A country of Robots – the price we pay

We often hear about the great industrial revolution of the 21st century commonly known Globalization. With the advent of the Internet, fast under-sea cables providing high bandwidth and data transfer speeds, and the virtualization, faster processor speeds combined with the ever falling hardware costs have made it possible for a company in one corner of the world, setup an office in the bang opposite corner.

This might be a great thing for some companies, as, due to the currency exchange rates and labour laws, they are able to make their products for much lower prices, but then the same may have a negative effect that goes unaccounted for.

Quite a few companies believe in outsourcing the work to the east – basically the high population density countries- to obtain higher margins and greater savings, as the cost of development/labour costs are a fraction of what they are back home. This, according to some, would be great news for the eastern countries, while the people out in the west, seemingly are angered about the fact that we ate up their jobs. In a matter of speaking, yes we did.

But, at what cost?

On the surface of it, we have jobs, we’re building infrastructure, a whole lot of concrete jungles are cropping up, with state of the art facilities. On the flip side though, we’ve become a factory – churning out what the west desires – cheap labour and a large market, losing our creativity. And our environment.

Going a little off topic, I ask you this – How many products have we actually created – and please bear in mind: created not copied, in the field of Computers and IT- that is one of our largest businesses today, that were not “inspired” by ideas in the west? And if someone gives examples of Sun Microsystems, or Hotmail, let me assure you, they did not happen in India. Why? – because we do not provide a conducive environment to inventions/innovations/out-of-the box ideas. If we can develop the Products – for the product based companies, why can’t we conceive the ideas?

The answer could be that we’re just too lazy to put in the effort to think out of the box today – it has just become a catch phrase that everyone preaches but nobody practices.
Or it could be that when we were young, we were pressed to do things the conventional way. And this is, perhaps, the biggest drawback of our education system. We believe that our education system is the best in the world, but then that was 15 years ago. The other countries have responded and proactively adapted, while we have been left wanting. Because, if you’re not moving in today’s world, then you’re moving backwards.

When students are young, their curiosity, their lateral thinking abilities are killed, and whereas people say we’re well educated, I say we’re just well trained. We’re trained to solve a sum in a particular way. If you solve it using a different method, that perhaps is not in your course, you’re told to stick to the textbook, and not given marks. If a student embarks on a quest to try and find a different way, he is awarded with lower marks and a “do you know more than your teacher?” remark. Sciences have merely become a memory test – who can remember the most definitions, or the maximum answers to the previous 10 years papers. And in the lower grades, seemingly to make our lives easier – the teachers say that we should read the questions at the back of the textbook – because they would suffice. And, then, the parents make us mug up those questions – because they somehow believe that what you score is the only way your knowledge can be judged. A student today goes to school for around 7 hours, and then goes to tuitions for another 6. This has become more or less the norm today. And most probably, its the same teacher who teaches him/her in school. Good idea, I must say – must be strengthening their concepts. But, alas, it is not so. What they get there is the all important “notes” – from which the questions in the exams would come. Students from Khan Academy, studying in remote parts of the world, probably have a better grasp on the concepts than what some of our school kids do.

Then the poor student, after being conditioned for 14 years to solve the problems according to the system, answering questions in adherence to the norms is now unwilling to stray ever so slightly from the tried and tested path (and we call it discipline). Discipline is what the defense services teach us – and even they look for new methods to defend and conquer. If they stuck to the same approach each time- then, well.. The Lord save them.

Then it comes to choosing a career. If he’s chosen something else (other than science) – then I can’t comment, because I don’t know how it is out there.

But if he’s chosen science and not medicine or B.Sc (only a handful compared to the forthcoming option go there) – then he chooses to become an engineer – and the parents’ aspirations of The IITs begin. With doctors, engineers, and IASes seemingly being the only options, the parents enroll the kid in as many coachings as possible.

Then when the student does not get selected anywhere (read IITs), then the parents send pack him/her off to one of the 4000 engineering colleges. They brew there for 4 years, learning a few things about engineering and a lot more about life. I was lucky enough to be in a college that placed immense weightage on softskills, but unfortunately, that is an exception and not a norm.

After the brewing is complete, a huge player in the outsourcing industry would come to the college and pick up hundreds of students – immaterial of what course they pursued for the last 4 years. (Probably they understand the education system, and know that it doesn’t make much of a difference.). Then all Majors – Computer Science, Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Civil, etc., come together under one roof – to become Software Engineers.

