Mainstream, VOL LIV No 15 New Delhi April 2, 2016
Bengali Work Culture: Continuity in Change
Monday 4 April 2016
by Arunava Narayan Mukherjee
“Work culture has to come from within”, “China and Japan have progressed owing to their work culture, while we cannot progress as we do not possess it to their level.”
Division Bench of Arun Mishra, Chief Justice, and Justice Joymalya Bagchi of Calcutta High Court, February 8, 2013 during the hearing of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking the Court’s intervention to maintain normal conditions during the two-day nationwide strike from February 20, 2013 (The Statesman, Kolkata, February 9, 2013)
Long ago Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy made the following comment about the national character of the Bengalis:
“We should not conceal our national character. Bengalis are quite clever and adept in deceitfulness and cleverness. They even resort to deceitful means in passing the examination. In the field of employment and work this deceitfulness is equally evident—being indifferent to hard work, unwilling to learn that tact of business. Intriguing and cleverness in every sphere—as the saying goes the more you are clever, the more you become destitute—Bengalis are really destitute in all walks of life.”
A true relationship between private interest and public essentials is the foundation of economic development which gets duly reflected in the work culture of a particular place or community. What debilitates the social fabric of West Bengal is its generic failure in instilling a specific consciousness of a functional reciprocity between individual aspirations and public good. The pervasive practices of negligence, avoidance, absenteeism, and lack of seriousness among the entire working community, particularly the officials of public service in Bengal, reflect a dissonance in identifying private interest to be preferably in harmony with a dynamic public space and testify to a firm hold of the untamed notion of one’s own well-being which is completely detached from the collective ambit and remnants. The Bengali’s peculiar worldview misses a very basic point that caring for one’s own well-being can scarcely be devoid of one’s caring for the society and surrounding public— a social trend reinforced by the global consumerism. (Maharatna, 2008)
An all-encompassing indifference, carelessness and indolence towards work and job responsi-bilities characterise the prevailing state of ‘work culture’ of government offices and Public Sector Units of West Bengal. People are commonly believed to be oblivious of punctuality; typically slack on their job responsibilities and duties. The majority of the working population is allegedly habitually late in coming in and early in leaving the workplace; they appear to spend a lot of time gossiping and even socialising within prime duty hours; there is also a common complaint regarding their intermittent disappearance from the office desk on various private and non-official pursuits. All this is popularly perceived as manifestations of the usual ‘work culture’ in West Bengal. (Maharatna, 2001) The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) came down hard on the much-hyped ‘do it now’ mantra of the then Marxist Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, once again exposing the lethargic work culture prevailing in State Government offices and Public Sector Units of West Bengal. (Goswami, 2007) Ranking of the State of West Bengal in social and economic infrastructure has slipped back during 1981-91—signifying a distinct relative retrogre-ssion in social and economic infrastructure development. (Maharatna,2007) Therefore, decline of work culture is the manifestation of a facade of overall decadence of the socio-economic life of West Bengal.
Roy (1995) tried to explain the nature of ‘Bengali Leftism’ which he holds to be solely responsible for the present state of poor work culture in West Bengal in the following manner:
According to Roy, the primary characteristics of ‘Bengali Leftism’ is showing indifference to, rather ignoring, the formal authority.
Secondly, Marxism-based oversimplified analysis of ‘classified’ society divided into ‘Haves’ and ‘Have Nots’ where being idle at work is a revolutionary step by which the ‘Have Nots’—workers—are teaching a lesson to the ‘Haves’—the entrepreneurs or owners of the business or, for that matter, their representatives.
Thirdly, so far as the role of the revolutionary trade unions are concerned, to achieve the ‘Earned Rights’ is more important for them than doing the work or assigned duty.
A few very common phrases which a consumer or customer citizen listens at any government office or Public Sector Undertaking in West Bengal when she/he interacts with the officials of those organisations for the purpose any work:
“Pare asben. Aaj habena. Ektu byasto achhi.”
(Come later. Today the work cannot be done. I am a bit busy.)
(It will take time to do your work.)
