Monthly Archives: May 2007

Untouchability and Indian capitalism

Below is an interesting story published by The Observer. It shows how stratification specific to a society is reproduced and even intensified under capitalism, with competition being generalised. Caste, race and all other hierarchical identities of yesteryears are transformed into competitive identities, as well as inducing market segmentation – the upper caste/race seeks to maintain its supremacy utilising every brutal means, while the lower caste/race tries to assert itself. A schematic radical would call this situation semi-feudal, as it seems to him/her an aberration to “pure” idealised capitalism. Is there anything like that? But who can argue with the convinced ones – ever afraid of dropping the coloured glasses that their fathers lent them? This forces him/her to go in all kinds of ‘bourgeois democratic’ alliances – in order to sweep away the “vestiges” of “pre-capitalism”, before removing capitalism and the capitalists. So much for his/her utopianism and idea-lism.

India’s untouchable millionaire

Entrepreneur who escaped the rigid caste system warns that it is becoming more divisive as India grows richer

Amelia Gentleman in Agra
Sunday May 6, 2007
The Observer

As a child, Hari Pippal slept alongside his six sisters and eight brothers on a stretch of pavement. As a teenager, he pedalled a bicycle rickshaw to help feed the family. Now the owner of a large, profitable private hospital, a shoe factory, a motorbike dealership and a successful restaurant, Hari Pippal has become a symbol of the enormous possibilities available in new India to anyone with entrepreneurial flair.

The fact that this self-made millionaire has risen to the top despite being a Dalit (an untouchable) has prompted some to promote his achievements as proof that, as India races towards economic transformation, a more egalitarian society is emerging. Magazines feature him as a Dalit success story. Pippal, however, is uneasy with his status as poster boy for a casteless modern India. He believes his triumphs have come in spite of his caste and warns that, as India becomes richer, caste divisions are becoming ever more pronounced. At the headquarters of his business empire, he said: ‘As a rule India’s economic boom is only enjoyed by high-caste people. This is a great tragedy for India, because so much talent is being excluded. I feel real despair.’

The Hindu concept of untouchability was abolished in 1950, but the challenge of eradicating prejudices dating back thousands of years has defeated successive governments. Last week in Delhi the issue of caste-related inequalities divided politicians as they argued over the merits of extending affirmative action programmes in universities for backward castes. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has compared the caste system to apartheid South Africa. ‘Untouchability is not just social discrimination; it is a blot on humanity,’ he said.

Pippal believes that the government needs to force the blossoming corporate sector to introduce positive discrimination schemes of the kind which have existed in the public sector for decades.

‘The government believes the scheduled caste [the official term for Dalits] is coming up, that the caste system is disappearing. That is wrong. The gap between the scheduled castes and the higher castes is increasing,’ Pippal said. ‘Lower castes are still very poor. Without money it’s hard to take advantage of the new opportunities, so they stay poor and everyone else gets richer.’

Pippal became conscious of his status on the first day at school. His teachers would mutter in his direction: ‘You people are ill-educated, badly dressed and don’t know how to behave’. Consigned to do the jobs no one else wants – latrine-cleaners and roadsweepers – Dalits have traditionally been forbidden from touching the food or water of upper castes. Pippal, 56, remembers how teachers would never ask him to bring them water or invite him to eat with them, as they did other higher-caste pupils.

‘I responded by deciding I had to be better than the others – cleverer, better dressed, better behaved, more successful,’ he said. But the snubs and subtle insults have lasted a lifetime. His surname identifies him as a Dalit, so when he opened his first company he called it ‘People’s Export’ – which sounded about the same, but did not have the same negative connotations.

When he opened his hospital in 2004, it was difficult to recruit high-caste doctors, many of whom would not contemplate working under him. Because the hospital, a few kilometres from the Taj Mahal, swiftly gained a reputation, attitudes changed and he now employs 25 upper-caste doctors. Even now, several of the Dalit doctors avoid revealing their surname, relying on initials so that they don’t alarm higher-caste patients.

When the oldest of his five sons said that he was engaged to a girl from a higher caste, Pippal was happy that his son had found someone he loved. Her parents, too, made no objection to the match, but a few days later about 100 people from her community arrived at Pippal’s flat, threatening to kill the girl’s parents if the marriage went ahead. ‘I told my son that he would destroy their whole family if he persisted in the marriage, and he understood,’ Pippal said. The son recently married a Dalit doctor from his father’s hospital. ‘Now I believe my children should marry within their caste. It’s better that way.’

India has a number of Dalit role models who have battled their way to the top. This year KG Balakrishnan was sworn in as chief justice of India, the first Dalit to hold the post. Narendra Jadhav, the chief economist of India’s central bank, is a Dalit. Yet the social mobility which usually accompanies rapid economic growth has barely touched this 150 million-strong community, the bulk of whom remain deprived and oppressed. Dalits die sooner and are more likely to be malnourished, unemployed and murdered than others.

