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Dignity of Labour in India: Conspicuous by its Absence

Anmol Bhagat | July 16, 2020
Dignity of Labour in India: Conspicuous by its Absence

For all of history, India has dealt with numerous‘macroscopic’ intruders on its land. However, the intruder this time round is a microscopic one. It has successfully made several facets possible which might have earlier seemed unfeasible. While COVID-19 continues to thrive, it has proven that we can go on without several of the activities we thought were indispensable.

For instance, it has made us sit at home for months on end, and has highlighted that we can survive without fast-food, travel, movies, outings and even board examinations, among others. During this debatably beautiful span of time, while we were sitting within the safety of our homes, several realisations dawned upon us — practically, intellectually, financially and also philosophically.

During this period, we also realised the importance of certain sections of people in our lives. Enthusiastic netizens filled social media news feeds with appreciation for‘corona warriors,’ such as the police, healthcare workers and sanitation staff.

The respect accorded varies according to occupation

While it is a commonly acknowledged philosophy that all jobs or occupations be equally respected, the primitive notion of superiority and inferiority in profession continues to persist in India. Ultimately, we are yet to fully come to terms with the fact that every single profession plays a unique part, irrespective of the monetary earnings a profession generates.

Our society has a deeply embedded prejudice that has made us believe, until now at least, that some professions are dignified while others aren’t. The young and impressionable in India are also brought up to believe quite naturally that sweepers, domestic staff, wage workers, street vendors and the like are meant to be looked down upon; and this mindset continues to prevail.

At times, life experiences tend to amend this narrow world view and instill the right ideals. Traditional education by itself has, unfortunately, widely missed the mark in this regard. While we have agreed that #AllLivesMatter, we cannot deny that #AllJobsMatter too. The colonial era has been long over, and India might have attained political independence, but we have not attained it in its truest sense yet. The cloud of the colonial era still hangs heavy. In many ways, we have not yet lived up to the promise of securing ‘equality of status and of opportunity’for all citizens.

Sanitation workers regularly place themselves in harm’s way

The question stands that why is it we do not accord certain professions their due respect? To put things into perspective, let us understand with the example of sanitation workers; the people who run the country despite not being politicians. They remove society’s ‘refuse’ ridding us of microscopic infiltrators that can terrorise us, as has been widely witnessed in the recent past. They are defending us despite not being in the armed forces.

Sweepers and sanitation workers place themselves in harm’s way every single day. They are most vulnerable to deadly diseases and our passive, ignoramus behavior is largely to blame. We are the perpetrators if you think of it, and this is all because of one basic mega failure on the part of us common Indians – we donot segregate waste prior to disposing it. And while the cleaning brigade is executing its role, they are subject to social stigma, rebuke and diseases like diarrhoea, arsenicosis, fluorosis, schistosomiasis, legionellosis, soil-transmitted helminthiasis, malaria and dengue.

Employed as they are in the informal economy, sanitation workers are often not covered by basic labour rights protection safeguards or social security benefits.

Indian youth must be encouraged to take up ‘odd-jobs’

Besides cleaning and sanitation workers, several other sections of society are treated as inferior. One may not wish to associate with them, but that does not ‘license’ one to demean a fellow human being or converse inappropriately with them. One can often find such scenarios playing out where domestic staff, house help, wait staff in restaurants or perhaps drivers and roadside vendors are meted out disrespectful treatment. But come to think of it, these service providers are an integral part of our lives and their absence will sure hinder our ability to go about our quotidian jobs.

In the West particularly, working and funding your own expenses, even if you hail from an affluent family, is not considered humiliating. On the contrary, if one chooses to work a so called ‘odd-job’ even on a part-time basis in India, he or she becomes the subject of ridicule. This often discourages young people to take up such roles and prevents them from gaining valuable experiences. Perhaps this is also why the virtue of dignity of labour is often lost on our youth.

Radical changes were ushered in by visionaries

It always takes some luminary or visionary who braved social stigmas to prove to the world that no work is big or small, and that all work is dignified.

In this regard, Florence Nightingale comes to mind. She chose to become a nurse despite the stigma associated with it. Unlike the contemporary status of nursing as a noble profession, nursing wasn’t considered a noble or respected profession only a few decades ago. It was considered to be a low-class job, akin to prostitution and often associated with alcoholism.