“Onar aste deri habe.”
(The concerned person will be late in coming to the office.)
“Uni aaj asen ni.”
(The concerned person is absent today.)
This environment leads to the formation of ‘vicious circle of poor work culture’ where members of different work organisations reciprocate with each other being charged with a sense of destructive retaliation.
Very peculiarly, the traditional Bengali psyche, influenced by Leftist ideology, considers the idea of improving the standard of living a dishonest one, the archetypal rationale being one honest person cannot be successful and well-off. One should not confuse it with the great ideal of ‘simple living and high thinking’; rather, this is a typical manifestation of the emotional Bengali character romanticising, rather glorifying, poverty under the cover of a pseudo-idealistic romanticised notion choosing an easy escape route from “hard work”—an essential ingredient for an ideal work culture. At the same time the Bengalis are no exception to the general Indian character which has been wonderfully explained by Kakar (1978, 1981):
‘The heightened narcissist vulnerability of the Indian.....a clamour for attention, exhibitionism, hypochondria or in the extreme of psychosis, a cold paranoid of grandiosity.”
A combination of all the aforesaid factors finally leads to the formation of a dehumanised, destructive work culture.
Although seemingly unbelievable, it is, however, a fact that out of 365 days of a year the government or, for that matter, PSU employees enjoy 179 holidays. This can be explained in the following manner:
|Nature of Leave||Number of Days|
|Total Saturdays and Sundays in a year||104|
|‘Bandh’, Holiday under NI Act, office remaining close on account of the death of important figures||5 (minimum)]||TOTAL||179 Days|
|Working days left 365-179=186|
Source: Panchu Roy, letters to the editor, Desh (Bengali Magazine), 1995
There is hardly any government office in West Bengal where the office timing is maintained and employees have genuine concern for maintaining office hours. In the decade between 2001 and 2010, no office of the Government of West Bengal remained open for 240 days in a year. (Anandabazar Patrika, February 18, 2011) Irrespective of its political affiliation in West Bengal, the political leadership motivates the workers to make demands and to be aware of their rights but never highlights their duties and infuse in the workers the sense of responsibility and obligation towards work. The trade unions spearhead the culture of getting their demands fulfilled by “stopping” the work.
This idleness, rather inability to work, leads to insecurity resulting in narrow-mindedness, inferiority complex which gets manifested by way “institutionalisation of indecency at the workplace” (as well as in society in general) preventing the constructive approach to work.
It is really a paradox; the people who are very careful, meticulous, vigilant about work and work-related issues in domestic and personal front, at the workplace as government officials the same people are equally careless, negligent, indifferent towards their work.
Now a very pertinent question: has there been any perceptible positive change in the work culture of West Bengal with the change of the political vanguards in the State?
The answer does not carry hope, rather it cannot. Although there are certain indications but how far they turn out to be a reality, marking substantial change in the work culture of West Bengal is quite uncertain. There are sporadic instances of improvement in the employees’ morale and productivity in organisa-tions like the State Transport Corporations, Mother Dairy which may be suggestive of change in specific sectors. However, the government’s propaganda machinery is out to prove the change in work culture with the change of political regime. “There has been no case of strike in the major industries of West Bengal; neither has there been any disturbance in the Tea Plantations. Only three Jute Mills remained closed out of 50 Jute Mills and only four tea gardens remained closed out of 281 tea gardens at the end of the Financial Year 2012-13.” (Labour in West Bengal, 2012-13, Annual Report, Government of West Bengal) According to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, “The loss in mandays in West Bengal was 66 lakh during 2010-11 and it dropped to 66,000 in 2011-12.” (The Statesman, Kolkata, July 27, 2013)
The above mentioned figures may be indicative of a mechanical change but the question is: how much of this change is spontaneous and how far is it sustainable? Change in political or government structure may initially bring about certain positive outcomes—even it happened in India during the dark days of the Emergency too. But the success of the change depends on certain factors. There is a need to understand whether the change is holistic, spontaneous and deeprooted.
