Like the invisible hand that must have given Adam Smith one tight revelatory slap on a sunny 18th century afternoon, knowledge came to me like a ton of recycled bricks on a grey September day. While taking a turn at a crossing near Connaught Place, I saw some workers furiously digging a footpath. If in that brief moment I caught any fury in their digging, it was on a relative scale, as 'furious digging' normally suggests pneumatic drills and hard hats, not five gravediggers on overtime.
But in that accordian-collapsed string of moments, I not only figured out how India is such a chugging economy because of its incredibly competitive rates (read: dirt cheap labour) but also why there's that tungsten-firmness to our resolve to dispose of any innovation that could make labour more productive as well as a little more pleasurable. The workers near Connaught Place were using shovels and work was proceeding in that rush hour at, well, a shovel pace. As for the dignity of their labour...
A few minutes later at a stairwell in my office, I saw it again. Workers, wearing blue and black uniforms ("We're sanitation workers not ragpickers," the uniform-wearers seemed to say), were picking on, picking up and pushing into black plastic bags used tissues, crushed paper cups, crusty thermocol plates and lots of oozy stuff with their bare hands. Again, providing them with gloves and overalls would have been additional inputs that would seep into labour costs — and keeping labour costs down ('Lucky China doesn't have a democracy!') is what makes India such an economic juggernaut.
In the evening, the full circle of India's economic model was on full display. I tried to put in a multi-pin plug into the bedside plugpoint so that I would be able to read Nicholas Phillipson's wonderful new biography of Adam Smith and charge my mobile phone at the same time. Only a week ago, an electrician had come to fix the wirings in the house and fix a new multi-pin plug, all for the princely sum of Rs 300, labour charges included. The multi-pin plug came apart like a Jarasandh a week later.
This article has taken me three hours to write not because I'm that dimwitted, but because the cable connecting my laptop to the office server and the mail service through which this article ultimately reached this page gets disconnected at the slightest of movements. IT engineers — pride of our economy — had told me I'll have to bear the cost of fixing the port that causes the problem. So I pray and sit very still while writing.
As we bring terror into the hearts of workers in Obamaland and other 'pampered' labour forces across the still-underworked and overpaid world, I have found the secret to India's economic success: skimping on labour costs and facilities to workers so as to provide the cheapest services for a miserly, quality-agnostic majority.
And here's the funny thing: instead of moping about as we get the rawest deal, we're proud of being dirt-cheap labour producing, as you can tell now that you've reached the end of this 'article', stuff of dire quality.