Prabhudev Konana

Attempting to create jobs through inefficiencies, thus forming an illusion of social development, will only amount to seeking to maintain the status quo.

It is just over two decades since I left the public-sector Hindustan Photo Films (HPF) in Udhagamandalam in Tamil Nadu. HPF is now struggling to survive as digital technology continues to replace traditional film-based technology. Inefficiency thrived there and inferior technology made it worse. But inefficiencies did create jobs. Some of these jobs, however, maintained social norms that perpetuated injustice by setting aside certain tasks to certain sections of society. We need to take a closer look at the numerous jobs created through inefficiencies since they inadvertently maintain the status quo.

After initial training, I was posted to the silver recovery plant (SRP), among the least desired departments. But this was the best thing to happen because I experienced the friction between inefficiency and job-creation and between doing good and reinforcing social evil. To better understand the context, here is a simple description of the work environment.

One of the key inputs in making photo films is silver. Inferior technology produced lots of silver waste that was washed off to the SRP. Once the silver sludge was recovered, the effluents were let out to the effluent treatment plant (ETP). The process of recovering the silver sludge was largely a manual process ridden with inefficiency. During this process, the silver sludge often escaped into the ETP. Worse, when pipes broke, rich silver-bearing water often gushed straight into the ETP for days together. Domestic effluents from the HPF township were also pumped into the ETP. Sadly, the massive amounts of stench-filled ETP sludge contained traceable amounts of silver that had to be collected, stored, and processed for silver recovery. Put simply, handling this sludge was a dirty job. There was no mechanised way of doing it in the drying pits; it had to be done with shovels and buckets.

Since the ETP sludge was largely domestic waste, HPF employees would not touch it. However, the largely manual process was a potential source of employment. The task was outsourced to a private contractor who employed 10 to 15 men. They were paid wages based on the number of buckets of ETP sludge handled. To make matters worse, the ETP sludge attracted thousands of flies and produced an unbearable stench. Further, to reduce the volume, the ETP sludge was burned in open trays using charcoal, creating even harsher working conditions. Personally, it was difficult to watch these men handling this waste and to see them eating next to where they stored this sludge.

These contract labourers in their early 20s belonged to the lowest socio-economic background. They lacked the education or the skills to be employed for any other task. The nature of the work, handling domestic waste, reinforced and perpetuated a social stereotype.

I am reminded of an incident that occurred during my stint at HPF. It was a typical morning-rounds affair with my manager. We met an animated committee member of the local Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes welfare association. My manager asked him why he was upset. He pulled out two advertisements put out by HPF on two consecutive days — one read, “Scavengers Wanted: Reserved for SC/ST,” while the other said “Manager Wanted” but without any mention of reservation. The association was furious for obvious reasons that an undesirable job was being reserved for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes while the other job was not. My manager, who was a good friend of this gentleman, laughingly chided him in Tamil — “Do you expect someone wearing the sacred thread to come for a scavenger’s job?”

Being young and oblivious to the issues, I laughed. But much later, this incident made me recognise the subconscious perpetuation of deep-rooted beliefs that are often reflected in apparently innocuous advertisements and conversations. The good intentions of providing employment to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes assigned certain roles to certain sections of society.

Meanwhile, I proposed to my manager a clarifier that could prevent silver from escaping to the ETP. One day I heard whispering sounds outside my office door. I came out and saw all the contract workers with worried looks. I asked their leader what the matter was. In a halting and soft tone, he asked if it was true that they would lose their jobs. It did not immediately strike me why they were worried. They reminded me that I was trying to get a “machine” that would not need them to “manage” ETP sludge. Frankly, I had not thought about their jobs. But potentially the machine could replace them or reduce their income. It was devastating to realise that the colossal waste of resources involved in storing and recovering silver from practically domestic waste was also their bread and butter.