Unfortunately, the study of the social psyche of the Bengalis does not conform to the change syndrome of the post-Leftist era. Because the problem fundamentally does not lie with the prevalent political ideology, it rests with the Bengali psyche.
Bengalis are never good team-workers. Perhaps the Bengali team-work is confined to culture alone—Group Theatre, making great movies but since independence Bengalis cannot boast of producing an institution out of team-work—not an Amul, not a Lizzat Papad, not a JNU, not a Reliance, not even a Gramin Bank samething their Bangladeshi counterparts did.
To understand the phenomena, it is necessary to analyse its socio-psychological roots. Under the caste system, which provided religious sanctity to occupational division of labour based on birth, the members belonging to the upper castes of the Indian society constituted the dominant section. The dominant section was excluded from engaging in any of the difficult, labourious and unpleasant kinds of work but was entitled to a major share of the production from the efforts of the low-caste people who were bound to perform all kinds of work. Most of the work done by the low-caste people was looked down upon as disgraceful activities. While work was a duty of the low-caste people, without any corresponding claim for a return, the upper-caste people were conferred with rights to a share of the produce without any corresponding obligation to work. Thus so far work is concerned, the Indian system turned out to be soft towards the upper-caste people and harsh towards the low-caste people. A work culture with indifference to work on the part of the dominant classes was the outcome of such a system. (Joseph, 2004)
However, the nature of work and the manner of its performance were altogether different under the modern European industrial system. A new work culture with strong commitment to duty, collective orientation to work, diligent observance of work norms etc. were essential for the orderly development of modern industries. Since the industrial system is an offshoot of the technological processes and work practices which prevailed in Europe, a work culture conducive to the development of industries could emerge in the West as a spontaneous evolution from the existing work culture. Besides, the Protestant ethics, which accorded a dignified status to work, facilitated the smooth adoption of such a work culture in the West. On the other hand, India or, for that matter, Bengal had no such experience with machines or factories or the work norms expected under the modern industrial system of production. To the workers who were employed in the newly-opened factories, the work norms and practices expected to be adopted as well as the organisational arrangements under which they were bound to work were altogether new. Along with industries, Western ideas, the philosophies of liberty and equality, institutions like trade unions and ideologies like socialism also arrived in India. (Joseph, 2004)
The interaction of these various parameters forming part of the modern European industrialisation process with the pre-industrial work culture of India did not lead to the emergence of a work culture conducive to the development of modern industries following the European model under Indian conditions. Instead, the organised labour emerged as a dominant class inheriting the work culture of the dominant classes of the past, characterised by a soft attitude towards work. (Joseph, 2004)
Historically Bengalis are knowledgeable, preachers not doers, motivated by self-gain not by collective wellbeing. Even when it comes to self-gain, they are driven by the urge of preservation and recognition not by dedication to a cause. Here very aptly the views of Swami Vivekananda can be applied:
“Being active for self-preservation or recognition and being engrossed in conviction are two radically different processes.’’
The inability to work together forgetting the differences is ingrained in the Bengali psyche. The “great responsibility” of inculcating this practice in every social stratum was carried on by the former Left Front Government. Its main objective was to mobilise “partisan” people—from education to industry, politics to sports, culture to society—no field was an exception to this trend. In fact non-cooperation with each other so that anything great cannot be made or built has become the character of the Bengali community. Bengalis are always scared of credit-sharing.
Allegorically, like crabs they pull down each other. The long Leftist rule has really consolidated these characteristics. The Leftists designed the strategy of encirclement of the government by the party and in this direction they adopted the disintegrative campaign of dividing the society between ‘we’ and ‘they’. As a result of being in power for long the Leftists have helped in spreading this malignancy in the social body of Bengal; it is quite difficult, rather impossible, for the successor government to cure this social malady in a short duration.
Thus, on the floor of State Legislature (Bidhansabha) in the month of June 2014, when the Food and Supplies Minister of the Government of West Bengal, Jyotipriyo Mallick, admits there has been no real change in the work culture under the post-Leftist new political regime, it reflects the hard reality. (Anandabazar Patrika, June 28, 2014)
The society provides the human land to be cultivated for producing an ideal work culture. In the final analysis it can be said that the erosion in the human land of the Bengali society is a fact which cannot be denied.
