Unlike an operation to catch rabbits, trapping an elephant calls for expertise over enthusiasm. Those who hunt rabbits are rarely able to rope in elephants.

SUBROTO BAGCHI

PUBLIC SERVANT – AUTHOR - ENTREPRENEUR

Keynote Address of Subroto Bagchi at Samagam 2020

Keynote Address of Subroto Bagchi at Samagam 2020

Keynote Address of Subroto Bagchi at Samagam 2020

Pradan

27 Nov 2020

Thank you everyone for giving me the honour of addressing Samagam’s 2020 conclave which brings in its fold one of the best networks of civil society organisations in the country.

I am particularly delighted that we are here to facilitate the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals through collaboration between Government, business, and the civil society.

When I read the programme outline, I was very happy with the way the organisers have articulated the key issue for all of us to dwell on: what will we learn from the pandemic as the post COVID world unfolds; will we move on from the new spirit of collaboration and settle back into the old ways, of seeking to individually move faster than go farther?

These are very deep and relevant questions to our work today. We are here to discuss SDGs, which are very specific and zoomed in. As we do that, I encourage us to keep the big picture in our head. Let everything we discuss in the next two days be informed by that big picture.

And what is that big picture?

I believe, In the shadow lines of COVID 19, it is about worker wages and worker housing.

Let me share with you why and how these issues are foundational to our work at this conclave.

The human disaster wrought by COVID-19 points to the underbelly of our collective failure. The mass migration that took place in the days and months following the lockdown was nothing short of a refugee crisis of historical proportion. Yet no one was willing to call it that. Yes, it was a refugee crisis.

But, as a nation, we have already forgotten the images of men, women and babies fleeing their workplace, walking, cycling, hitchhiking, riding trucks and trailers with a backpack and a bundle of cloth, getting hounded, insulted, attacked and rejected along the way, sometimes delivering babies, sometimes dying unaccounted and sometimes being subjected to dousing with insecticide and disinfectants while crossing State borders.

As we are sinking into a state of selective memory, we are, once again, moving on from two issues that we have always marginalised – wages we pay to our workers and related to it, the housing they can afford in their chosen place of work.

The fundamental difference between all of us gathered here this morning and those who reverse migrated in distress is this basic fact: when the lockdown was announced, you and I stayed on where we did, because we had a place to stay, because we could pay for it.  

The refugees of COVID-19 could not afford to pay for housing even if there was housing to be had. Many places, the housing meant sleeping on the floor of an undocumented factory that closed down. They lost their livelihoods and along with it, the ability to stay in the place of their work. Sometimes, the local people turned suspicious that these were the people who would spread COVID. In many cities, the migrants were persecuted. These people didn’t even know the meaning of a virus. They were gripped with fear of danger from fellow man. They had to flee.

This disaster impacted millions of Indians who have the same right to this land we call our own.

The telling images of people exhausted, sleeping on a railway track, run over by a train, the picture of hordes of returnees being doused in insecticide while crossing over to their own State, the pictures of women delivering babies on Shramik Express trains, of people killed in tractor trailer accidents and the haunting image of a young girl who carried her ailing father on a bicycle for 1200 kilometres have a deep, unsolved, shameful narrative of two things:  

Firstly, we do not pay our workers sustainable wages. Secondly, we do not concern ourselves with where they live and how they live. Talking about wages, we accept the term “minimum wage” when it comes to them. Why minimum? Why not fair, why not reasonable, why not decent, why not human? How many of us would like to be paid minimum wages? How likely are we to feel proud if our children came to report to us that they have just landed a minimum wage job?

With minimum wage for our maximum people, worker housing conveniently becomes not our, but their problem.  

Minimum is not merely an amount; it is a mindset.

The work we do today and tomorrow at this conclave and the work we continue to do thereafter, must be informed, and energized by a sense of magnamity, of maximalism, of generosity, of inclusivity. Our minds must be set towards more than minimum.

Friends, India will be 75 in a matter of two more years. We had a long time to set our house in order, set our ambition right and for all that we need benchmarks. Without the benchmarks, we can be falsely self-congratulatory. We can wallow in comfortable mediocrity.

But acknowledging and accepting a benchmark is an act of courage. Today, let me offer you one of many possible benchmarks that we can set for our work at this conclave.

In 1996, I was sent to Japan to receive training in Total Quality Management by Wipro Chairman Azim Premji. As part of the training, I visited many Japanese factories and what struck me was that most Japanese manufacturers largely employed a workforce consisting of high school pass-outs. This was a far cry from the 1950s when they were rising from the ashes with a largely illiterate workforce who were paddy field workers before coming to a factory.

From Toyota to Toto, all the world-class manufacturing companies I visited, at the entry levels, largely employed youth, fresh from high school. I was quite fascinated because they, unlike our factory workers, looked healthy, clean, well dressed, and confident. I was curious to know their wage structure. Everywhere I went, I asked the host company, how much money they paid these workers? But more importantly, I wanted to know, what was the ratio between how much these workers were paid, in comparison to the General Manager of the plant? Everywhere I went, I learnt that ratio of earning between an entry-level worker and the head of the plant was 1:6.  

Can you guess what the ratio is in our country?

In India, it might as well be 1: infinity.

Even today, a young man who has finished his ITI education and starts his career in an auto-plant, would at best make Rupees 12,000 a month and the general manager of the plant would make probably more than Rupees 300,000 a month. May be way more.