Pippal knows how exceptional his life has been when he meets his contemporaries from primary school. ‘All of my school friends of my caste are still sitting on a pavement making shoes,’ he said. ‘They are angry with the system, but what can they do?’

Eroding India’s “competitive advantage”?

Business Standard on May 03 had an interesting article (posted below) about the erosion of India’s comparative advantage in IT – cheap labour seems not so cheap now. Even if labour is still cheaper than the ‘advanced’ countries’, but then productivity is far lower. Solutions are suggested – off to KPO. Also, “Some feel there is nothing to worry as India is rapidly creating huge economies of scale in IT offshoring, which offset the inflationary pressures of salary increases”. This bubbly boom and bust of BPO – how much does it affect the country’s overall economy – the P(roductive) F(orces)/P(roduction) R(elations)?

BPO`s diminishing competitiveness
Shyamal Majumdar / Mumbai May 03, 2007

The cost-arbitrage benefit may erode if the meagre productivity of IT staff is factored in.

In a survey released yesterday, CLSA Asia Pacific says 40 per cent of India’s information technology employees expect their salaries to rise by 20 per cent annually over the next 10 years. Two-thirds expect at least a 15 per cent growth. While this indicates continued all-round prosperity for IT employees — for example, the IT professionals spend $1 billion annually just on eating out and almost half in the 28-35 age group had an international vacation last year — how does the zooming salary bill impact the competitiveness of India’s outsourcing industry?

The jury is still out on this. Some feel there is nothing to worry as India is rapidly creating huge economies of scale in IT offshoring, which offset the inflationary pressures of salary increases. Many outsourcing companies are implementing large team sizes and long-term projects to help maintain utilisation levels at above 75 per cent.

But there are quite a few other analyst firms which feel by 2010, India may become too costly to provide low-end services at competitive costs. For example, Evalueserve, a leading provider of knowledge process outsourcing services, says Indian salaries have increased at an average of 14 per cent a year. If this trend continues, the cost-arbitrage benefit would get reduced from the present 40 per cent to 25 per cent by 2010.

Or, listen to The Conference Board. The world’s pre-eminent business membership and research organisation has been a longtime supporter of outsourcing and offshoring American jobs to cheap overseas labour markets. It said in a report in 2005 that potentially massive savings in wage and benefit costs will continue to drive the global offshoring movement.

But the same organisation is now questioning the economic benefits of outsourcing. In a study in October last year, the Conference Board said the competitive advantage of low-wage countries is often exaggerated once the meagre productivity of their workers is factored in. The study said the comparative cost advantages of taking your business to low-wage countries such as China or India are often not the bargain they seem when wages are adjusted for low productivity. The manufacturing sector in India and China only pays between 2 per cent and 3 per cent of the US compensation level on average.

But labour productivity in these countries is also far below the US level at 12 per cent to 13 per cent.Though the productivity levels at present exceed compensation levels by a considerable margin — unit labour costs in China and India are on average 20 per cent lower than that in the US — The Conference Board warns that the one critical lesson for businesses that benefit from one-time labour cost benefits when investing in low wage countries is that productivity gains from new technology and innovation have to keep pace with often fast rising wages of skilled and semi-skilled workers. Or the cost advantage begins to erode.

The worry is real. For example, according to Deloitte research, the top 10 per cent of the IT workforce in India has been receiving an average salary rise of more than 40 per cent. In contrast, most IT employees in the US received a salary rise of five per cent or less. Though salaries in the US are still, on an average, nearly 10 times higher than those in India, the gap is sure to diminish over time. One reason for the fast-rising wages is the limited “employable” pool.

The Indian education system is not churning out enough computer science and electronics graduates. For instance, though India’s 272 universities and nearly 14,000 colleges churn out over 25 million graduates, only about 300,000 enter the workforce as engineers. And, out of that, maybe just 30 per cent are suitable for the software and IT services industry.

One way out of the diminishing competitiveness could be to go up the value chain — from voice-based services to knowledge process outsourcing. According to an Evalueserve study, the global KPO market is expected to grow at a cumulative annual growth rate (CAGR) of 46 per cent. Compare this with the prediction for the low-end outsourcing services market. This is expected to have a CAGR of 26 per cent.The high-end KPO opportunities are immense for Indian firms.

For instance, look at some of the figures pertaining to intellectual property research. Drafting and filing of patent applications in the US is quite expensive. A typical application costs about $10,000 to $15,000 to draft and file with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Cost savings from offshoring even a portion of the patent drafting process can easily save up to 50 per cent of the cost for the end client, according to Evalueserve.