Industry leader and corporate tycoon N.R. Narayana Murthy’s exhortation to youth to work 70 hours per week to enable the country to grow into a $30 trillion (from the current $3.7 trillion) economy by 2047, has stirred a hornet’s nest among the woke brigades. Suddenly, trendy television news anchors and grave editorial writers are discussing the pros and cons of this proposal and the effect it’s likely to have on the work-life balance and mental health of youth and the working age population.
In support of his contention, Murthy cites the examples of China and Japan and several South-east Asian countries after World War II, whose citizens worked 70-hour weeks to repair their economies ravaged by foreign invaders and relentless bombardment by the West-led allies. As a result these economies advanced in terms of per capita incomes and human development indices and are currently far ahead of India. To a nation globally notorious for sloth and time agnosticism, there is undoubtedly some substance in this exhortation because together with some engineers, Narayana Murthy himself burned the midnight oil to transform Infosys Technologies Ltd (estb.1981) into a globally respected IT and ITES (IT enabled services) multinational (sales revenue: Rs.1.5 lakh crore in 2022-23) in record time. Therefore, his advice is worthy of careful consideration.
However for Mr. Murthy’s information, the vast majority of India’s population is already working 70 hour weeks. They are employed in the MSME (micro, small and medium sector enterprises) sector, which although it provides livelihood to 85 percent of the population employed in the non-agriculture economy, and produces 40 percent of manufacturing output and services, is cruelly treated by banks which starve them of credit, and large companies to whom they supply components and materials routinely delay payments due. In the MSME sector, slogging out the 70- hour week for entrepreneurs and employees is a matter of survival. It’s only in the organised sector of the economy and government which employ 10 percent of India’s 450 million working population that work-life balance and mental and emotional health have become big issues.
Yet despite the 45-hour week being normative and work conditions on a par with the best worldwide, Mr. Murthy is right to lament poor productivity in this privileged sector. It’s well-known that productivity — average output per employee — in India Inc is one-tenth of American industry and 20 percent of China’s. But the root cause of this disparity is that industrial productivity in OECD countries is higher because of better tools and education. Working 70 hours per week won’t help if children are not encouraged to acquire good communication and hand skills and innovate from young age. The basic cause of poor productivity of Indian industry (and agriculture) is not a propensity to shirk work, but a faulty rote-learning education system that pays little attention to innovation, modern tools usage and problem-solving skills.