#MeinBhiChowkidar Movement and Dignity of Labor

In April 2015, when our PM Modi visited Canada and addressed the NRIs over there, he spoke about the dignity of labor (the lack of it) in India. From what I read, he has talked about this topic earlier as well but this was the first time I heard about it from him. I ended up writing an article about that at that time as well.

Fast forward to 2019, when I heard about the #MeinBhiChokidar campaign, that speech of his replayed in my mind and this topic was one of the earliest thoughts that occurred to me. A campaign that started as a response to the filthy sloganeering by the Congress Naamdaar, led by the PM himself and seconded by pretty much all of his ministers, received a resounding response from the general public too. It may or may not have been intended as one, but for me, it was a great experiment on the dignity of labor and the change in the mindset of the Indians. They (public) didn’t do it consciously but it was a step in the direction of establishing dignity of labor in the Indian psyche. It was one of those occasions, when a title, that is normally associated with a seemingly low-quality job in the traditional Indian mindset, was adopted by thousands (perhaps millions) of Indian as a part of their identities. People were not hesitant to call themselves a watchman, English equivalent of the word, in its spirit and embraced it wholeheartedly.

While the prime minister clarified that the term “chowkidar” is in the essence of the duty of the security personnel in general, which is that of guarding whatever piece of the entity that they are responsible for, in his case, it was the whole nation. The fact that it was embraced by many was a good example of how, we as a nation, is opening up to the idea of giving respect do any kind of work that is done honestly.

A few years ago, there was a good debate on the “pakodas” where the Prime Minister said that the person selling snacks on the road in an honest manner is equally entitled to the level of respect any other person doing a corporate job is. We, as a nation, should respect the honesty of the person and it’s work irrespective of what that work is as long as it is not harming anybody. This is a very important idea that needs to be included in the mindsets of Indians who generally have inhibitions on a certain type of work based on their own understanding of their identities, mainly social.

The dignity of work is something which I witnessed more in the Western countries (at least compared to India). It was a part of Indian civilization when the society was divided into “varnas” and everybody was free to choose whatever skill they want to acquire and contribute to society. This was before the whole society was divided into classes and castes and races by the Britishers in order to rule India more conveniently using the policy of “Divide and Rule”.

I remember the first glimpse of the dignity of labor when I landed in the US for the first time and was standing in the immigration queue. On the screens placed right above the counters, they were explaining the whole process of immigration and what things people need to take care of during the process. They were also proudly explaining the importance of an immigration officer in ensuring the security of the nation and how they are the first line of defense to ensure that the unwanted people do not enter the country. It was such an important idea, something that doesn’t occur so naturally unless mentioned explicitly. The amount of respect, in daily lives, all these people who made the community safe, clean, and beautiful receive is commendable.

For example, the Indian police which is often at the receiving and of many complaints, we forget that they are the first line of defense whenever any kind of attack happens in the country are any other kind of law and order situation arises. In the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Mumbai Police was the first one to respond to the situation and in fact, a brave constable, Tukaram Omble, lost his life while managing to capture the lone live terrorist in the police operation. We take certain things for granted and do not realize and its importance unless it is not there. People who help us in our daily lives like the security guards, people who pick up the garbage, the sanity workers, the firefighters, the traffic police and many more. These unsung heroes who make our lives easy and safe on a daily basis really should get the recognition they deserve. In the western world, some of the critical services like the firefighting, the paramedics, and the police I known as first responders.

Unfortunately, a part of the culprit is also the terminologies used for these people. For example, the person who picks up garbage every day from our houses, we call him or her kachrawala/wali instead of safaaiwala/wali, which is more correct because we are actually throwing the garbage and they are cleaning it up.

Two years ago, on one of the Facebook groups, I came across a post by a lady who shared the summer activity of her two kids who made some money by starting their business in the neighborhood. What was the business? They charged some dollars for picking up the trash from the neighborhood and putting it out in the common bin. It was really amazing to read. This household was not poor. The kids did not really have to do the job that they were doing. However, it was their mother’s way to make them start earning money rather than just having it from the parents. It also inculcated a sense of respect in the kids’ minds for the people who do similar kind of work an understand how hard working these people are who clean up the entire community. In a way, such activity imbibes the dignity of labor in kids.

I guess that’s where it should start. I hope this idea of the dignity of labor spreads well across India and Indians.

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What Stops India from becoming a World Leader?

Photo Courtesy: Pixshark.com

Photo Courtesy: Pixshark.com

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.

Source: NDTV, Wikipedia, Hindu Wisdom, A Matter of Conviction: A History of Southern Baptist Engagement with the Culture, Bombay Sarvodaya Mandal & Gandhi Research Foundation,