Understanding India’s labour pain

M. Ramesh | Updated on: Mar 03, 2019
Title:  Jobonomics <br> Author: Goutam Das <br> Publisher: Hachette India <br> Price: Rs 599

Title: Jobonomics <br> Author: Goutam Das <br> Publisher: Hachette India <br> Price: Rs 599

Goutam Das

Goutam Das

The book, peppered with anecdotes, says that the jobs situation is more in the nature of an emerging crisis

Because the book begins with a line from Prime Minister Modi’s speech on employment, I thought it was essentially another Modi-basher, perhaps one that bemoaned how poorly the government fared in creating jobs. There are many such books floating around and I overcame the ‘oh, no, not one more’ feeling only because I had committed to sending in this review.

Just a few pages into the book I realised it was nothing of that sort at all. In fact, the author at the outset mentions that while there could be high unemployment in the country, there is no “job crisis” as such, even if there could be a “wage crisis”. Reading further put me straight into what the book is all about — it is not about a current job crisis, but about an emerging one.

The work is impressive. It is based on the author checking out innumerable published reports in the public domain, including Annual Reports of companies, speeches, court judgements and surveys, but equally on the author’s personal interaction with scores of people — politicians, academics and job seekers. This is a happy contrast with an unfortunate current trend, where armchair authors cut-paste and stitch a ‘book’. That is the first point on which the author deserves to be commended.

The second is the manner in which it is written. The book is full of anecdotal information, each written as a human interest story which is later linked to jobs. For example, the introduction starts with the case of Rashmita Mohanta, who leaves her home and hearth in Odisha to take up a job in a knitwear factory in faraway Tirupur, Tamil Nadu. Incidentally, the book also ends with a later development in her life, as an entrepreneur. Rashmita’s is among the few stories, recounted by the author, which has a happy ending. While the others are not exactly sob-stories, they are telling examples of the unfolding employment crisis.

Coming to the core of the book, while it cannot be said that there is a major revelation hitherto missed by everybody, the known truths are driven home, firmly into consciousness, by the fund of anecdotes and data.

The author has divided the book into three parts, the first of which deals with the demand for jobs. Why aren’t there enough jobs going around?

Stifling rules

The historic reasons are rules and procedures, laws that can anytime come back and bite you (and often do), and significant productivity gains in the industry causing the need for fewer jobs, but also current and emerging reasons such as changes in technology, exports-hampering de-globalisation and the new (and scary) advent of artificial intelligence.

The story of SLN Technologies of Bengaluru illustrates how one often ‘stubs his toe on the brick of Fate’ (to borrow from PG Wodehouse). The company should be employing 1,000 people, instead of the 80 it does now. SLN, which builds defence and aerospace products, bought a piece of land for its factory but couldn’t build it because there happened to be a temple nearby and the villagers wouldn’t allow any construction in its vicinity. The company ultimately resolved the issue by gifting a chunk of the land to the villagers, but the lost time meant loss of orders and the company remains small. Similarly, Shivashakti Sugar too tripped on an unseen wire of law, when the Karnataka government revived another defunct sugar mills in the region, triggering off a seven-year-long litigation over the ‘15 km minimum distance’ requirement between two sugar plants.

The book goes on to describe how bots are massacring jobs, especially in the $33-billion BPO industry. It is just the beginning of a scary tale where ‘robotic process automation’ would inevitably have a machine do the job of many men and women.

There is an interesting twinning of agriculture and construction. Agriculture, mainly due to seasonality and vulnerability to a host of uncertain factors such as weather, pests and markets, is never easy — as Dinesh discovers. In the Murphy’s Law story, the 26-year-old decides to take a shot at agriculture, invests ₹40,000 to produce eggplants and comes a cropper because of a pest attack. After trying a few other vegetables, he is advised to cultivate fish, but just as the fish are coming up nice and good, one day he finds that a thief has emptied the tanks of all the fish.

Those tired of agriculture move to the cities for jobs, usually find the low-skill construction industry welcoming. But here again waits Fate with a sand-cosh — the industry is moving towards pre-cast, which requires far fewer people. The author stresses this point with the example of the Chennai-based Shobha Developers which has made a success of pre-cast buildings.

Supply constraints

Well, if that is the jobs scenario, what of supply of labour? The second part of the books deals with this, and speaks, again with anecdotes, the travails of businesses that find retaining labour a problem.

Shockingly poor education, accentuated by fake-degree teachers masquerading as real, is at the very bottom of this problem. However, the author shows, through the experiences of many other companies, that there are other problems too. Migrant workers longing to go back home is one —as in the case of Rashmita Mohanta. As for locals, many go home for festivals and decide to stay back. And, not surprisingly, many quit because the jobs don’t match their aspirations.

The third section speaks of the matrix of solutions. In the chapter titled ‘A Job for Narendra Modi’, there is fulsome praise for the Prime Minister, through the words of John Chambers, CEO of Cisco. “India has the best jobs strategy in the world,” the quote goes, touching upon skill development, start-up movement, smart cities and connectivity.

“I was amazed when I started meeting him three years ago, how good the man is,” says Chambers. The essence of this section is the entrepreneurship development, but also aspects like better rental housing for migrant workers, skilling and a re-look at labour laws, some of which are obvious.

“Modi has to gun for a very high rate of growth,” says the author.

The easy, story-telling manner of the book makes it for an interesting and informative read.

Meet the author

Goutam Das is a senior editor at Business Today. He has worked earlier with Financial Express, Deccan Chronicle, Hindustan Times, the New Indian Express and Dataquest. He is also a recipient of many awards for his reportage on employment, skills and man-machine conflict.

Published on March 03, 2019

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