SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Sly history

MEMENTO

TIMERI N. MURARI

The Empire strikes back ... The British set up our railway system and now they phone us to find out if their trains are running on time.

The Empire strikes back ... The British set up our railway system and now they phone us to find out if their trains are running on time.  

HISTORY can be sly. It takes its own sweet time to work out the pay back for injustices committed long past. Sometimes, the retribution can be bloody, as we can see from the tragic conflicts that flare up around the world. Conquests and subjugations that we think are long forgotten now explode as the conquered people rebel centuries later against their ancient conquerors.

But sometimes retribution can be sweet. A long way back in 1699, Britain became an industrial might only because of India and Ireland. In that year, in order to protect their textile industry, the British banned the import of woollen cloth from Ireland and in the following year cotton cloth from India. The wool and cotton cloth were far superior to the crude British manufactured materials.

And when Britain colonised India, we were forbidden to manufacture anything and forced to supply the raw materials (no doubt at cost) to feed their industrial machine. We lost two centuries of industrial growth because of the weight of the British Empire on our backs. While we had been a wealthy nation before colonisation, we were left destitute and poor by the end of it.

Fifty five years later we're finally having some revenge for our past exploitation. We had a little revenge earlier in the 1950s and 1960s, when they allowed us in to clean their streets, work in those old Midland factories and set up corner shops that stayed up long past their bedtime. We were exploited then as a cheap labour pool, fit only for the most menial jobs that the natives did not want to do. Today, much to their chagrin, many of those old migrants' children have become extremely wealthy and even make it into the Fortune 500.

But now, the British are extremely unhappy with us. We are accused of snatching the champagne and caviar out of their babes and sucklings, we are forcing them to forgo their annual vacations to the Costa del Sol and even, maybe, forcing them to sell off their second Audi and travel by train.

What set off their rage was the announcement by HSBC that they were shifting around 4,000 office jobs from the U.K. to India. Of course, this shift has been happening quietly for some time. B.A., Lloyds, Standard Chartered, Norwich Union, British Telephone and many other companies have been quietly moving many of their back off jobs to Asia. I love the irony that British Rail, a highly unreliable system, has also moved its "Enquiries" to India. The British set up our railway system and now they phone us to find out if their trains are running on time! (They never are.)

The Americans too are very unhappy with us for the same reason. Their computing jobs are coming to us too and their young experts are finding pink slips in their pay packets at the end of the month. According to a confidential document, around 30,000 executive positions in finance and insurance will be moved to India over the next few years. While American experts predict over three millions executive jobs being moved here between now and 2015.

In one way, we should be grateful to the British for having colonised us. That's what I mean about history: it slyly repays the wrongs committed centuries ago.

Just think where we'd be if, say, the Danes had colonised us. They were here and left a small fort in Tranquebar as a reminder. Or say the Germans, who colonised large chunks of Africa. Or even the French who were confined to Pondicherry or the Portuguese confined to Goa.

We would now be trapped with a language that isn't exactly popular around the world. Danish is spoken by five million people, French by a larger number but it is confined only to that country and its old colonies in Africa. We wouldn't have too many back office jobs in those languages.

The British forced us to adopt their ways and insisted we learn their language. History just did the rest. English became the lingua franca of the world and our popularity today is entirely due to the fact that we write, read and speak English fluently.

We not only speak it but we're quick to imitate their accents — Glaswegian, Mancunian, Yorkshire — and comfort them with all their problems that pour down a telephone line.

Of course, we're once more the cheap labour pool for the developed world. We're doing the jobs that they don't want to do anymore. They don't want to sit in a cubicle and answer telephone and compute. I'm not sure what they want to do, maybe become pop stars or film directors.

But back then when we picked up their garbage I noticed that it's now Englishmen who pick up the garbage. So something that comes around goes around. And if they are willing to do back office work, they want to be paid a lot more money that we're being paid.

Multinational corporations are ruthless about their profit bottom lines. If they can save a dollar or two by firing someone in London or California and hiring someone cheaper from Madras or Bangalore they will do it. We are certainly benefiting from this in many ways as, according to some calculations, India will be earning around $17 billion annually from this windfall over the next few years.

However, MNCs are like gypsies. Here one day, gone the next. In this competing world without boundaries, there are many poorer nations. As we become an economic powerhouse and our expectations rise, we will eventually be too expensive for the MNCs. They'll just move on to the next cheap labour pool. Who knows, that could even be England or America. History is sly.

Visit the writer at: www.timerimurari.com

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