That ratio would be worse, if the worker is someone who is conveniently labelled as “unskilled”, or an “apprentice”, in which case the young person would probably get less than Rupees 8000 a month and would not even be on the payrolls of the company where he or she works.

Where can people live when they earn 8,000, 10,000 or 15,000 rupees in Mumbai, NCR, Bengaluru or Chennai? Or Pune, Surat and Secunderabad? They must live in slums. When virus and violence hit, they must run from the slum.  

In 2016, I visited a skill development centre in Odisha that was training school dropouts in making leather products, with the plan that they could work at a leather park in Haryana. I decided to visit the leather park, to see the working condition that awaited the trainees in Odisha. The management at the establishment was perplexed to see me. They had no affinity towards the workers from Odisha because they were not “their” workers. They were employed by labour contractors and thus, the employer was not invested in them and their wellbeing as long as they simply showed up at the factory gate.

After visiting the factory, I went to see the place where the workers lived. In the one I visited, there were more than 150 men and women who were in a three-story building that was probably all of 15,000 square feet in size. The 150 residents could cram in there because at any time, one third of them was away in shifts.

In that building, I met with a group of young women workers about the challenges of leaving home, thousands of kilometres away, in search of work in an alien land. I was expecting to hear from them about the long hours at work, the difficulty of food, about cultural differences, and safety. Instead, they said, the biggest challenge for them was water. In Bahadurgarh, the drinking water they got came from borewells that poured out hard, putrid water. Back in the villages where they came from, they did not have enough to eat but the water was drinkable. Here, they have food but no drinkable water.

The wage disparity and dismal worker housing situation in our country are conveniently forgotten at all levels. I want to ask ourselves a hard question. Would the refugee crisis of 2020 have happened if India did not have wage disparity and would people have fled the cities in the aftermath of the lockdown if they had humane housing in the place of their work?  

Many of you had a sibling, a cousin or a child living in Mumbai and Delhi and Chennai and Bangalore when the lockdown happened. But they stayed where they were. It was not a humanitarian crisis for them. It is true that some came back to their hometowns after a few weeks but even that was not an act of desperation unlike the millions who overnight became refugees in their own country. They were putting themselves in harm’s way, making a long, hazardous trek back in search of security, to return to a land that wasn’t always happy to see them because they were invariably suspected to be carrying the virus to the village.

Friends, nearly 75 years after independence, we have many things to congratulate ourselves for but unfortunately, the things we can claim credit for, mostly impact and stop with the urban rich and at best, the middle-class Indians.

94% of Indians work in the “informal sector” – that phrase sanitises many inconvenient things. For example, informal sector means these workers get paid in cash, most are seasonally employed, they have no healthcare or social security, and because they work in small, undocumented work places, no one really is invested in the human capital development of these people. These are the people, whether they are migrant or not, who must become refugees in their own land whenever a disaster like COVID-19 strikes.

We have had 75 years to engineer a nation that would not make its own people flee from place to place in fear and desperation.  

Yet, it happened.

And in it is painted the report card of every politician, bureaucrat, businessman and educated person who has benefitted from being an Indian.

The time has come to ask ourselves, can we make a significant departure from the past, can we build another India and would 25 years be good enough time?

Can we fix the wage disparity and the housing issue in the next 25 years to make this country’s worker as capable and cared for as the ones in Japan and Singapore, South Korea or the United States?

History bears testimony to such transformation. Japan achieved it in roughly 25 years. The worker in Japan in 1950s was an illiterate farm hand and in 1980s, CEOs of global companies, particularly from the west, started looking at the same Japanese worker as an icon. With dialogue over debate, with alignment over expediency India at 100 can be a very different nation but that will require a massive shift from the way we have looked at the issue of development.

It is time to talk about ideas like doubling the earning potential of every worker in India, across sectors. It is time to say, why can we not have the best worker housing in the world, not farther away from the farthest Metro station but in the vicinity of power so that motorcades can go past without having to look away? Due to the many recent global dynamic, we heard the rallying cry to create an Atma Nirbhar Bharat. In today’s world, Atma Nirbhar Bharat, from space to defence, from farm to factory, cannot be built on an ill-fed, ill-clad, anxious, afraid workforce. The edifice of self-reliance requires the sinews of a strong workforce. Our workers are not the shadow, they are the light.

Friends, before I say goodbye for now, I want to remind us that the Sustainable Development Goals were created to get leaders to understand what should be our priority; what is truly relevant and what is fundamental to life and living.

They are designed to give us a shared vision, a framework for us in governments, businesses, and the social sectors to build alignment.

The SDGs were not meant to be a common minimum programme.

They were not meant for us to move people from poverty to presentable poverty.

It is time to recognise the COVID-19 triggered mass exodus as the metaphoric point of departure for a nation that must articulate a aspirational point of arrival; one that makes your and my life worthy of the place we are occupying today.

I wish all of you the very best for the proceedings for the next two days. As you delve into details, as you dive deep into the work of developing and implementing these SDGs, I hope that you will remember to step back and look at the big picture, to move your mind from minimalism to maximalism. Your work today and beyond has the potential to change the way generations of Indians live and work. I thank you in advance for everything that you are set out to do. 

Books

Constant Change
Sell: The Art, The Science, The Witchcraft

Articles

Work@Home: Finding the New Balance

The Times Of India - August 27, 2020

We Need 'Nano Unicorns' For India To Succeed

Outlook India - November 12, 2018

A Bridge called Hope

India Today - December 06, 2014

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