A Reuters (India) photograph (By Abhishek Chinnappa, Reuters / Monday, March 09, 2015) of a man in Bengaluru (Bangalore) pulling a load of cabbages to the market made me pause and ponder the implication of the situation. What place is there for this man and others like him in any economic plan? Especially the economic roadmap being crafted by the newly elected Indian government to bring India back to the path of growth from which the country has strayed over the past three years or so? Are they even a part of this plan? Or are they expected to rise in the tide of a “trickle down” effect?
From the photograph it is clearly evident that this is no lazy man and equally evident is the fact that he will succeed in making the trip to the market and probably go back for a few more such trips. At the end of the day, he will probably pocket a couple of hundred Rupees ($3 give or take), provided he has not had to bribe off local cops or pay “protection money” to local thugs to keep them from preventing him working in peace. By Indian standards this man is not poor. (The Government of India considers those spending over Rupees 32 ($0.50 approx.) a day in rural areas and Rs 47 ($0.80 approx.) in towns and cities as not poor!)
This is not a lone man. This is a typical man seen on the streets of India. Look behind him in the photo and you’ll notice another man carrying a heavy load on his head, probably also headed to the market. There are hundreds of millions of men and women like these on the streets of India, every day, working as hard as any human being physically can, in what would be considered inhuman conditions in the West, earning wages that barely enable them to sustain their lives.
The back-story of this photograph possibly goes like this. A trader bought a load of cabbages from a farmer in a nearby village and had them brought into the city by train. At the train station the trader hired this man and others like him to transport (word “transport” used very loosely, if you consider a rickety bicycle as appropriate transport means for several hundred kilos of produce) the produce to the nearby market. The farmer, the transporter and others in the supply chain probably made a pittance compared to what the trader pocketed after selling the produce at a premium price in the market.
It is most likely that the elected officials, for whom this man voted for, pass him by on the street on a regular basis, paying no heed to his plight or what it represents, namely blatant exploitation of a fellow human being. In today’s India, especially in India’s IT capital of Bangalore (the city of the man in the photo), millionaires and billionaires abound. The middle class has experienced a flourishing upward mobility in their living standards. Yet people like the man in the photo are left behind. The economic boom has not trickled down to him or his compatriots.
Men and women in India, like the man in the photo, do not need government handouts or charity. It is clear that they are hard workers. What they need are opportunities that allow their inherent abilities for hard work to generate wealth for themselves and the nation as a whole. What they need is:
1) A government (truly of the people – by the people and for the people), which takes occupational health, safety and labor laws seriously. A Government that mandates minimum acceptable standards as rights for workers in India. Once established, these laws and standards have to be rigorously enforced with stiff penalties for non-compliance.
Yes, that would mean that the costs would go up and the unfortunate traders employing these people will have less of a return on investment. However, I am without doubt that the margins being enjoyed currently are more than sufficient to withstand an adverse impact on costs. Besides, these cost pressures will force the trader to rethink his supply chain and use different modes of transportation rather than human “beasts of burden”.
One could then argue that the man in the photo would lose his job. Quite possibly true. However, said reforms, in isolation, without being a part of a total comprehensive plan, would be mere populist posturing. India has had enough of that already. Additional elements of a comprehensive economic reform plan would also have to be in motion. That brings us to the second need.
2) Mandatory and truly free education for all citizens. No nation has become a superpower without a backbone of an educated populace. When the man in the photo is able to make a decent wage and is able to afford a pair of shoes and feed his family properly, only then will he be able to think of having his children attend school. What do they do now? In order to supplement his meagre income they probably work as domestic help or at a factory as child laborers. The Times of India (Oct 11, 2014) reports that as per the 2011 census the “Union labour department statistics point to 249,432 child labourers” in the very state of which Bangalore is the capital.
Education empowers, opens eyes, eradicates prejudice and Neanderthal-like mindsets about women and their position in society (I am thinking of the opinions and views of the rapists and the lawyers heard in the BBC documentary, “India’s daughter”) and provides for opportunities to be employed in higher skilled jobs.
3) Curbing the unbridled power and political patronage of the labor unions. Indian labor unions are essentially extensions of one or the other major political parties in the country and are used as vote garnering machines and “muscle” of the parties they represent. They are the engine that provides the backdrop of sheer number of “warm bodies” (essential elements to demonstrate “mass support” and electoral success) at rallies or protest movements that are organized by their parent party.
The publication, Business Standard reports (March 19, 2014), that a short distance north of Bangalore, the city as the man in the photo, the labor union at Bombay Rayon’s textile processing plant demanded a wage increase to the extent of Rupees 22,000 (Approx. $400) a month. While that may seem to be a paltry sum in terms of US$, compare that to the $3 per day the man in the photo makes or to the fact that that this increase is probably more than twice the current daily wage at the factory. Does this remind anybody of the labor union posturing and demands in the US automotive industry? The end result was that the US government eventually had to bail out bankrupt automotive companies.
Labor most certainly needs organized representation. Without that we would not have had the 8-hour workday or the numerous other benefits that we in the West take for granted today. However, unreasonable, irrational, and politically self-seeking, and in the case of India recently, murderous labor activism, does not have a place in a potential super power.
4) Government leadership should hold all elected and appointed officials answerable to the people and accountable to their sworn oaths of office. Corruption in India is an open secret. It is simply considered as a factor that one has to plan for in transacting with any level of Government. The bureaucratic machine behaves as an oligarchy as they wield considerable power in the British and Soviet style systems to which India was beholden to until liberalization efforts started in 1991. Power breeds corruption. National outrage against corruption in recent years has caused the Central Government to pay heed and take some superficial measures for the sake of appearance. However, the measures need to have more teeth and need to go much deeper.
The starting point should be to remove all elected officials who have criminal records, pending or prior. For example, the newly elected government is reported as having 13 cabinet members facing criminal charges, including rape, attempted murder and criminal intimidation. People with criminal, anti-social and Neanderthal-like mentality in positions of power are more abundant in the governments at the state and local levels. This should no longer be acceptable. The Indian Supreme Court has made it quite clear that such elements do not belong in any level of government. When criminals, rapists, thugs, alleged or otherwise, are allowed to hold positions of power, there can be no favorable outcome. Expecting these individuals to rise above their existing base moral standards and act in the interest of their constituents is simply naïve. These individuals strive for self-enrichment through sheer and blatant misuse of power of their office. For these and other like-minded individuals, the elected office is seen as a path to considerable personal wealth.
If India is to assume the mantle of a superpower by 2050, as many are predicting, then these four basic goals should be an integral part of a comprehensive revitalization and reform plan. Absent these elements, the title of “superpower” shall be missed or if attained by chance through some miraculous alignment of other macro-economic factors, will remain a hollow achievement. Neglecting these will most likely ensure that India joins the other Asian paper tiger nations, like Thailand, Indonesia, etc, that showed incredible promise in the decade of the 90’s of the past century, but stumbled.
There is much to be done in India in order for the country to become a true super power by 2050. The road is not going to be free of hurdles, setbacks and pains. However, with a government that is truly “of the people, by the people and for the people” and with the support of an increasingly educated populace, India should be able to rise to its true potential through the collective participation of the hard working men and women who are today represented by the man in the photo. Without that, India will be hard pressed to share the podium of superpowers along with US or the other Asian up and coming superpower, China. The “Make in India” rhetoric of the newly elected government will remain only an empty slogan like for example, “India Shining” from the not to distant past.