Article: There is an Elephant in the Room- And the Blind Men of Indostan Can’t See it

#Others

There is an Elephant in the Room- And the Blind Men of Indostan Can’t See it

By closing our eyes to the most underprivileged quartile of our population, the Dalits and Tribals, are we depriving ourselves of a major opportunity to expand our potential pool of talent and laying ourselves open to the threat of crude legislative action that will hamstring India's private sector for decades?
There is an Elephant in the Room- And the Blind Men of Indostan Can’t See it

The topic was 'Diversity and Inclusiveness in Indian Business and Industry'. The panel included highly respected CHROs, brilliant academics and even a consultant from the Big Four. Their expositions were informative, scintillating, and useful. There was only one problem. Not once during the discussion or the succeeding Q&A (until I got my turn to ask) was there even a glancing reference to inclusivity for Dalits and Tribals, those most deprived sections of our society who go by the constitutionally bestowed appellation of SC/ST. It was as if industry in India (at least the private sector part of it) had entered into a conspiracy of silence to avoid talking about the huge elephant in the room.

As Karen Joy Fowler wrote, however, "When there is an invisible elephant in the room, one is from time-to-time bound to trip over a trunk".1 By closing our eyes to the most underprivileged quartile of our population, not only are we depriving ourselves of a major opportunity to expand our potential pool of talent but laying ourselves open to the threat of crude legislative action that will hamstring India’s private sector for decades. 

Firing on All Cylinders

In this column, I will not enter the seismically sensitive zone created by some dominant castes muscling into the benefits initially intended for SC/STs, nor will I will step into the minefield that traces the origin and history of caste formation within India. I will limit myself to pointing out some commonsensical consequences of having such divisions in society.

When you run a 4-cylinder automobile engine, losing the spark in one cylinder is so damaging to performance that far from racing against cars not so handicapped, you would trundle your vehicle straight to the repair shop. Well, SCs and STs together are approximately one out of four in our population. When such a divided society pits itself against more egalitarian opponents, the outcomes are unlikely to be in its favor. Dr. Iswari Prasad, for instance, maintains that the wars between the Rajputs and the Muslims were "a struggle between two different social systems."2 Pragati Sen adds: "The Hindus were divided into many castes. …. Out of the four castes, the work of fighting was left to only one caste. The people of the three other castes thought that they had nothing to do with the defense of the country and they seemed to be indifferent towards the same."3 There are doubtless many causes of the Muslim conquests but the non-involvement of a substantial part of the defenders’ populations in the battles cannot have played an insignificant part.

Some historians have also placed considerable emphasis on the role played by the British and, in particular, by the censuses they conducted, in embedding caste distinctions and making them more rigid. To me what is more significant is the British belief in their own racial superiority in the latter part of their rule over India. All their political and military governance structures reflected this belief, making the white man administering India a caste über alles. This attitude spilled over into their commercial ventures in India as well, starting with the largest behemoth of them all, the Indian Railways. "… When the East Indian Railway started recruiting," writes Christian Wolmar, "the pattern for office work naturally followed the traditions of the Indian Civil Service, with British managers and Indian subordinates. However, in the railways … this model was extended to all aspects of it's functioning."4

Indians took over (rather than reinvented) the structures for running the civic administration, the military and the commercial enterprises established by the British. As such, any conscious or latent belief in caste hierarchies could be played out through the color and race-based segregation mechanisms the Raj left behind. Of course, the civil services, Government departments, and public sector enterprises made some attempts to right the balance but it is a moot point whether 70 years of reservation have reduced or aggravated divides based on caste in those cadres and organizations. 

If we are eager to ferret out the stereotypes and resistances that prevent us as managers from being more active in assisting the deprived, we must turn our gaze within — all of us harbor prejudices against other groups and are oblivious to most of these implicit biases

In the meantime, the private sector turned a Nelsonic eye to all these efforts, barring a few superior sniggers at the contortions our public sector counterparts had to go through for filling every single position. It was inevitable, however, that once the public sector quit the commanding heights of the economy and private enterprises became the main engine of job generation, attention would be focused on them for providing opportunities to the most deprived sections of society. Periodic appeals have been made in this direction by various political leaders and industry associations have responded with more or less enthusiasm, hoping that the pressure will dissipate over time. I do not pretend to understand political compulsions. My appeal to India’s private sector for responding positively is based not only on the claims of social justice but because it is greatly in our interest to broaden the pool within which we search for talent. Apart from the additional numbers, we can tap is the diversity of culture and mindset we gain from people belonging to the very communities where we seek to extend our marketing reach and among whom we operate our factories and other operating sites. 

