Culture of Work

We are becoming lazy people, especially with our hands and feet and often enough; intellectually lazy too.

 — Pandit Nehru

Boredom is the worst evil in Human life and work banishes three great evils : boredom, vice and poverty.

 — Candide, Voltaire

Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.

 — Gandhi

Most of the farmers in my village keep farms in good shape and finish their work on time. But they hardly show any admiration for their work, at least in public. Farming consists a lot of manual work. There is a indifference if not contempt for manual and menial work. Most of Indians do it otherwise they can’t make their ends meet.  They often say to their children, ‘Only if you become some big-man then I’ll get ‘mukti’ from all of this.’ Such disregard for manual work varies from community to community. We often heard people telling my father, ‘Why are you working like a donkey! Go home and take rest. God takes care of everyone!’. The contempt for manual work takes slightly different color in urban Indian society. They show similar indifference and contempt towards those who do such menial work. Here in IIT Bombay, once in a while, an email appears from mess-counsel asking not to misbehave with mess-workers otherwise students will be penalized. It is remarkable that any worker who faces such uncivil behavior never protest in open, especially when they are not organized. He is well aware of his place in our hierarchical society. Once in a while a news reports appears and comments on it from the people highlights these attitude.

Such attitudes towards manual work can be found in all societies where work is ranked and labor is divided. Although these rankings and division are much more rigid and elaborate in some societies than others. The practices and norms of works changes, though not as much as one might desire, with changes in technology, material resources, and in the size and density of the population.

Two hundred years ago, Henri de Saint-Simon, who was one of the precursors of Socialism, believed that a new kind of society, which he called industrial society, is emerging in Europe in which only those who worked will be esteemed unlike in earlier societies in which work was disdained and left to the social inferior. He also noted that all work that was socially useful and productive would be equally esteemed. Industrialization did bring about these changes to a large extent, but this does not mean that all occupations, even though they are equally important, are equally esteemed in even the most advanced industrial society today.

Indian attitude toward work differs significantly from attitudes even in other Asian countries. An Indian anthropologist, while in Japan, noticed in Osaka that police constables and taxi drivers wore white gloves. He light-heartedly made fun of this to a young Japanese anthropologist who was with him. She put him in his place very politely but effectively. She said, ‘In Japan people respect the work they do, even if it is that of a policeman or a taxi-driver. In India, there is respect only for the well-born and well-to-do; there is no respect for useful work.’ Indeed, Japan is perhaps the most cited example written about to contrast lack of appetite for work among Indian.

S. A. Sapre, a workaholic who established Institute of Study of Work, commented that in Japan not only individual but ‘even family members attach great importance to the office work. If the husband is called for work on the holiday, the young wife feels proud that her husband is indispensable to the organization.’ ‘Once a young executive’, wrote Sapre, ‘had to work extra hours for a number of days on some important project.’ When company sent him to his home early subsequently on next few days to give him some relief, ‘his mother advised him to go to the bar or come home as usual, as neighbors started esquiring whether he had any problems at work’. To his surprise he noted that even union understood the value of work. ‘Workers in a factory located in Japan but owned by American went on strike for a day. The next day they worked with redoubled energy and made good the loss of production. The American manager was puzzled by their strange behaviour. The workers told him that the strike was meant to draw his attention to their grievances but they did not want production to suffer.’ [2]

Sapre believed that such enthusiasm and respect for work among Japanese has its root in Buddhism even though Japanese are not very religious minded people. In Buddhism, the function of work is three-fold : (a) To enable a person to develop himself, (b) to make him aware of the need to help and assist others and thus to satisfy the social instinct. It is through the work a man bind himself to society, and (c) to produce goods and services needed for a meaningful existence. Human life needs to be organized around meaningful work. Zen Buddhism has refined these ideas further. It holds that all work is sacred, all tasks important: ‘If you have eaten your rice porridge, you had better wash your bowl’ and ‘a day of no work is a day of no food’.

The influence of religion on a society can not be exaggerated for it shapes and often directs the behavior of individuals. In all society, allocation of work was strictly governed by certain rules. Rules of caste, class, gender, creed and religion have always played their part in such schemes. In India, however, it gave a distinctive and unique character to work practices and norm. The idea of ‘pollution and purity’ that had deep roots in religious belief and practice degraded division of labour. While elsewhere, lowest type of work might have been considered degrading or demeaning, in India, it was also treated as ritually defiling. In medieval Europe a person belonging to a superior estate might suffer derogation or loss of rank if he habitually engaged in menial work. Loss of rank is nothing compared to loss of caste that might follow in India from doing the wrong kind of work. Such fear of loosing caste, metaphorically if not literally, affects the choice of occupations among middle-class Indians more than middle-class people elsewhere.

V. S. Naipaul wrote of an incident at Bombay custom. When his companion fainted and he asked for a glass of water from a clerk who was with him; but instead of fetching water by himself, a clerk spend 15 minutes looking for a chaprasi who was of right status for this job. This concern of status among middle class is amusing if it does cause so much of wastage of time and work. Things are not done here because not only people with right skills are unavailable, they are also not done because available person does not have the right status; either it is too low or too high. It does hardly matter that otherwise he is perfectly capable to do the task at hand.

This concern for status has deep roots in caste system. As happened in many societies, a theory is discarded well before its practice is abandoned. Caste has lost its theoretical foundation but its practice is still current though it has weakened in many strata of societies and has strengthened in some other, especially in politics. In the past, ranking of work was done according to the ‘pollution’ it may cause. The stigma of pollution that was attached to such work such as scavenging, tanning and flaying cast a show over many kinds of manual and menial work. Oil-pressing, distilling, laundering, fishing, and even ploughing the land were considered as tainted in various degree.

Attitude towards work have changed but one must not discount the inertia of old-habit and mental patterns. Manual work is rated lower than non-manual in all societies although the disparities tend to be larger in agrarian than industrialized society. The middle-class Indian contempt for manual and menial work is legendary. Indian engineers are notorious for avoiding any work which may blacken their hand. In IITB-WEL lab, I often see students complaining about why they are forced to work with circuits on bread-board when they simulate them on computers.

There have been moderation of disparities between manual and no-manual work. Indian experience with its leather industries shows that technology can remove stigma of pollution. There are many areas where technology is obscuring the difference between manual and non-manual work. But can technology alone change the pattern of mind? Technology can turn a manual work into non-manual work, an unclean work into clean one, and a repetitive work into no work at all; but it will be a mistake to assume that technology alone can change how society discriminate between manual and non manual work.

Education changes pattern of mind more rapidly than anything else. Modern education introduces secular rather than ritual criteria for distinctions of rank among occupations. Some profession requires high educational qualifications while others do not; the former enjoys the greater esteem than latter. Some professions give higher remuneration than others; many if not most will prefer to do such highly paid work even if these professions were disdained in the past. Business and trade are two such examples which were treated with contempt by hight caste Hindus in the past, but now in huge demand among them [3]. A few decade ago, the gap in manual and non-manual work was reinforced by the fact that former were generally uneducated if not illiterate while the later were educated. This is no longer true to some extant. As one of our anthropologist puts it, ‘as manual workers become literate and educated, they are less likely to be overwhelmed by the thought that their profession and life itself is polluting or defiling. This will certainly not bring equal remuneration or equal esteem to all work; but it will be something‘.

End notes :

[1] Secularization of work, Andre Beteille
[2] The joy of work, National Book Trust, S A Sapre
[3] On changing perception of business and trade, see ‘India’s New Capitalist‘, Harish Damodaran. [Interview]



Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s