Jan 6, 2009

Business - India & China;Lunch on the Shop Floor (G.Read)

Govindraj Ethiraj

Guess where Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao spent the first day of the New Year? Receiving visiting dignitaries with bouquets of flowers, at the party offices with party colleagues and workers, with friends and family or a function to commemorate something or the other..?

None actually, Premier Wen greeted the new year with a series of factory visits, mostly in the Shandong province of eastern China. Among other places, he visited Haier, China’s largest appliance maker and praised “its sales promotion and services in rural areas as a factor stimulating rural consumption.”

“China must try and develop new types of candles to cater to different cultures, which would capture big market share,” he then said during a visit to candle maker Qingdao Kingking Group, incidentally, the world’s second largest. A publicity still of Jiabao shows him sitting in what looks like a factory canteen chatting with workers over supper.

Prime minister Manmohan Singh, in contrast, spent the first few days of the year speaking about terror attacks, the prospect (or lack of it) of war and infiltration. He was in Shillong last week to address the Science Congress where he spoke about India’s poor performance in science and technology, the need for younger scientists, etc — all home truths and all relevant. Now, this is not about whether Dr Singh should have been visiting appliance manufacturers on the first day of the new year. It’s about the place of the manufacturing worker in the larger scheme of things, who China has regarded quite highly for many years. I might add the Chinese Premier’s position is not the same as the Indian prime minister but that’s not the point here.

It’s not that India has not treated those who toil at the temples of modern India with deference. It has. And yet, shop floors do not necessarily create a sense of awe or pride. No one has really tried or worse, few care. Which is funny considering that many political parties by virtue of trade unions have relied on this base. In contrast, we’ve saved our oohs and aahs for the glass and steel campuses that India’s software companies have erected in Bangalore and Hyderabad. Which is okay but I’ve always wondered why a glass and steel edifice, with green lawns and water fountains for good measure, scores over the fairly sophisticated (think robotics) shop floors in India.

What has this got to do with Premier Wen’s lunch with factory workers? Well, it’s about reviving or drawing greater attention to manufacturing. If we have lauded the farmer and the soldier’s role in building our country, then why not the factory worker? Now, obviously there is little the government can do if you and me are not buying cars and Tata Motors and their like have to shut down plants to match supply with demand. On the other hand, let’s rewind to a few months ago. Manufacturing industry was crying hoarse about the lack and quality of talent. I recall an Aditya Birla Group executive telling me that companies like Hindalco were unable to get talent even from institutions like the Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad because many of the best graduates were joining Infosys!

I’ve heard this lament from a host of others, including Tata Steel’s B Muthuraman and Larsen & Toubro’s A M Naik. While Mr Muthuraman has sought to place the blame for talent and people shortages in steel-making on the industry’s inability to present itself as a sound opportunity, Mr Naik told me in an interview that his own people were unwilling to work in remote construction projects — which was the need of the hour.

Deng Xiaoping in his time encouraged China to think light industry and exports. One reason for the push towards light industry was the relatively low capital required. The rest, including Deng’s southern tours of the Pearl River Delta, is well documented. India has treated light industry differently, creating entry and growth barriers. I am not sure what or whether we can have a concerted strategy here except to say that it’s best left to the country’s entrepreneurs and businessmen.

But if the next phase of India’s economic revival has to have a strong manufacturing dose in it, there needs to be a far greater attraction created for it. No discussion on manufacturing can go very far without that inevitable reference to the poor state of infrastructure. But to be good in engineering whether for roads or indigenous cars and bikes, you need talented youngsters. Who treat manufacturing as a first priority and something that they feel proud. Let me put it this way, at the cost of sounding corny, if we can have our Jai Kisan and Jai Jawan, then it’s time for a Jai Karmchari!

Of course there are issues of compensation and, as many manufacturing folks have told me, the fact that you have to work in the hot sun can be a deterrent. Fortunately, the present crisis is likely to force a talent and resources shift from some services sectors, at least till the next cycle. The challenge is now to bring the romance back. I might add that some of the best meals I have had are in factory canteens.

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