Ajit Balakrishnan: From stenos to service counters

Last Updated: Wed, Dec 12, 2012 21:30 hrs

When I started working in the early 1970s, offices in Bombay (as it was called then) would be dominated by what was known as the typing pool. This pool would, depending on the size of the establishment, be a collection of 15 to 30 women with typewriters in front of them. The managers of the office would sit in cabins. From time to time a manager would call one of these women who was slightly higher in the pecking order of the typing pool and was called a “stenographer” –“girls”, as they were called, even though many were in their fifties – and dictate a letter. The “girl” would make notes in “shorthand”, a special language. She would then go back to her desk, tap at her typewriter and transcribe the shorthand into a letter. Next, the letter, with many subsequent corrections, would be put into an envelope and sent to the mailing section, which would then stick stamps and mail it.

The reason I have spelt out this process of letter-writing in such detail is that readers under the age of 40 today may never have encountered this practice; it may strike them as quaint as the sight of a tribal village. Yet, till at least the early 1980s, the typing pool was a common sight in Bombay offices and probably till the late 1990s in other Indian cities — and possibly one of the few white-collar jobs that educated women could aspire to. Today, the typing pool has disappeared from the office landscape, and managers – they could as easily be women as they could be men – sit with PCs in front of them and do their own letters.

“Labour market changes” is the stuffy-sounding phrase scholars use to describe such changes, but shifts more seismic than the disappearance of stenographers and typing pools are under way in India’s labour markets.

Take, for instance, industrial employment. The theory went that as a nation develops and grows, its people would migrate from subsistence-level rural farm jobs to far better-paying and infinitely more secure jobs with formal rights and perhaps even retirement benefits in urban factories. But that does not seem to be happening in India. The number of people employed in manufacturing in India actually dropped by four million in the past five years from the earlier 56 million. What is even more amazing is, as Tirthankar Roy points out in his book Rethinking Economic Change in India, that in 1901 India had 14 million industrial workers, who made up 10 per cent of the workforce; in 1991, after decades of attempting industrialisation this had risen to just 29 million — again a mere 10 per cent of the workforce. By 2004 this number had risen to a mere 56 million; and now, in the last five years, we have had the spectacle of a decline of four million. Industrial workers still account for 12 per cent of total workers. What Mr Roy wrote in his 2005 book, that “India’s workforce is not significantly more industrial today than it was a century ago”, appears to hold true even today in 2012.

The organised sector as a whole employs a minuscule percentage of our population. Within that, the government and its institutions have actually shrunk the number of people they employ by a million, to a mere 18 million, in the past five years. If the number of people employed in construction had not increased by 18 million in the last five years from the base year figure of 26 million, the situation would have been grim.

For a young migrant to an Indian city from the many jobless rural areas of our country, the most likely job is in a sector of our economy that our economists delicately classify as “Trade, Hotels and Restaurants”.

The stereotypical image of an Indian was that of a sturdy peasant carrying a plough on his shoulder, striding confidently into a lush field. Is it time we changed this stereotypical image to the new reality: that of a teenage boy, a recent immigrant from a village, at a kirana shop counter waiting for your order, or at a mobile phone service outlet ready to refill your phone card, or in a wayside restaurant serving you food?

The writer is the author of The Wave Rider

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