in small items of work and in small pieces. Productivity is not only better time-management, but also use of better implements. If that is done the inglorious equation of Robert Orme quoted above can be annulled if not reversed. If our Indians have shown better productivity abroad it is largely due to their ability to use the same tools which their counterparts do. Even in India we have islands of BPO where young men and women are performing better because they are cheaper in real terms than their counterparts abroad. Such island need to be multiplied and replicated in other fields and integrated with the ‘mainland’ so that our overall productivity increases. In our BPOs the same people are working who earlier did not appreciate the virtues of punctuality, value of time and the importance of self-confidence. In the new islands they are trained to appreciate the elementary virtues. The new names given to them are symbolic in more than one way. They virtually change their identity and set in motion a new ‘’virtuous cycle’.

Such attitudes need to percolate down to our contractors, labourers and lowest level workers who live in their own time capsule and cling to their orthodoxies. For example, they observe long period of mourning and celebrations because that is their inherited and prevalent culture. They can improve only if they know that the cost of such luxuries is loss of job. Those who are better placed and can set an example can provide a ‘demonstration’ effect.

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