Eyes on Affirmation

Assuming India’s private sector does respond to this call to fully utilize all 'cylinders' of our diverse population, there are three vital eye exercises it will need to carry out continually.

The first and simplest is to open our eyes to the reality around us. Peter Drucker is credited with having said: "If you can't measure it, you can't improve it." It is the rare Indian private sector corporate that has even a half-accurate idea of the percentage of SC/STs it employs by level, location, and function. Fewer still can explain, for example, which of their affirmative action interventions have led to improvement or what changes have precipitated a decline in these figures. But figures tell only part of the story. If we are eager to ferret out the stereotypes and resistances that prevent us as managers (and more particularly those of us who are HR managers) from being more active in assisting the deprived, we must turn our gaze within. All of us harbor prejudices against other groups and are oblivious to most of these implicit biases. There is an excellent explanation of this subject contained in 'Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People' 5 (disclosure of interest: the book is co-authored by a cousin of mine) which should be on the reading list of every HR professional. The general population of managers may find it more appealing to go through an awareness-building session and then take the relevant Implicit Association Test (IAT) which is available free 6. What the IAT reveals about our hidden biases can be truly eye-opening and can be a huge impetus for well-intentioned managers to do something about it.

After opening our eyes, paradoxically, the second set of measures we need to take in order to minimize discrimination is to close them again. The paradox begins to get resolved when we recall that Lady Justice is shown blindfolded for exactly the same reason: to guard against irrelevant influences and to eliminate even the possibility of bias. Tremendous success has been obtained in debiasing hiring decisions through the adoption of 'Blind Recruitment' 7. This also has the potential to rid us of other costly mistakes in selection, such as those biases hard-wired into us as a result of our evolutionary history (for more examples of these errors see the section on 'Longing for Long Leaders' in a previous column) 8. But much work remains to be done (and awards to be won) in other domains of talent management and career progression. Some of us, who have been accustomed to using markers of group identity in taking calls about people may find it disconcerting to use the reengineered processes where stereotype-triggering tags are stripped out. I venture to suggest that the transition will be no more difficult than the one we made when we stopped buying stuff from the well-known neighborhood shopkeeper and transferred our custom to an impersonal e-commerce site. An added advantage will be that these changes will aid us not just in our fight against SC/ST biases but with most of the other biases (e.g. against gender, minority community, age …) that bedevil people decisions in Indian organizations.

Some of us, who have been accustomed to using markers of group identity in taking calls about people may find it disconcerting to use the reengineered processes where stereotype-triggering tags are stripped out

Perhaps the most useful exercise is the one involving the Fourth Eye. I have borrowed this phraseology from Pradip Khandwalla’s seminal book on creativity9 to emphasize how important out-of-box innovation will be to tap into this pool of talent without compromising quality or merit. Clearly, there are enormous challenges in bringing the count of SC/STs at all levels in organizations to approximate their presence in the general population of the country. Equally clearly, Indian HR professionals have excelled in finding innovative solutions to challenges when their organizations make unequivocal demands on them and both are rewarded for meeting those challenges. While professional HR bodies can give special recognition to HR leaders who pioneer in Affirmative Action for SC/STs, it will be a rare CHRO who can swim against the organizational tide in this regard. Hence, the key is to get organizations eager and committed to the cause of finding creative Affirmative Action solutions. There are three relatively quick levers that can be used for this purpose: one each in the hands of the Government, of Industry Associations and Professional bodies and, finally, of progressive HR professionals themselves. 

The Government simply needs to put its money where its mouth is in the service of Dalits and Tribals by fiscally incentivizing the augmentation of their strength in corporate employment. A previous column had already suggested a practical formula for incentivizing durable employment in general.10 A special 'turbo-charging' multiplier can be introduced into that formula for employee expense deductions based on the increase in the proportion of wage bill going to SC/STs out of the total. If the multiplier is sufficiently high, we shall see miracles of innovation not just in the areas of intake and progression. Corporates will also find it useful to direct part of their mandated CSR spends towards preparing future sources of SC/STs for themselves at various levels.

Most Industry Associations and Professional HR bodies (as also some commercially run evaluators) give awards for excellence in people management practices. The more stringent among these are rightly prized and have been responsible for catalyzing significant improvements in the standards of HRM in India. Whenever I have been involved in designing the models for these awards or participated in the final juries, I have tried placing major emphasis on the organizations’ track records in the engagement and growth of SC/STs. If more readers of this column were to do the same, it would provide a tremendous impetus to recognizing and encouraging innovation in Affirmative Action.

