Last weekend, I watched our honorable PM Narendra Modi’s speech at Canada’s Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto. While he spoke on many topics, there was one line I found very interesting regarding dignity of labor.
He said, “Hamare man mein labour ke prati jo dignity chahiye, uska abhav bhar gaya hai. Jab tak ek samaanya vyakti ki dignity, yeh hamara swabhaav nahi hoga; dignity of labor, ye hamari prakruti nahi hogi, to shaayad duniya jo humse maang rahi hai usko hum gaurav se nahi kar paayenge.” (We need to instill dignity of labor. Till it becomes our nature, we will not be able to do with pride what the world expects of us)
Ancient India’s civilization had an established division of labor through Varna system.
- Brahmins – learned Vedas and became teachers and priests
- Kshatriyas – warriors who protected the nation
- Vaishyas – farmers, businessmen, artisans and merchants
- Shudras – laborers
While the system was originally meant to establish an order by well defined responsibilities based on qualifications, it eventually evolved into a rigid system (around Middle Ages) based on birth and inheritance. At the same time, it created a psychological divide between the four groups based on sense of superiority with Vaishyas considering themselves superior to Shudras, Kshatriyas superior to Vaishyas and Shudras, and Brahmins superior to all the three. Primarily driven by access to knowledge, the divide kept increasing.
This philosophy of adopting karma by birth and not by choice drives, largely, India’s lack of respect for labor. With specific jobs considered (or taught to be) inferior to others, there was an inherent reluctance, to do them even when it was for own self. With this mentality carried across generations, the reluctance grew into dislike. And this dislike manifested in the form of disrespect for those who were doing it. Thus, the original purpose of the entire system was completely defeated over a period of time.
This is one of the reasons why, many times, we fail to thank our community helpers who make our life very easy by doing the work which we don’t want to do. If we think, right from the morning – domestic help, milkman, cook, newspaper guy, laundry guy, car cleaner, building security etc are the ones with whom we interact every day. In addition to that, there are occasional ones like electrician, plumber, mechanic, technician, carpenter, hairdresser, food delivery guys, taxi drivers, pest control folks and so on. Apart from that there are the ones with whom we don’t really interact like the gutter cleaners, cleaners at various public places like gardens, malls, movie theatres, roads, firefighters, ambulance drivers, nurses, policemen, traffic cop and so on. These folks are often taken for granted, without any realization of what will happen if they are not there around. Yes, we pay them for their work but then it’s not the money that does the work, it’s humans.
Often, one of the greatest motivators for any work is recognition. Recognition that they are helping in building this nation by doing their bit and little respect from the people for whom they are doing it can bring a lot of change. This makes me recall the hospital sweeper scene from Munnabhai MBBS. India needs such goodwill gestures in real life as well and in abundance.
This requires a beginning to treat each individual as equal. To do that, all types of work need to be treated as equal. And to do that, a break away from our traditional inheritance based occupation determination is required. A large part of the occupation related restriction also comes from the fact that the occupation of an individual is also a status symbol for a family and a price tag in the marriage market. Indian families are very sensitive when it comes to the perceived dignity. I use the word “perceived” because of our obsession to the word “log kya kahenge?” (what will people say?).
Having said all this, the change has already started with youngsters slowly shedding inhibitions related to work. While, traditionally, Indian parents pamper their kids even when they are in their mid-20s, there are those who are also able to get out of it, either due to circumstances or more open minded parents, and take up various jobs that make them independent at the very early age. In addition, I believe there is more respect for community helpers and people have started shedding caste related stigmas and accept everyone as humans.
Sometimes, even taking a cue from the western world where people are not ashamed to do household chores, house cleaning, gardening etc all by themselves, helps. A part of the reason is also the upbringing that does not judge individuals by the type of work they are doing but by their conduct with others. We may not even want to go that far, if we are just able to take a look at what Mahatma Gandhi told to one of the youngster who wanted to contribute to nation building:
“As long as you don’t have the humility to do the humblest of jobs, you will not be able to recognize the real problems that beset our motherland. If you really want to make a difference you will have to first get rid of your ego, only then will you be able to understand that it is essential to recognize the importance of the seemingly insignificant, menial tasks and have the humility to perform them, if you learn to do them with dignity and honor, the bigger tasks will become easy.”
I think this says it all!
It is up to us on how quickly we are able to bridge this divide of superior vs. inferior and that will determine whether we become the world leaders or not, in terms of quality human resources in the globalized world.