Furore over 70-hour work week: The message Narayana Murthy could have given instead

It may serve Infosys to have zombies but it can never serve the nation to valorise this as the route to a national revival. Many in India suffer low wages, zero benefits and long work hours. Murthy’s remarks will be used to legitimise these malpractices. 

Jagdish Rattanani Nov 08, 2023
Narayana Murthy (Photo: Twitter)

There is something very 19th-century, Bombay mill-owner type of flavour to the comment by tech billionaire N R Narayana Murthy that the youth must work 70-hour weeks to help increase national productivity. In the India of the late 1800s and early 1900s, mill hands worked hard, and were pushed to work harder. The norm was sunrise to sunset, which stretched longer when technology arrived in the form of the light bulb. Now, work didn’t have to stop at sunset and stretched on, till workers smashed the filament bulbs to protest the inhuman exploitation that technology brought in its wake.

The IT world is very different today, shaped in part by the work of, and the large share of voice enjoyed by, Murthy and the company he co-founded, Infosys Ltd. Given this background, Murthy’s remarks will immediately be applied to the IT services sector, which, while revolutionising India’s participation in global markets, has essentially been a sweatshop built on labour arbitrage. Some will argue this is the reason why the company and many in the sector remained body-shopping pros and largely failed to move up the value chain. 

Innovation continues to pour in from other markets, the offerings of AI being only the latest coming from an ecosystem that is dramatically different from that obtained here – non-hierarchical, with the spirit of experimentation, risk-taking and the acceptability of failure being a few highlights. None of this sits well with mandated, regulated, monitored hard work in the sense it is understood in India, marked largely by a do-as-you-are-told work philosophy, monotonous, unexciting and exploitative all at the same time.

IT sector creating zombies

It should be plain that hard work does not necessarily lead to higher labour productivity. Even if it did, in the mills then and in the IT sector now, it may not take the nation anywhere. It benefited the mill owners then. It benefits the IT czars now. In fact, it reinforces the culture of milking a workforce without investing in human capital so that the bulk of the people are “used” without the appropriate investments in building their potential and offering them the requisite support to grow. This short-termism benefits the businessman immediately but hurts the system and productivity in the long run, an approach that has characterised many facets of the India growth story so far. This is made worse by a combination of factors like weak labour laws, increasing contractualisation of the labour force, declining power of the trade unions, a long history of exploitation and the desperate need for a job, any job in fact, making the conditions ripe for systemic abuse of the workforce.

In the IT sector, this tends to reduce the bulk of the workers at a very young age to zombies who are pushed to work on screens with little awareness of anything else, and to that extent, taking them that much away from anything remotely enterprising or innovative. The work pressures mean the educated youth of India, particularly the estimated 5.4 million employed in the IT-enabled services sector, are relegated largely to the lower end of the value chain, with low skills, low pay and long work hours.

At weekends, they break out into bars and clubs to unwind, their time off from a routine that is back-breaking and self-defeating with few options for holistic growth and a higher-than-normal chance of mental illness.

The two Indias

It is instructive that the remarks of Murthy came in an interview with T V Mohandas Pai, who is the former CFO of Infosys and personally known to Murthy in that capacity. Murthy cannot be unaware that Mohan, as he calls him, is the person who objected to students at JNU  taking a political stance, calling it a “misuse of taxpayers' monies” as if education is all about being devoid of political sensemaking or participation in political events. The message: “study” hard, but you cannot take a stand, particularly if it’s not to my liking. That luxury is to be given to those at Harvard, where Murthy’s son did a PhD, not JNU, where Kanhaiya Kumar did his PhD. “What happened to his PhD?” is the question Pai asked once of Kanhaiya Kumar, on a report that said Kumar would be a joint opposition candidate for a Lok Sabha seat. In the current controversy on the 70-hour work week, when one comment on social media criticised the remark as explaining the mentality that kept Infosys as an IT ‘coolie’ provider, Pai’s retort to the writer was to shut up till he builds a company like Infosys – if you don’t have the money, don’t talk! 

It may serve Infosys to have zombies but it can never serve the nation to valorise this as the route to a national revival. Many in India suffer low wages, zero benefits and long work hours. Murthy’s remarks will be used to legitimise these malpractices. Without putting it in that many words, it pushes the pernicious argument that the poor are lazy, that the rich are rich because they are the hard-working citizens who take the nation forward and sets the stage for the misplaced argument that the taxpayers are givers and the rest are takers and subsidies to the underprivileged are an unfair burden on the hard-working.

As it is, one of the problems of the Indian education and work system has been a rather narrow focus on the immediate work at the cost of curiosity, a long-term panoramic view, or an engagement with future. This limits interdisciplinary knowledge, constrains the capacity to connect the dots, and does not empower students and workers to see the big picture in a world marked by rapid change and high complexity.

Idea of an inclusive India

The danger is ending with workers and leaders without purpose, with a single-minded, unidirectional focus on targets, zeroed in on the insignificant tasks of their times and oblivious to the morally significant issues that confront their organisations and indeed the nation today. These are people concerned with speed, not the direction in which we are headed. With such an approach, the danger remains of reaching faster than ever and landing in the wrong place ahead of time. Nothing could be more disastrous for India.

Consider a very different message that Murthy with all his seniority and the respect he commands could have given: Our youth must be driven by a larger purpose beyond the immediate. We need to build the idea of caring and sharing, of understanding the pain of others and realising that India can grow only when all of us grow together – all regions, religions, castes, groups, strata and communities. This is an India, where wage disparities are lower than ever, where quality education and health are made available to all and our workforce, is noted for being industrious, corruption-free and ready to be in service of the common citizen. That would be a message to celebrate. 

(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR, Mumbai. Views are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press)

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