Some maxims are eternal, and can be applied to each subsequent generation, only requiring a new explanation with relevance to present circumstances. I recently read a chapter written by Acharya Vinoba Bhave (it is included in the ICSE Hindi portion and I was reading it out to my son). This chapter “The dignity of Labour”, written in Hindi in the early 1900’s is so poignantly applicable, that I am going to attempt explaining a part of it along with a few of my own thoughts.

My maid works really hard all day: travels for two hours to reach my house, works for ten hours and needs another two hours to get back home, effectively working a 14 hour day, and a seven day week!! She earns Rs. 9000/- pm, her equally hard working husband earns another 8000/-. They have two children that they are trying to put through school. The parents have no time to devote to the children and no matter how hard they work, not enough money to make up for it. No health insurance, no savings, no retirement fund, no outings, no vacations. They are still one of the lucky ones, as they own a home in the far off suburbs of Mumbai that they bought a couple of years ago with the money that we lent them. They will spend the rest of their lives working to pay off their dues.

There are several like them in the city of Mumbai and all over our country: the farmers, carpenters, masons, road side workers, cleaners, drivers, people working in our homes, etc. They are the true pillars of our society and our world will collapse if they did not show up for work. They do show up for work every day, working hard for their wages, trying unsuccessfully to catch up with the ever-increasing cost of living. They are the doers, the people we rely on to run our homes, offices, and businesses successfully, the foundations on which all our lofty plans work, the roots of our money-sprouting trees.

I wonder who decides how much money their work deserves. Does physical labour deserve less compensation than intellectual grind? Does different types of intellectual work merit different reimbursement? Why does vocational hierarchy exist? Is this not the basis of vocational snobbery, and hence the basis of growing monitory disparity between the “Classes”? When working 80 odd hours a week is not enough to feed, clothe and educate the family with dignity, when honest effort is not enough to amass savings to safeguard against calamities, when unstinted efforts are not enough to ever allow retirement, how can the honest worker believe in the dignity of his own labour? It is no wonder then, that not only do the elite look down on physical labour, the labourer himself looks down on it too!

I helped my maid buy a house and move out of her illegal slum shanty. I often help her with extra money, clothes, tuition fees, medical bills, and other expenses. I “look after” several people that work for me at home and office in this manner. I even call it “my” way of doing “charity”. But is it really charity? How bourgeoisie of me (and many like me) to demean labour and honest effort by first paying less for it, and then insulting it with the stigma of charity!

Have we risen above the caste system? Are we taking the right steps towards bridging the ever-increasing economic chasm that we have created? Is the “charity” and “giving back to society” charade that we are caught up in enough to turn things around? Isn’t it more necessary that we look at the way we are compensating for labour and try to be fairer, working towards reasonable parity between vocations?

In a country like ours, giving labour its due dignity, can be the political vision we all need!

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  • Dr Harshada Rajadhyaksha

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