Factory Gates @ Panchkula
The tea shop opposite Elante business park is packed with customers. Most of them are in pairs: brother-and-sister; mother and son; father-and-son. Two things they are engrossed in: watching their wristwatches or handsets and the gliding polished iron gate with uniformed guards in attendance. A steady stream of cars enters the spanky complex, housing a clutch of software companies. Gate №2, serving as drop point, witnesses employees — predominantly young — walking through the pedestrian gate as guards monitor the lanyards hung around their necks for routine identity checks.
Guards regularly shooed away a few turbanned sardars hanging around the gate with their wards. Many of them have been standing outside the sprawling corporate complex since seven, as I have noticed while stepping out for the morning walk in Panchkula Industrial estate, where I am housed in Lemon Tree for one night on some assignment.
The crowd has thickened on my return to my hotel. “It’s a daily sight,” says the cigarette vendor outside the tea stall, and good business for him too. The software companies don’t work on Saturdays and Sundays, and the tea stall and cigarette vendor have lesser footfall. What does ESSO, the well-known petrol pumps that dotted the Indian landscape for long until the 1960s and early 1970s before being replaced by the Indian Oil, BPCL, and HPCL, stand for? “Every Saturday Sunday Off”! Childhood memories came rushing back.
I notice several factories on the tea-stall side — Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). Without exception, boards on their gates announce vacancies for various posts: Peons, Fitters, Welders, Helpers, Sweepers, and whatnot. There is not a single job-seeker outside these units. Empty. Barren.
Does nobody want a job in these units? None wants to be a fitter, welder? Technical jobs, of course. Even sweepers and peons, none want to? “These units have not recovered after the lockdown. Workers from Bihar and other eastern states have gone home and not returned,” explains the security guard at one of these units.
What’s wrong with these jobs? Why only Biharis prefer any job? The mindset. For us, Punjabis, such jobs have no value. Why go elsewhere? My son — inter pass — prefers an office job and not factory one,” laments the fiftyish dad, about to complete his night shift.
The dignity of labor. A nice ring to that phrase. Several summers ago, I remembered picking up a copy of Mahatma Gandhi’s book with the same title at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. Paper degrees instead of skill-based education and certification lost their merit.
At Ludhiana, a decade ago, I went for a haircut after completing a six-day-long ride in a Tata Steel carrying truck outside the stockyard. Half a dozen barbershops, each managed or owned by Biharis. Handcart vendors are busy selling Bihari foodstuff to standee-customers. The Bihari Hindi pervades totally. No trace of Punjabi in one of the richest cities in Punjab. A mini-Bihar, if one may say.
What happened to Punjabi entrepreneurship? Who says it has evaporated? Not at all. They are businessmen. Not workers, argues the sales manager at the Factory Seconds shop outside one of the leading woolen garment factories. “We can afford to hire labor and get work done. Why (you) make a big fuss?” he argues. He has a point, perhaps.
With an inter-pass, Nitin, the gangly twenty-year-old son of our maid, is job-hunting. His maiden job was at a readymade garment warehouse in Noida as a temporary hand for three months. 40% scorer. “Get me a job where I can handle computer,” requests he on a weekend meeting at home. He says he ran order management and wants a job in Noida only and computer work.
How about the job of the delivery executive in ecom firms who crib of worker shortage? A firm ‘no’ from Nitin. Why? It is a low-end job, he responds. What about his friends’ careers? Some got into the delivery job, yes. He is not cut out for that job. He stresses the word that!
It is more than two months since our first meeting, and he is still hunting through cold calls at warehouses while papa presses clothes at a readymade garment export house, and mummy deploys her skills from sunrise to sunset in the housing complex feeding Nitin and his three school-going sisters.
No way, Nitin is different from the scores of hangers-on outside Elante in Panchkula, Punjab. How many of them would make it is debatable. Meanwhile, the vacancy boards outside the factories there remain intact. Nobody knows when those businessmen can get the required workforce as fitters, welders, peons, or sweepers. When will today’s education system bestow respectability on non-paper skills as well? Does the New Education Policy usher in such a desirable change?