Mind you this is a brilliant opportunity, a potent combination, where so many different domains converge – this could be used to create brilliant stuff that could bring about a change in the world, with each complimenting the other’s skill. But no, their knowledge casted away, they unlearn everything they learnt, to be trained to code. That’s what they all do, that’s what the company wants. Because, that is what we are trained for; for months after we have completed our engineering, we sit in classrooms again. Because, this, is what the Clients require. The clients who outsource. And, with this we become machines, working as per the frameworks and guidelines defined. Creative thinking? – well, if you ever worked in a service company, you don’t get time to think about what you’re eating, let alone, design and develop. There might be exceptions, yes, but then this is what happens in the majority of places.

Coming back to the point – at what cost are we building such a big outsourcing industry. Leaving aside the loss of creativity of students – a brilliant painter being forced into engineering because he/she scored high in science, a biotech engineer, who could probably help to find a cure for cancer, now getting bad ratings because he/she can’t understand what on earth is wrong with their XAML code, a brilliant java coder, who was thrust into documentation, where all he has to do is update screenshots and write and write and write; leave aside all this – what in terms of actual cost are we losing. Or, are about to lose in the times to come.

Firstly – our basic cottage industry as well as the agro industry are dwindling. Because, probably there are concrete jungles cropping up – where there were farmlands – one would argue that the offset is met by the income via the outsourcing – to a certain amount I would have to agree. But, then were do we import the food? – from a developed country that is outsourcing the work to us. In a country that is growing in population, the food intake can only rise – and that is basic arithmetic.

What we don’t realize – is that because we’re so busy working on “their” work, we don’t create anything here – and have thus become a huge market for “their” exports. This leads to us getting a minor share of the pie of the finished product we create (as offshored workers), but end up paying in full for the products we have to buy – as we don’t have those in India. Its all about paying in rupees and earning in dollars. And because this poor guy was working day in day out – and with him lacs of other employees on such products, they didn’t have the time to diversify or create something that could have been a gamechanger. Then they end up buying the finished product for the full price (because there is no Indian product that is there in the market in a lot of categories – let alone compete). Yeah, if you work for them – you get a 10-15 percent discount. We end up spending a lot more money for products we create – to buy them from outside. Sound familiar? – yes this is what happened when Gandhi advocated the “swadeshi” movement. And today, we’re allowing it to happen again. Only now – keeping with the times- instead of Indigo farming, it is IT farming. We create something for a fraction of the price and buy the same at double the price – and then wonder why our economy is not doing well.

The second and more important impact, is on the environment. We are creating factories of workers, installing server towers, and ignoring the infrastructural norms because they would cost a lot more. Now for example, we take a city X. 10 years ago we were hard pressed to create infrastructure to accommodate workers for an outsourced project. Because, we didn’t want to lose time or money, we made buildings on where there were trees, and skipped our environmental sciences lectures (because those things are not asked in out entrance exams). Today, we have lowering water levels (Rain water harvesting? I don’t see the ROI for that investment), we have extreme levels of pollution (there are thousands of people, thousands of cars are required to travel, as the transport infra wasn’t considered important – it’s the employee’s headache how he reaches), and we have nothing in place to counter that. Roads are narrow, because that would reduce the amount of land that could be sold as plots, hence we see hour long traffic jams. If we’d spent a little time planning, and not maximizing profits, we might have had a healthier geography.

So now, the developed countries bring the idea of Carbon Credit – and that is where all this starts to fall apart. Today, we would invest a lot more in countering carbon generation (either by paying the carbon credit, or by restructuring the infrastructure – which could include high downtime for our Clients), and that would be a lot more if we had not been so penny wise pound foolish in the first place.

In all, we maybe have “stolen” the jobs, but we definitely are paying the penalty. HR policies are a document that would prevent any legal action, and no more. We are expected to work 12 hours or more in a 9.5 hour shift. If we work 9.5 – then according to the unwritten law – we are shirking. Human Resources has foregone to being humane and all that is left is resources. We have been robbed off our creativity, passion and to a certain extent our freedom of choosing what to do. But, more importantly, we are being robbed off our environment, and are too busy adhering to the processes to pay attention to that. We, thanks to this, have become machines, because globalization does not understand local holidays – when it is a holiday in India, its work in Europe, and when its a holiday in Europe, offices are open in India. Our festivals have lost their charm, and our lives have become a checklist.


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