The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- For India, this is the era of the comprador

As if the nightmare of collapsing dominoes that haunted John Foster Dulles in the Fifties is coming to frightening reality half a century later. But not in Asia; in Latin America. In country after country, the United States of America's proconsuls are having a torrid time, soulmates of Fidel Castro are making a habit of emerging triumphant in presidential elections: Luiz In'cio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and now Evo Morales in Bolivia. The outcome of polls in Argentina and Ecuador have not been hopeful either. The disaster in Bolivia is particularly galling. For long, this country was considered by the Central Intelligence Agency as its home base: Che Guevara, if we would care to remember, was captured, tortured and killed here by CIA men.

Adversity, besides, does not come alone. Almost coinciding with the moment in which Evo Morales was thundering anti-American invectives in his victory oration before milling crowds at La Paz, Harold Pinter, the ailing British dramatist, took the prim world by surprise: his Nobel Prize acceptance speech via video from London was as much unexpected as unprecedented: a ballistic missile of extraordinary proportions, pillorying the debasement of human civilization US political bosses have brought about.

A species of nature's compensation is, however, at work. All is not lost for the US. At least in another corner of the world, its fortunes would appear to be taking an excitingly better turn. India is fast emerging as one of its staunchest allies. At the conclusion of a recent meeting with the US secretary of state, India's foreign secretary beamingly assured all and sundry that the nuclear agreement between the two countries was on 'the right track'. Even more cheerful news, India's prime minister has reiterated his resolve to toe all the way the American line on economic reforms; he has pledged to work for the easier entry of foreign investment in the country, including in the retail trade sector, he is for further relaxation of direct tax rates, he is determined to amend, as expeditiously as possible, the country's labour laws.

This last assurance will not only lift official American spirit, it will please equally the m'lange known as India Incorporated. The heart of the prime minister, they now know, is in the right place; all that needs to be done is to extricate him from falling victim to seasonal leftist intimidation. Why, oh why, cannot India be like the US; why cannot they hire and fire workers at will as in the US' Why must they continue to suffer from the nuisance of strikes and put up with the insolence of trade union goons' The prime minister's half-promise will enthuse them to redouble their efforts to get scrapped the odious provisions in the country's labour laws.

Since class interests are involved, passion gets injected into the debate. Attempts to disseminate such information as that both the formation of trade unions and the right to strike are acknowledged as integral parts of the American legal framework too tend to be greeted with near-disbelief. Even in the American milieu, it is actually far easier to sack a stray executive than to get rid of a band of workers who are registered members of a trade union that is affiliated to the giant labour conglomerate, AFL-CIO.

Rationality plays hooky particularly in discussions concerning the information technology sector. On a rough reckoning, annual net earnings of this sector on account of BPO activities must be touching $20 billion or thereabouts. For a country in India's circumstances, this is a lot of money. Those presiding over the IT industry have, as a result, developed the notion that they deserve to be treated with the softest of kid gloves by the authorities. They expect not only to be provided with suitable land at throwaway prices and adequate infrastructural facilities at low cost. In addition, they demand, apart from the lightening of the tax burden, zero tolerance of such hanky-panky as strikes and trade unionism. There is the rule: under the country's laws, neither industrial disputes nor trade union activism can be forbidden a priori in any industry, not even in a 'continuous process' industry. No exception is possible for the IT sector.

A fresh plea has since been put forward by the admirers of India Incorporated: let IT sector be treated as a public utility ' an essential service ' and a convention be strictly followed to keep it outside the purview of strikes. As matters stand, however, public utilities too cannot be kept out of bounds if a ferment of industrial unrest grips the economy. The railways are, for instance, generally regarded as an essential service all over the world. That convention notwithstanding, even in the US, the subway system in New York came to a total stop as recently as last month because the workers walked out. Workers of the London underground did exactly the same thing on New Year's eve.

The latest position stalwarts of the IT industry have adopted is no less curious: granted that organizing trade unions and cease-work cannot be formally prohibited; it must, however, be left to the employees of the IT sector to decide on their own whether they are to form a union or indulge in industrial agitation; no outsider must be permitted to intrude.

Such a demand too is both unrealistic and contrary to law. Outsiders have always been an adjunct to the trade union movement in all countries and in all sectors. Jyoti Basu started his political career in 1940 by organizing the workers of what was then known as the Bengal and Assam Railway. He was not an employee, but a rank outsider. B.T. Ranadive and S.A. Dange built the Girni Kamgar Union in Bombay into a massive organization of militant textile workers; neither of them had ever worked in a cotton mill. The country's labour legislation, in fact, provides for a certain proportion of office-bearers of a recognized union to consist of outsiders.

There is little point in flinching from hard datum: roughly one million workers are currently engaged in the country's IT units. Even assuming that each of them is on the average paid roughly Rs 300,000 annually ' a guess on the high side ' the total wage bill comes to $3 billion, barely one-seventh of the net profits owners of the industry are reaping. The employees, who do all the donkey work, might well aspire for a bigger slice of the cake. In the claustrophobic conditions in which they work, it is only natural that employees in the IT units will be somewhat inhibited to organize a union to fight their cause both for a higher share of the profits the companies are making and for better working conditions. Outside advisers, it is plausible to argue, ought to be around to help them in the task.

The IT bosses had never had it so good. While piling up profits, they have also persuaded state authorities to spend enormous sums to improve the infrastructure pertaining to the industry. This has led to a depletion of public funds to shore up the living conditions of the immiserized population in the neighbourhood. The messy controversy that has of late reared its head in Bangalore is focussed precisely on this issue. Those lording over the call centres apparently could not care less how the poor in their immediate environment fare. The most prominent of them has gone on record with an extraordinary statement: '97.5 per cent of the earning of this [that is, his] company comes from countries like the United States, Germany and Japan, and they do not care what your problems are.' By 'your problems', the IT czar obviously implies this nation's problems: since 97.5 per cent of his earnings is the bounty of foreigners, he too, it seems, is prone to think as the foreigners think and care not a hoot for the problems afflicting this country.

The era of the comprador is coming to an end in Latin America. Have no worry, it is being ushered in in India.

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