Monday, 11 August 2014

Encounter

“…aur kya hona tha? Bahut gussa ho gai madam. Fir bula liya HR walon ne…” The story is abruptly interrupted by the characteristic tune that signals each of the 50-odd workers on Main Line 1 to resume work at their respective stations. It’s a usual day of work for operators in Weld Shop 1B at TATA Motors, as the automatic conveyor- lifeline of all modern industries- moves to the polyphonic tune, advancing each vehicle body to subsequent stations. Our hearty story teller, and his mob of fellow workers, rush back to their respective spots and resume the same 105 second sequence of operations on the chassis that they have to repeat scores of times a day, in keeping with the tight cycle time. 

It’s a baking 47 degrees outside and at least that hot inside the thick safety vest and other protective gear that they put on for 8 hours a day, assembling up to 175 frames of TATA Ace and Magic in that time. If you’ve ferried on any of the latter that have lately replaced the classical Metadoors (so reminiscent of kidnapping scenes of Bollywood movies from the 70s and 80s!) running in the Haldwani-Pantnagar-Kiccha route, chances are it might have been put together inside this very shop by the same men.

“Agle din gaye hum wahan…”, he resumes his interesting tale of an encounter with a hottie from HR after finishing his set of operations, as others from neighboring stations come flocking around.
“Wo boli batao kya bole the mujhe”, the confidence in his stance is palpable. “Humne kaha ‘Madam bahut hot hai’. Wo sab hasne lage. Madam aur gussa ho gai. HR waale sab jaante the ke ye ladka kaisa hai. Ulta madam ko suna diye, ke theek hi to keh raha hai…” and the little group of men share a rare round of laughter at shop floor and return to their spots expecting the next work-piece.

Kishan Rao, barely 5-feet-5, is in no hurry. He is calm, confident, vocal, extremely social and above all, unlike almost all the workers and operators in the huge shop, is so full of happy-go-lucky spirit that he’ll make you forget the pains of an 8 hour a day, 6 days a week load of Industrial Training.

“Yahan pe sab bahut negative hai. Koi apna knowledge baatna nahi chahta. Mujhe bas yahi accha nahi lagta…”  Welcome to the real world, I thought. First few days of industrial experience were enough to elucidate how every one here marks and guards his own little territory very firmly. Forget about guiding, one of us trainees in our formal attire, typically with a pen and a diary in hand, is received with suspicious and contemptuous eyes at almost every workstation.

“Unko lagta hai aap auditing ya time study wale ho. Tabhi sab aise gabhra jate hain, kuch nahi batate…” Kishan explained when I asked him why. Apparently, the thought that one of us with a fancy degree in B. Tech. from a fancy college will boss around them in a few years time, frustrates and infuriates the hell out of them- understandable. 

Life is tough here and wages are low. Kishan is a temporary ITI qualified worker who was employed about an year ago and the lowest in the chain of command. People like him (read ‘cheap labor’) are recruited and trained to perform a very specific task- say handling a pneumatic screw fastener or tagging each vehicle body or operating an overhead conveyor or (like Kishan) performing 22 CO2 welds in 105 seconds! They must pass a series of tests before they find a permanent job with the company. And what are the odds of one getting recruited; say if 100 were to give these tests, I asked Kishan-

“One…” he promptly replied. “Kaam dhudne walon ki kami thodi hai yahan, 100 jayenge to 1000 aur aa jayenge. Wo dekh rahe ho unhe…” he points to an elderly gentleman on the far end of the conveyor, “22 saal ho gaye unhe company me. Ab line incharge ke sath hume supervise karte hain”, the in-charge being a barely 30 year old with a Bachelor in Technology. The establishment of State Industrial Development Corporation of Uttarakhand Limited way back close to the separation of the state from UP attracted hundreds of companies but also made sure that there was always a renewable supply of unskilled labor.

What these workers (must) do for their daily bread is what all graduating engineers like me (pretend to) read about in our lectures and (barely try to) perform in labs/workshops- machining, riveting, grinding, welding, inspection etc. And they are perfect at it, seemingly irreplaceable i.e. if it had not been for the Training Division of the firm which is ever ready to pump the next stock of ‘cheap labor’, production would come to a halt. 

“To aage ka kya plan hai?” I ask our enthused story teller, as he returns after finishing another cycle of operation. “Are kuch nahi pata” he says as he takes off his nose mask, goggles, gloves and apron, as everybody surrender their equipments and protective gear and rush towards the exit while the line comes to a halt with a reverberating hissing noise. “Aj yahan hain, kal koi aur company le legi. Kaam ki kami thodi hai.” And I catch a glimpse of the guy without all his paraphernalia as he runs across to join his fellowmen. He would barely have been an year or two older to me, max 24, with the hint of a sprouting moustache which seemed more like an underline to his nose. It was 11:15 am, their lunch time- a 20 minute respite from this exercise- no less, no more. Two other 10 minute tea breaks punctuate their 8-9 hour shifts (depending upon demand/production). 

I take off my safety helmet, wipe my brow dry and sit by a side rail close to the assembly as a weird quiet descends over the shop floor. Dozens of unfinished vehicle chassis surround me- the lifeline of the nation. It isn’t surprising, that in a country of a billion like India, these vehicles mean barely anything other than means of reaching from point A to point B. That may be a commute to and from work, journey to a picnic spot, travel back home or anything else. People like Kishan- slogging for hours between sleep and meals under the corporates and engineers of a developing India who earn their riches sitting in their air conditioned cabins to make sure these men work for every penny they manage to save at the end of each month- are just hands; abundant and expendable!

“Hey, kahan reh gaya tha?” a fellow trainee from BIT Mesra breaks the train of thought. “Tea point pe bhi nahi dikha tu? Badi training chal rahi hai lagta hai…” he teases mounting a hand on my shoulder as we walk away together.
“Are nahi yaar, bas aise hi. Chal chalre hain…” I say as we pack our belongings in a bag.
“1 ghanta se upar ho gaya yaar, bahot garmi hai. Teri bari hai aj, yaad hai na…” he reminds me as we leave the shop floor for the canteen for a routine round of mango shake. 

Perhaps we get what we get. It’s got nothing to do with what we deserve.

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