People are everywhere embedded deeply in long-standing cultural, social and political institutional patterns. The rigidities in the political as well as socio-cultural and economic institutions in the State prompt us to look at West Bengal as a classic case of “institutional stickiness”. Clearly, the right institutions for creating a more enabling environment for work do not seem to exist. Not only do they not exist, but also their growth or emergence is frustrated by every existing institution. During the early 19th century the Bengali intellect learned to raise questions about issues and beliefs under the impact of British rule in the Indian subconti-nent. In a unique manner, Bengal had witnessed an intellectual awakening that deserved to be called a Renaissance in the European style. Today’s West Bengal badly needs another Renaissance. A renaissance which should signify a kind of socio-cultural process associated with the ideas of revitalisation and modernisation of the Bengali community. There must be a genuine call of conscience for every member of the Bengali society to “Arise, awake, and stop not” till the goal of social regeneration is achieved. No political party, no leader, no guru, no god man will lead this task, it should be the outcome of the collective conscience; only a civil society movement can do that. It should usher in a cultural revolution in the true sense of the term, a revolution which must be able to fundamen-tally reconstitute the socio-cultural dynamics of West Bengal keeping its glorious tradition and ethos intact. “Institutional Rejuvenation” must occur following the principles as follows:
1. Restoration of values or Dharma in Society, which includes rule of law;
2. Practice of decency in public and private life; show of mutual respect, empathy and fellow feeling;
3. Striving towards limited rule and show of power, decentralisation of powers at all walks of life with a vibrant, participatory approach instead of centralisation of power and forming a coterie;
4. The role of the state is limited to effective regulation in the interest of free and fair competition as also on considerations of equity, fair play and sustainable growth;
5. Nurturing good and responsible leadership at all levels of society;
6. In the pursuit of the above objectives there should be integration of the goals of the individual and organisation.
[Text of the author’s Research Paper presented at National Conference on Human Resource Development (NCHRD-2015) on February 14-15, 2015; the Conference was organised by the Faculty of Commerce, Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in association with the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), New Delhi.]
“Could Not Change the Work Culture—Admission of Food Minister”, Anandabazar Patrika, June 28, 2014.
Goswami, Tarun (2007) ‘CAG slams poor work culture in Bengal Government offices’, The Statesman, April 6.
“HC comes down hard on poor work culture”, The Statesman, Kolkata, February 9, 2013.
“It’s a mixed work culture”, The Statesman, Kolkata, July 27, 2013
Joseph, K.V. (2004), Culture and Industrial Development: The Indian Experience, New Delhi, Anmol Publications Pvt. Ltd.
Kakar, Sudhir (1978), The Inner World: A Psycho-Analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India, New Delhi, Oxford University Press.
Kakar, Sudhir (1981) (2nd Edition), The Inner World: A Psycho-Analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India, Delhi, Oxford University Press.
Labour in West Bengal (2012-13), Annual Report, Labour Department, Government of West Bengal.
Maharatna, Arup (2001), ‘Work Culture: Myth and Reality’, Economic and Political Weekly, January 6, pp. 17-19 (20).
Maharatna, Arup (2007), ‘Population, Economy and Society in West Bengal since the 1970s’, Journal of Development Studies, Vol. 43, No. 8, pp. 1381-1422, November.
Maharatna, Arup (2008), ‘The Bengali Worldview—The Babu, Private Interest and Public Imperatives’, The Statesman, August 31.
Roy, Panchu (1995), Letters to the editor, Desh (Bengali Magazine).
Roy, Tathagato (1995), ‘Work Culture’, Desh (Bengali Magazine), April 22.
“The Leave Culture during Bandh now Boomerangs for the State”, Anandabazar Patrika, February 18, 2011.
Dr Arunava Narayan Mukherjee is a Professor of Human Resource Management and the Principal of a Management College affiliated to the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad University of Technology, West Bengal.