Nightingale was able to change this social stigma once and for all, because the intellectual minds were edified and accepted the challenge to change their mindset. We could maybe rise to the same challenge in India as well. While we are the youngest nation in the world in terms of demographics, we have the potential to bring about revolutionary change, and overcome centuries-old psychological barriers, with the help of a generation which can think more rationally and who have a higher sense of awareness.

The irony is only too blatant

The disrespect for certain professions is especially ironical in India, when considering that one India’s most iconic presidents was a newspaper seller, while the current prime minister was once a tea-seller. India also had several advocates of this issue over the centuries; for instance, Basavanna in the 12th century and M.K Gandhi in the 20th century. Gandhi was a firm believer that no work is less respectable.

We can also mobilise available resources productively to better the economic standing of essential service providers such as cleaning and sanitation workers. For instance, we can help them gain more visibility and access to potential employers. This could be in the form of starting social media pages advertising their services and helping grow their reach. Subsequently, the simple economic concept of demand and supply will start functioning, enabling both job seeker and employer to settle on fairer monetary terms.

Lofty ambitions will need embracing of radical changes

Our diverse nation does not lack human resource; yet we often face workforce shortages since a large number of Indians–involved in varied professions–choose to migrate to foreign countries. This is driven by not only better economic prospects but also because they will be accorded respect for their services. It is time indeed to undo these misgivings for it ties in well with our ambitions of becoming an economic force to reckon with.

It might also make for more efficient uptake if traditional school curriculum addressed this pressing issue, enabling children to imbibe such virtues in their formative years. The realisation must dawn that one’s dignity cannot be determined by income alone. As long as a person works hard and earns an honest living, he deserves the same respect as a person with a healthy bank balance; irrespective of their occupation.

The world is like one enormous machine and it is a multitude of countless moving parts, each of which is crucial for smooth functioning – regardless of whether the component is big or small. Simply empathising with the less fortunate is not going to yield results; rather there must be a radical change in mindsets to actually accomplish our lofty aspirations of becoming a global superpower. We must pull out all the stops to “heal the world, make it a better place for you and for me, and the entire human race.”

Anmol Bhagat

Anmol is consumed by several issues plaguing society and he feels we can begin with small changes to safeguard our planet. He is the student correspondent for The Statesman newspaper. Anmol is currently a student of class 12 at Father LeBlond School, Siliguri, West Bengal.

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3 years ago

Anmol has written the truth and inevitable fact about the current dignity of labour.

Sushil Singh
Sushil Singh
3 years ago

Deep message beautifully presented in writing column.Good keep it up.

Arup Kumar das
Arup Kumar das
3 years ago

From the childhood to adulthood,,I m seeing you…you became so MATURE n your thoughts became much worthy for our generations.. Carry on …r lekha ta chharbi naa…all the best

3 years ago

A well explored topic Anmol 👍👍
May I add that ours is a country that has been ridden with the caste and class systems. Thus it becomes below ones “dignity “ to do little jobs that would naturally have been done by the “lower “ class or caste. The mindset prevails…..

Anmol Bhagat
Anmol Bhagat
Reply to  Priyakee
3 years ago

True ma’am! I have witnessed/heard people commenting the same as well… And I realise that this particular angle of casteism is very dominantly prevalent at all levels of the society. In fact, at times, unfortunately, some parents use it as well, when they are scolding their children for not studying well. Even though they are mostly unaware of it, these comments also moulds the child’s psyche in that manner to some extent! Thank You ma’am 😃🙏

3 years ago

Well framed thoughts ANMOL. The problem and facts about the dignity of labour in the present generation ,have beautifully been brought up in words. Keep it up I’m sure you will be able to cover -up the slightest of flaws. ✌

Aditi Chatterjee
Aditi Chatterjee
3 years ago

The primary institution that is responsible for instilling the right values is the family. The genesis of the problem of social discrimination,
can be traced to the failure on the the part of the the family, to uphold feelings of empathy and respect for those who are economically less privileged than themselves.
A pleasure to come across somebody so young, with a deep sense of social responsibility.

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