Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Cubiclenama | The problem with cheap

Clear your calendars, cancel your appointments, burn your SIM card, delete your Gmail account, blackout your televisions and spike your spouse’s cappuccino with temporary or permanent sedative. Debut author Andy Weir’s new book The Martian is out.

Ever since I’ve started listening to the audiobook version of The Martian, my productivity has plummeted to levels unseen outside Lutyens Delhi. It is very addictive.

And so there I was listening to the book when my mind began to wander from one thing to another, and suddenly I wondered what was up with our old interplanetary friend, Mangalyaan.

Which led me to an article about Mangalyaan that first made me think and, after due rumination, made me quite uneasy.

Look, by any metric Mangalyaan is a splendid achievement. A bunch of human beings just sent a device from one planet to another, that will not only make the perilous journey of a bajillion kilometres (approx.), but also insert itself into the orbit of the other planet and then proceed to study and send back reports on this planet’s atmosphere, environment and surface.

Just think about that. Think about that keeping in mind that man achieved powered flight for the first time just a century or so ago. Doesn’t it make you shout out in delight: Boy, what a species we are! (Conditions apply.)

Then of course there is the matter of national pride. As the Mangalyaan Wikipedia page indicates nicely, the mission has two goals, and studying Mars is a distant second. The first is to showcase Indian science and engineering achievements in particular, and Indian awesomeness in general.

But there is one aspect of Indian pride in the mission that I think is not only blown out of proportion, but also somewhat irrelevant—that it is “so astoundingly cheap".

If I read one more news article about Mangalyaan costing less than Real Madrid/The Hobbit/iPad Mini/WhatsApp/Dinesh Karthik/Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, I swear I am going to beat someone. Anyone. If you see such an article, don’t take a chance, run. SLAP! Too slow.

I’ve always found this obsession with Mangalyaan’s “low cost" somewhat ludicrous. As if cheapness, by itself, is a universal virtue. But the news article made me realize why it is not only an iffy quality but also perhaps a damaging thing to celebrate.

In a November interview with Forbes magazine, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) supremo Kopillil Radhakrishnan said: “We are schedule-driven to the extreme. In parts of Europe, even space scientists have a 35-hour workweek. For us here, 18-hour days are common. During the launch period, many of our scientists were working 20-hour days. Being time-effective makes us cost-effective."

Let us entirely ignore the fact this is possibly illegal in India. If my reading of The Factories Act of 1948 is correct, no one in India, under any circumstance, is allowed to work more than 60 hours per week, inclusive of overtime. And I doubt if the engineers at ISRO get paid extravagant overtime.

But that is the law. Nobody cares for the law.

What I really struggle to understand is how making somebody work for 20 hours per day is “time-effective". That is not “time-effective". That is just driving your people insane. In my personal lexicon, “time-effective" is getting more done in less time through smart means without compromising the quality of work done. It certainly does not mean making people work brutal hours.

Neither is this being “schedule-driven". There are several ways of being schedule-driven. And overworking people is possibly the worst.

So it is cost-effective, but, in as much as labour costs are concerned, because it is exploitative of your people.

Now I know what many readers are going to say. Why should I care if those patriotic engineers want to overwork? Fair point.

But then let us all not blindly sing paeans to ISRO’s cost-efficiency. There are several problems with running any project on this basis. First of all, 20-hour workdays don’t make for sustainable business plans. If India aspires to become a cost-effective supplier of space services, it is not going to be on the shoulders of overworked scientists.

Second, it is ironic to cry about the lack of quality scientists in India when one of the few agencies that do good work in the country would rather overwork the ones they have rather than hire more. Surely India’s science ecosystem is better served by two engineers who work 10-hour shifts than one guy who puts in 20? No one joining? Why not pay more? There must be plenty of savings lying about?

I have a suggestion. Why not celebrate other things besides, or instead of, low cost? Radhakrishnan himself lists them out: the Mangalyaan teams were much more efficient and less wasteful with testing, raw materials, fuel and so on. All vastly superior things to celebrate than 20-hour workdays.

Why not celebrate India’s ability to set up the world’s most efficient space programme? That is built on a foundation of world-class manpower, working in human-class conditions? Far too often when we celebrate “low-cost", I am afraid we really mean “exploited people".

Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at

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