March 03, 2008

Lament for horse carriages

Yesterday was six months since my father, JB D'Souza, died. I may have a couple posts about him over the next few days.

First, here are some excerpts from Lament for Horse Carriages (PDF), a review he wrote of his good friend Darryl D'Monte's 2002 book Ripping the Fabric: The Decline of Mumbai and its Mills.

    Is liberalisation, which the author demonises because of its effect on indigenous industry and the consequent fall in industrial employment, all that harmful to the people at large? Doesn't one of its fallouts bring the consumer improvements in price and quality of the goods he needs? As an example that comes to mind instantly ... would the Ambassador car have survived in India for half a century were it not for the protection it got from government policies? Should the interests of a (relatively) few manufacturers and the workers they hire prevail over those of the mass of the people? Should the Indian consumer permanently suffer the inefficiency of Indian producers and their employees?

    Many, perhaps most, of Mumbai's mills are sick, despite repeated efforts, both real and pretended, to revive them. This book gives me the impression that it is better to sink scarce resources in an effort to revive old industries than to use those resources to set up new enterprises with a larger employment potential than the old ones they replace. In September 1992 the country's 293 sick textile mills owed financial institutions Rs 1,520 crore. ... [In 1993] Rs 1,230 crore of public money [was] lent to textile mills to help them modernise. Reading these figures, and accepting workers' welfare as the dominant motivation in our economic planning, I cannot help asking: Does it make sense to pour money into preserving existing employment in sick industries if the same resources applied elsewhere could create far more employment opportunities, and the money would be spent more gainfully even if you measured gain purely in terms of employment? ...

    India has a set of labour laws (with courts to enforce them) that probably match the world's most advanced standards in safeguarding the rights of workers. It is generally hard to discipline workers, it is practically impossible to retrench them should management find them redundant. ... Working for the government of India in the 1970s I visited the central stationery office in Calcutta, which supplies central government offices all over the country with paper to fill their files and delay decision-making. I discovered staff assigned to totally useless work. Clerks were simply and slavishly copying figures relating to the hundreds of stationery items from one register into another exactly identical register, all day, every day, with no use being made of either. In the presence of the staff I asked the officer in charge why this operation couldn't be eliminated; he mumbled something inaudible. We went on to other matters, and then repaired to his office room. Before we got there a dharna had assembled, to protest my ill-considered drive to economy. I had to beat a hasty retreat. Those registers must still be getting written up, at your and my expense. That was Calcutta, but wasn't Girangaon (the Mumbai mill district) just as protective of superfluous mill jobs? ...

    Let's compare Indian workers' gains in the years 1972 to 1992 ... with how workers in east Asian countries fared in those 20 years. There workers are far more disciplined, far less cosseted by the government and the law, so you might find what Karl Marx called the immiserisation of labour. The true picture is quite the reverse. In those 20 years our average worker gained a paltry 25 per cent in real wages. In Singapore the gain was 146 per cent, in Taiwan 305 per cent, in South Korea a spectacular 415 per cent! ...

    [The author bemoans millowners'] greed to encash the enormous value of his land. How evil is that greed? If the owner of a car no longer needs it, would he not sell it off, even if his driver thereby becomes redundant and has to find another job? Or must the car be retained only to save the driver's livelihood? ... And should the mill owners hugely profit from the sale of their lands, are they going to hide that money under a mattress? Or will they almost surely invest it in enterprises (not necessarily in Mumbai) that hold promise of better returns and higher employment levels? [Today] the government's prescriptions, restrictions and sporadic interventions withhold centrally located land from a city that is so geographically constricted. That land could be of far greater use to the community even if [the] mill owners are allowed to sell -- with the usual reservations, first for public amenities and second for really high density housing, not necessarily public, as in the rest of the city. That would be infinitely better than the present stalemate, where the urban ceiling law allows the government to make stealthy releases of land from its clutches, for uses quite inappropriate at least today to the localities in which they are ... It would also bring about a further fall in land prices, and, along with the high density housing reservation, make more housing available to the less affluent. Many of those now in the slums would find affordable homes.
***
Some earlier writing about my father: Tehelka Personal History, Obit in Guardian, Soft eyes, An obit, a bio, For a grandfather, for a father, To a father, Remembering Bain, A gentle, fearless man, To Bain

4 comments:

DhiOnlyOne said...

That's a very well written review by your father. On the fate of the cotton mills, there is this beautiful play titled "Cotton 56 Polyester 84" which I managed to watch last year. It brought out the impact of these mills shutting down on the workers who suddenly found themselves without a job, after having spent their entire lives in the service of the mill. Do catch it if you get the chance.

amit varma said...

Dilip, that is a very fine excerpt, thank you for posting it.

Gaurav said...

Really good stuff. Especially love the logical flow of his writing. Thanks for posting it.

Jai_Choorakkot said...

Good piece. If you are endorsing it, it would rank as one of your most non-leftist. But this did not talk about any retrenchment benefits for the mill workers, any retraining etc.

I would like to know your views on that. Also, your opinion on the 60,000 crore debt write-off to farmers. Considering the suicides, I hesitate to say this, but I am not very supportive of this action. Is there at least a mechanism to monitor and ensure that the poorest and hardest-hit farmers get the benefits? I hear it told that mostly, rich lobbyist farmers will cash in.

regards,
Jai