Over the years, about 800 tonnes of ETP sludge (by some estimates) had been stored in the shed. A lot of resources was spent to burn and process sludge to recover tiny amounts of silver. More important, jobs were created through inefficiencies that maintained an undesirable social structure.

For a long time, local and central government projects were a source of employment. But some of these involved jobs where women with babies in their laps broke small stones in intense heat and dust while their children loitered around. We needed jobs that brought efficiencies and human dignity, and removed social strictures.

There are numerous other jobs that are de-humanising. Manually removing garbage from roadside dumps and transporting it by truck, sitting atop the trash, is repulsive. Jobs that require manual cleaning of human and animal waste from the roadside are equally so. Likewise, children picking plastic and paper rags from garbage dumps and roadside gutters is an insult to civil society. These are jobs that trap citizens in a never-ending cycle of social inequities and stigma. Even worse, children of these labourers are only exposed to these jobs and that is all they know about the world. This is not social development, but an endless trap.

The only way to move forward is to bring human dignity to labour that relies on technology and efficiencies. The government can also take action to improve the well-being of the people involved.

Given the massive levels of poverty and illiteracy, and lack of employability, the efficiency factor often takes a back seat. But there is hardly any choice. Efficiency and better resource-utilisation are necessary. These will eliminate dehumanising manual jobs but enable the creation of better paying jobs. When efficiency and productivity become the criteria, for example, roads of better quality are built faster. This will enable greater levels of commerce and create meaningful jobs. But as often observed in many democracies, political institutions will attempt to create jobs through inefficiencies and give an illusion of social development. Sadly, such attempts only seek to maintain the status quo.

Efficiency will have a short-run social cost as some low-level jobs will be eliminated. The way to address this is for the government to increase social spending for education, training, and health care. Those who are displaced must be supported by means of a safety net. The same safety net should require the children of these citizens to be enrolled in schools, and that can end the cycle of social deprivation. Rather than focus on creating IITs and IIMs, the government needs to spend more on developing skilled and semi-skilled jobs in fields such as masonry, carpentry and plumbing, for which the demand continues to outstrip supply.Before the pseudo-free market proponents scream of wasteful spending (although these same folks do not hesitate to accept subsidies or grab land unethically), they should look at every developed country that has pursued free markets and free trade. Without exception, all countries have radically increased their social spending on health care, education, re-training, and unemployment benefits to offset the potential negative impacts of free trade.

Call for creative capitalism

What is the role of the private sector here? The answer is all about balancing shareholder value and social justice. This has acquired different dimensions, and has often been referred to as corporate social responsibility. But it is heartening to see world business leaders such as Bill Gates calling for creative capitalism. One may call this compassionate or equitable or kinder capitalism, but the goal is a desirable one. However, the rhetoric of selling products to the poor does not remove social inequities. But it is what firms do in preparing and employing those with the lowest socio-economic status.

There is no doubt about the fact that capitalism forces efficient use of resources. However, it is doubtful whether the benefits of “unadulterated” capitalism will trickle down to deprived citizens. Even if it is incremental, the private sector must recognise the social tensions and pro-actively take action. When a capitalistic viewpoint ignores societal inequities on a sustained basis, democracy may force undesirable regulations that are perceived as backward. We have already seen reservation forced upon the private sector in Uttar Pradesh. There is talk on and off about introducing reservation in the private sector across the nation. However, we need to watch if such moves will end up in the creation of jobs to maintain the social status quo, as observed in HPF.

Rather than impede the functioning of the private sector through reservation, the government must provide tax incentives for the private sector to enhance equal opportunities for socially backward communities, or provide public contracts, subsidies, or preferences to those who satisfy a social agenda. (This is a strategy used in government contracts in the U.S.)

A surcharge on businesses, with the accruals set aside for exclusive use in social development may be considered. The private sector needs to recognise that if it perceives social justice as a burden, then the government will impose an unwanted burden through regulations.

(The writer is a Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be contacted at pkonana@mail.utexas.edu.)