Labour in Jamshedpur - The Other Side of the Picture

The article from the pen of Mr J.L. Keenan, the General Manager of the Tata Iron and Steel Works of Jamshedpur, in 'The Modern Review' for December, 1935, is interesting for more reasons than one. It is interesting for the digressions from the steel-making into the domain of historical and sociological research - interesting for the placid self-complacency which inspires the writer - interesting also for the many contradictions in which the article abounds.

A word about historical and sociological matters. When Mr Keenan talks about steel-production, he is on solid ground and his self-confidence is an asset. When he digresses into the thorny domain of Ancient History or sociology, his self-confidence becomes a handicap. Says Mr Keenan: 'He (J. N. Tata) realized that India from the time of Manu was condemned to be a country or capitalists and slaves' (p. 705). It is a truism in economics that capitalism is a recent growth in consequence of the advent or large-scale production. How there could have been a capitalist order at the time of Manu and after, passes my comprehension. Even landlordism as we see it today in India is a recent growth, further, even the state in ancient times did not amass wealth - the prevalent idea being that the state (whether monarchy or a republic) should give everything to the people. A typical example of this was King Harshavardhana, who emptied the Royal treasury once in five years.

Then Mr Keenan goes on to say: 'We (Tata) know that in India before his time the mere name of a labourer must be expressive of contempt' (p. 705). If Mr Keenan has used the work 'labourer in the sense of artisan, he is mistaken. The artisans in the Indian village economy - whether carpenters or blacksmiths or potters - were never looked down upon with contempt. They were indispensable elements of the village economy and their sable elements of the village economy and their relations with the rest of the village population were perfectly friendly and cordial. Labourers in the sense of industrial proletariat are an excrescence of capitalism and not an Indian phenomenon as such. If labourers (industrial proletariat) are looked down upon in India, similar is the case in other countries. I have heard from Indian apprentices in European factories that the gulf which separates workmen from officers in European factories is very wide.

Mr Keenan is also wrong when he goes on to say 'that a labourer was as a rule forbidden to accumulate wealth and, though he was a slave, even if his master gave him freedom, he was still a slave' (p. 705). I wonder from where Mr Keenan culled this valuable piece of information. We know, on the contrary, that in India low-born people often rose to the highest positions by dint of their personal qualities. If we investigate the past history of some of the present Maharajah and landed aristocrats, useful information can be collected in this connection. I may also point to examples like that of the alleged Kaivarta Kings of Bengal, who came from a so-called low stratum of society.

The distinction, between 'Labour of Necessity' and 'Labour of Progress' which Mr Keenan has drawn is artificial and if I may say so, fantastic. Even in ancient times, all labour was not labour of necessity. People did not work only for hunger, nor did they always get starvation wages. Most people worked partly because of hunger, and partly because of the pleasure in working; and it is too much to say that labour in the good old days was always sweated. The huge monuments of art that still live - Mohenjodaro, Harappa, Taj Mahal, Madura, Kanarak - do they not represent labour of progress as well? It is true that industries in the old days did not pay huge dividends as they sometimes do now. But we have to remember that huge dividends are exclusively the product of the industrial revolution - that is of large-scale production. Moreover, this phenomenon of huge dividends can hardly be called an advantage or an achievement. Thinking men everywhere are now coming to admit that the evils resulting from industrial capitalism are due largely to the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few, and to abnormally large dividends which are gathered either at the cost of sweated labour or at the cost of the exploited consumer in colonial or semi-colonial countries.

Mr Keenan transgresses the limits of decency when he refers to President Roosevelt 'assisted by a group of asinine Professors' trying to find a way out of the present depression. I do no hold any brief for President Roosevelt nor does the noble President stand in need of it. But is there anyone who can deny that the biggest experiment to end unemployment and depression that is going on in the world today outside Russia is in the U.S.A.? I would refer the writer to the excellent treatise written by Mr H.G. Wells, The New American in the World, in which he discusses the American experiment and compares it with the Russian. Incidentally Mr Wells refers therein to the question as to why President Roosevelt sought the help of some professors, whom Mr Keenan in his self-complacency calls 'asinine.' Possibly what has annoyed Mr Keenan is that President Roosevelt is laying his hands on the large dividends with a view to dividing them, in part at least, among the exploited proletariat and that he (President Roosevelt) maintains that the employers should recognise organised trade-unions and treat them as equals.

