“Do you expect us to eat our lunch in forty seven degrees heat inside a tin shed on the top floor with regular staff? Is the company not willing to continue giving us a proper place to eat and dine in an air conditioned environment?”
I was taken aback with the statement from the young manager who in a state of rebellion at an open forum had retorted to my request to treat everyone- Vice Presidents, General Managers, Managers and support staff, as equal and dine together to build team spirit.
Wow! India had not changed and all this talk of a ‘New’ India where everyone has equal opportunity and treated at par was sounding hollow in the very first instance of change that I wanted to bring about in the organization.
Perhaps I was wrong. India had remained the same and only my lens had changed. Especially after returning back from the West after a decade!
In Canada and USA, I had become used to seeing a common dining area for all. Workers nay associates, staff, managers, et al. No differences. Whether it was Walmart or Kohls or even smaller establishments! True there was a hierarchy but that too with lesser levels and low or no glass ceilings. All will eat together, call each other by name, be mostly accessible, enjoy no extra privileges and expected to be treated as equal.
In Canada in municipalities far and wide, a person who joins as a Police constable can aspire and has a career path available to become the Commissioner of Police one day! Some do! A young boy of eighteen just out of high school who joins a hotel as a cleaner or a bell boy does go out to become the General Manager Operations or CEO. A Walmart guard or Loss prevention associate as they are called can become the store manager one day, a seamstress the design head, a trainee accounts clerk the top administrator of the city.
All the above are real day to day examples and not aberrations. Society treats them as equal. True there is racism and related struggles and despite directives to ensure equal opportunities, men and women do get affected by their own prejudices. Yet those are individual deficiencies not organizational practices.
Yet India is different. The West changed but India stagnated where it was a decade back nay centuries back and seem to prefer that segregation for decades more. Not as individual preferences but as organizational practices.
In many small private companies, large corporate establishments, government or army establishments, we have a clear class system that exists, gets total organizational support and divides and segregates people. Multiple glass ceilings exist and the elite works with an iron fist to ensure that the status quo remains and cannot be broken.
We have clearly defined categories of workers, staff, managers and higher management. Among these classes too we have sub-classes. Among workers we have unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled to ensure that organizations do not herd everyone together. Among staff- clerical, officer and executive; among managers- assistant, deputy, AGM, …, one could go on and on! True some organizations have broken the mold and yet most adhere to the organizational hierarchy strictly like the caste system of the past.
Indians have loved to divide each other. Be it on religious grounds, caste or sub-caste grounds, sects and sub-sects, gender, sexual preferences….. No wonder at the work places too this attitude led to segregations that became the norm. What followed were separate messes and privileges. And off course the government recognized and reinforced such boundaries with added regulations of their own.
While the world moved on Indians still cling to this mindset and are not willing to let go.
I had joined this organization at a position of power and could command change. If I would have forced, people would have had to leave the comforts of their air conditioned dining hall and eat along with the rest of the staff on the terrace in the boiling temperatures of Delhi under a tin shed.
I wanted more. Next to the staff canteen was the workers canteen where workers were eating. I wanted to merge all together and let everyone eat together so that the organization could clearly understand that while our roles were different, all were equal and that we all had our part to play in the growth of the company. That individually we all were to be treated at par, eating the same food, eating it together, cleaning our tables, picking up our utensils and putting it at its due place and not having any special privileges.
“Sir but most of these workers are Muslim workers or from very low class families. They do not know how to eat and keep their place dirty. No one can eat with them. They are better left away. Also if we eat with them they will not respect our authority and we will not be able to get work out of them. Bad idea! ” Seriously I am not making a word of this and was flabbergasted to see that people actually meant every word of what they said. Even though these were the same associates on whose labor the factory was running and expected to make money.
Yet change is better brought by choice than command.
I had already denounced my benefits as the head of the division to have a separate dining place with an associate serving me lunch brought from a “classier” restaurant outside or even stooping a level below and dining with the other managers in their “first class air conditioned” dining area. I was already eating simple canteen food in the boiling tin shed along with the rest of the staff and had only requested others to join in.
It was time to take a step forward without forcing anyone. I told the people present that there was no binding or compulsion and that they were free to do what they desired.
From that day onwards, I started to eat along with my “worker” associates and follow the norms of the canteen like anyone else. Truth be told, I have not seen any ‘dirty’ way of eating or even ‘filthy’ food and in fact have enjoyed the taste of curries that they happily offer from their lunch boxes to me. I feel most happy in their company and enjoy talking to them and listening to their life stories and aspirations over the lunch table. I have only found love and happiness and off course a good fill at such times.
As for the rest, many stayed where they were while some started eating along with the rest of the staff. Some even started to eat in the ‘workers’ canteen. It is tough for them as their upbringing is deeply rooted inside and is difficult to change.
I am not an Indian citizen any more but return back here for the love that we share for each other. It is disturbing to see India divided and grovelling in the lowly dust of religious, caste and class divides.
I do not believe in God and hence will not pray but will do my own bit to see that we can move away to a better India where all are treated as one and equal.
In the people who joined me voluntarily to dine with our associates, I see that fire and desire to change. Let the fire spread and let equality triumph over our created differences. A simple wish which one day will turn to reality!
Posted in Times of India on 29th July 2018. Link below-