Sometimes innovation is released simply by observing how similar bottlenecks were removed for other disadvantaged groups. Those seeking to improve the intake of SC/STs in private sector corporations can learn a lot from the successes (albeit still incomplete) notched up by the movement for gender equality. Perhaps the drastic methods adopted by Lysistrata11 and Emily Davison 12 might not serve our turn for the SC/ST cause but recent decades have seen remarkable tenacity and innovation by activists for gender equality. We may not get a blueprint from their methods but clearly, there is a lot of inspiration to be gained as well as interesting approaches to be learned from them. 

Those seeking to improve the intake of SC/STs in private sector corporations can learn a lot from the successes (albeit still incomplete) notched up by the movement for gender equality

Deny Affirmation – Get Reservation

If we don’t do these eye exercises, we are likely to blind ourselves to the burning problem that opportunity-denial to Dalits and tribals continues to pose to society in general and private sector employers in particular. Under social and political pressure, we will truly be like the 'six men of Indostan', finding incomplete, negative, and even positively harmful solutions. Let’s imagine six such positions which, incidentally, are not so imaginary because I have heard each of them being espoused strongly by some very eminent personages:

  • The Determined Discriminator believes reservation in education, the Government and the public sector has been so harmful that the private sector must effectively exclude SC/STs to compensate for it.

  • The Do-nothing Defender sees no reason s/he should bear the onus of righting historical wrongs and, under the slogan of 'letting merit prevail', takes no action to stop even the most blatant discrimination in the organization.

  • The TTSP (This-Too-Shall-Pass) Tactician knows that pressure for change comes in waves and hopes that paying energetic lip-service while the pressure is maximal will suffice till it subsides.

  • The Diversionary Delinquent acts like the teenager trying to show an irate parent his excellent marks in Physical Education when questioned about his failing grades in Physics. Many CHROs blazon their action on gender discrimination (the more fashionable ones add LGBT rights to their agenda) to claim plaudits for being pioneers in 'Diversity and Inclusiveness' while totally ignoring the SC/ST elephant sitting unattended in the room. 

  • The Government Grandstander is usually a bureaucrat who wants all statistics on SC/ST employment and progression to be reported to the Government regularly. What is to be done with such voluminous data remains unclear but the fear remains that it will provide future ammunition to the next-mentioned (and perhaps most dangerous) type of blind person.

  • The Reservation Rampager is convinced (or at least sees sufficient political gain in seeming to be convinced) that only by enforcing reservation in the private sector will it be prompted to take any action at all.

There is no better way to comment on the shortsightedness of these views than to use the penultimate verse of 'The Blind Men and the Elephant' 13:

And so these men of Indostan 

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion 

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right, 

And all were in the wrong!

For the rest of us, the message is clear: Let us exercise our eyes and make substantive and smart progress before something totally unpalatable is forced down our throats.

 

Note:

  1. Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Marian Wood Books/Putnam; 2013. 
  2. Iswari Prasad, A Short History of Muslim Rule in India, Allahabad Indian Press, 1965.
  3. Pragati Sen, Causes of Muslim Success and Rajput Failure in India
  4. Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Delacorte Press, 2013.
  5. Project Implicit: Take A Test
  6. Michael Grothaus, How “Blind Recruitment” Works And Why You Should Consider It, Fast Company, 14 March 2016.
  7. Revolutionary psychology
  8. Pradip N. Khandwalla, Fourth Eye: Excellence Through Creativity - A Fresh Approach to Effective Management of Individual, Organizational and Social Creativity, A H Wheeler Publishing Co Ltd; 2nd Revised edition, 2000.
  9. Visty Banaji, Make JOBS in India: Nudge Businesses to Generate Durable Employment, People Matters, July 2016, 
  10. Aristophanes Trans. Germaine Greer, Lysistrata, Samuel French Ltd, 2015.
  11. Vanessa Thorpe, Truth behind the death of suffragette Emily Davison is finally revealed, The Guardian, 26 May 2013.
  12. John Godfrey Saxe, The Poems of John Godfrey Saxe, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1881.

"Published in the October edition of People Matters magazine"

Topics: Others

Did you find this story helpful?

Author

QUICK POLL

Are you satisfied with the recognition practices offered by your employer?

On News Stands Now
q_auto,f_auto/v1544221064/mag-december-2018.png

Subscribe now to the All New People Matters in both Print and Digital for 3 years.

For HR, 2018 was about a lot of 'anticipation' - from tech to gig economy. But what business trends and strategic priorities will most impact HR's agenda in 2019? This issue will compile the biggest priorities for HR in 2019.

Subscribe
And Save 59%

Subscribe now