India’s private sector needs to watch only one Bollywood movie this year: Aarakshan. Unlike most big budget movies, this one tackles a sensitive subject—quotas—in educational institutions. Though the film is focused squarely on education, the issue of affirmative action not only haunts educational institutions, but radiates to corporate life as well.
It’s ironic, but the world’s two greatest and largest democracies face similar issues in helping long suppressed minorities uplift their status. To help correct the injustice, government programmes in both countries were developed to help the underprivileged. Affirmative action was the course chosen in the US. In India, it was a similar programme, reservations. The difference being that in the US, the programmes were not just in educational institutions, but in corporations as well.
Aarakshan highlights the frustration of a Brahmin student who cannot attend the institution of his choice because of an increased quota. A friend questions why should “his kind” be punished for playing by the rules, working and studying hard; if the underprivileged want access to universities, they should stop being lazy and work hard. The retort by Saif Ali Khan is one for the ages. He says who is he to tell him what is hard work, paraphrasing here, “who are you to teach us about hard work. We have tilled your fields, built your homes, washed your clothes, cleaned your houses, and even more so we have cleaned your shit. Don’t teach us about hard work, we know hard work”. The debate is not too dissimilar to what could be heard in the US.
There the similarity to the US ends. For most part, the issue of quotas has stayed out of the private sector in India. Unlike the US, where most Fortune 500 firms have aggressive affirmative action programmes, similar programmes don’t exist in India’s largest companies. But Indian companies can’t wish away the issue. It’s just a matter of time.
Proposals have been mooted—and for the most part rejected—to impose some sort of reservation for the underprivileged in the private sector in India. Indian firms don’t want more interference from the government. The cover of India Today recently had the picture of the heads of India’s four leading corporations talking about aggressively exploring opportunities abroad because of frustration with government policies and interference at home.
Yet, the issue won’t go away. Take a close look inside any Indian corporation and it again won’t be too dissimilar to any US corporation. Just as in the US, Indian corporations will have under-represented minorities working at them. However, in India—and this is a hard but glaring truth—the underprivileged are much more likely to be working as part of the army of office boys, custodial staff, canteen workers, and drivers. Again, it’s similar to the US, where African-Americans are still more likely to be employed as maintenance engineers than financial engineers.
In the US, though, corporations have taken a step forward and worked hard to recruit, train and retain minorities. Many would argue that it’s not enough and they may be right. Still, it’s a start.
Indian companies need to embrace a proactive policy on affirmative action. There is little doubt that India’s business people care. I have yet to meet a person not concerned for the welfare of those less well off or society in general. One colleague I met has paid of the education for the children of every driver or office boy who has worked for him. Others have devoted themselves to helping non-governmental organizations grow, or done similar activities.
Corporate India is far from callous and affirmative action is in its best interest. Individuals and corporations don’t live in an isolated island. Corporations will be stronger when all Indians feel that they have a true chance at the best jobs at the best companies. Paraphrasing Saif Ali Khan, the less privileged are only asking for a chance. Indian corporations need to make sure that everyone has a fighting chance to obtain and succeed in a job in corporate India.
Inclusive growth is topic dejeuner for nightly TV shows, political parties, coffee shops and boardrooms. Talk needs to be made into action. The government is launching one social sector scheme after another; one can argue the merits of some of them. But what is true is the Chinese proverb that says give a man a fish, he eats for a day, teach a man to fish, he eats for life. With proper help and guidance, many marginalized members of society can become salespeople, programmers, bankers, flight attendants, consultants, designers and more. The push to impose quotas will come if marginalized members of society do not believe they can get a seat at the corporate table. Indian firms are better off helping now and making improvements on it before government gets involved. Inclusive growth is a mantra for any government in India. Corporate India needs to play its part.
Prashant Agrawal, a principal at a management consultancy, writes on public policy issues in India and internationally.
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