Monday 13 July 2020

W is for Work

In the towns, in the fields, by the river, on the bustling streets and deserted mountain roads - everywhere in India, there are people constantly at work. It is as if they were intent on offering their own symbolic tableaux of daily life on the sub-continent. Look, they seem to say, existence is just such an unending struggle. Much of India's success in combating problems of poverty and underdevelopment can probably be attributed to this countrywide mobilisation of its workforce.

Yet there is something very odd about work in India. It is true that large numbers of people sitting or standing around idly are rare. But this has been achieved not so much by boosting the total amount of work which needs to be done - as western job creation schemes try to do – but by sharing out what work there is among the whole population. The result is a dilution of activity which affects every sphere of Indian life.

For the visitor, Indian bureaucracy is one of the most striking examples of this built-in redundancy. Most of the work in offices seems to be filling out forms which are then passed on internally before being filed for ever. And everything is in triplicate to employ three times the clerks. Each Job becomes a matter of taking great pains over an essentially trivial and inefficient task.

The same principle of division of labour applies to the shops in towns. Department stores are unknown, even in Delhi and the larger cities of the north. The fragmentation of the pattern of working is manifest in the myriad small shops and stalls of each trade. Throughout a city there may be many tens or even hundreds of these, all selling the same goods.

Along with this reduced scale of endeavour, there goes a corresponding refinement of services. India represents the ultimate in niche markets. In each town there is someone offering every specialised service imaginable. By the side of the road people sell glasses of water; mend bicycle punctures; offer a few lemons or second-hand torches. The constant division of labour down to this almost vanishingly small scale seems possible only because the basic subsistence level is itself so low. Selling something like an apple or two a day is all it takes to live.

Purely manual labour obeys similar laws; everything operates at the level of the smallest physical act. In the country, women and children sift endlessly through fields, tending the land manually. In the towns, public gardens are weeded one plant at a time; grass is watered inch by inch; even gravel roads seem to be laid down stone by stone.

The acme of this dogged, timeless approach is to be found along the only route into Kashmir, a road which clings precariously to the sides of mountain after mountain. Tens of thousands of low stone walls in the form of squat rectangular blocks lie along its outer edge as a safety barrier. The road is in the middle of nowhere; and yet all along its length, as if by some ancient magic, there are the solitary workers, diligently and patiently re-painting the ends and sides of each of the stone blocks white. An eternal and totally characteristic task.

A Partial India A to Z

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