The dignity of human labor

My Twitter friend and compatriot @zeusisdead made a good, bristling case for why we shouldn’t celebrate India’s Mars Orbiter mission’s frugality. Here’s a telling excerpt from his piece as it appeared in Times of India:

ISRO [India’s space agency] did not get to Mars by using duct tape and M-seal to make the orbiter work. ISRO is not trying to repair cars by refashioning cycle chains. It takes several minutes for the ISRO command centre to beam a message to the orbiter and an equal length of time to hear back. The “thoda adjust kardenge” attitude of jugaad with people tinkering on the fly would have failed like a wet cracker here. ISRO built a top-class launch vehicle and payload, and we should not cheapen its success by harping on any number. India’s space programme is a testament to a culture of tackling hard challenges because they are hard, not because they are easy. Of doing the best, and not the cheapest. Jugaad in India was born as a necessity in impoverished conditions, and instead of elevating it to godhood we should be trying to escape a culture of jugaad as quickly as possible. ISRO is showing us the way.

For those who don’t know much Hindi, including me, “jugaad” means to hack something together in a very creative, sometimes cunning, sense.

Anyway, there is perhaps a simpler explanation for why the Mars Orbiter worked out so cheap (it does find mention in @zeusisdead’s piece). Having moved to the United States less than a month ago, I was expected to be alarmed by the cost of many products and amenities by my relatives already living in the country. They converted every dollar into rupees and were in a perpetual state of astonishment when it all worked out 60 times costlier. But then, they were careful to note the exceptions: medicines, books, public transport, shipping, and most of all tips. These things worked out way costlier than they ought to, they said.

I’m much more comfortable in the United States, and it’s not in spite of these “costlier” things, it’s because of them. In my opinion, they make it easier for me to acknowledge the dignity of human labor. It’s the cost of labor that escalates the cost of certain products and services. Medicines bought at the pharmacy or books downloaded from the web may be cheaper but they ought to be more expensive if you want to have them delivered home. Fuel is cheaper, too, if you can be honest about how much you’re filling up for and are able to do it yourself, but if the bunk has to manned, who pays those who man it? That’s the price we ought to pay to respect the dignity of human labor.

In the same way, as an organization operating out of India, ISRO has to spend much less than the developed world to consume manhours. And that the price of a manhour is low in India is not as a natural product of our socio-economic forces but as a result of deliberate subsidization whose costs we hide behind a veil of cheapness. It is in this sense that Modi’s call to ‘Make In India’ sounds ominous, too. Labor shouldn’t come cheap, but if it does, who’s paying for it? In the words of American economist Thorstein Veblen,

Labor wants pride and joy in doing good work, a sense of making something beautiful or useful – to be treated with dignity and respect, as brother and sister.