Mr Keenan is not only self-complacent, he is more. He says that 'as far as making steel in India is concerned that Company (Tatas) has ended the depression in that trade and I think that Company should be proud of this fact' (p. 707). But let me ask Mr Keenan what after all, 'ending depression under a capitalist system' means. It means finding more markets and also sufficient capital to keep a concern going until more markets are found. The huge bounties given by the Indian people through the Government of India in the lean years helped the Company to keep going until more markets or orders could be found. That the Company today is able to make more profits is due to two factors: firstly, the duties imposed on foreign - specially continental - steel, which make it possible for the people to patronise Tatas, and secondly the orders directly placed by the Government of India with the Tata Iron and Steel Company. It is therefore the people and the Government of India who are really responsible for ending the depression in the steel trade - if really it has ended. Mr Keenan has not a word of thanks for either of them, though he congratulates the Company, and therefore self, for the recent improvement.

I happen to know something about Tatas since September, 1928, and I should like to enquire if the Tata Iron and Steel Company would have been alive today but for the heavy state-bounties which kept the Company going during the lean years and provided the fat salaries for the covenanted officers at a time when thousands of workmen were thrown into the streets, without unemployment dole, or insurance benefit. I should also like to enquire if the Company would have been able to end the depression, as the General Manager claims it has done, without the aid of the heavy duties levied on imported steel and without the sympathy and support of the public and the Government of India. The confusion of thought which the writer shows in some places is pathetic, and makes one wish, that he would devote more attention to the study of economics than to history and sociology. Here is a specimen of his reasoning: 'in 1929 and in 1930, our monthly staff with the exception of a few whom you could count on the fingers of two hands, were "labourers of progress." The Steel Company earned dividends last year and this Steel Company, rightly, paid their "labourers of progress" a reward for their extra effort which they had put forth' (p. 707). A perusal of the above would lead one to think that the financial improvement of the Company was due to improvement in the work put forth by the employees in 1931 and after. The fact is that the financial improvement was due solely to the larger orders secured by Tatas, as explained in the previous paragraph. If one were to go round and examine one employee after another, one would not find any difference between his work in 1929-30 and his work in 1931-33. I clearly remember that in 1929 and 1930 the General Manager used to complain of lack of orders which forced him to reduce wages - to order sweeping retrenchment and to shut down certain department of the Tata Iron and Steel Company in Jamshedpur.

The writer remarks in one place as follows: 'At the present time, in my opinion, due to economic factors, the entire labour of the steel world, with the exception of the labour in the Tata Iron and Steel Company Ltd., have forgotten that they are "Labour of Progress" and they are "Labour of Necessity" … There is nobody in the United States of America today, in my opinion, at least in the ranks of Labour, who are attempting to get out of the category of "Labour of Necessity" … There is no doubt that each and everyone of us realise that we have had a depression from 1928 until 1933 in India. The same depression exists in other countries. The Tata Iron and Steel Company, in my estimation, is the only company in the steel trade which has advanced …' (pp. 706-7).

The above statements would lead one to expect that Jamshedpur has become a paradise for steel workers - an object lesson for steel companies in other parts of the world. But what are the facts? Earlier in the article the writer states that American steel workers are the best paid in the world. Quoting a report of the American Iron and Steel Institute dated the 30th January, 1935, the writer says: 'American workers … earned an average of 64.7 cents an hour in November 1934 ... The Japanese wage rate was 9.7 cents per hour and in India 8.6 cents per hour in 1933.' (The figure for European countries are in the neighbourhood of 25 cents per hour.) If the average for India is one-eighth of that of the United States of America and if the Tata Iron and Steel Company is by far the biggest steel industry in India, I think the General Manager of Tatas should hang his head down in shame instead of indulging in meaningless bragging.