Of uncomfortable truths

Interview with R. Chandrashekhar, NASSCOM president.

Published : Jun 07, 2017 12:30 IST

R. Chandrashekhar, president, Nasscom.

R. Chandrashekhar, president, Nasscom.

R. CHANDRASHEKHAR, president, NASSCOM, has an intimate knowledge of the information and communications technology sector, thanks largely to his long stints as an administrator in government. He set up the country’s first department of information technology in Andhra Pradesh and was its secretary too. He was Chairman, Telecom Commission, and Secretary, Department of Telecommunication, until March 2013. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline :

Many of those being sacked in the IT sector are in the middle level. If the industry is trying to change course, is it not shooting itself in the foot by sacking them?

First, I am not entirely sure I would agree with the term “sacking”. This continuous realignment of the workforce in line with business opportunities and needs has been a feature of this industry more or less since its inception. This was happening at a certain, maybe lesser, pace over at least a decade because the pace of technology change was slower. As the pace of technology change accelerates, the compulsions of realignment will also become more visible and pervasive in an organisation. It’s not as if people are being sacked; there is a need for certain kinds of skills.

It is very clear that companies are hiring far more people than they are losing by way of attrition. In the last three years, 600,000 have been hired. In the last quarter, that is January to March 2017, it was 50,000 across the industry. So these are the facts. I think it’s important to read what exactly is being said. There may be 200,000 people losing jobs over the next three years. A NASSCOM-McKinsey report says that one-million-plus jobs will become redundant over a period of time. There is a difference between a job becoming redundant and a person becoming redundant. But, at the same time, when one million jobs become redundant, two million jobs will be added. These one million have an opportunity to fill up those two million. Now, why would a company fire one person and hire another person to do the same job if he was doing it well enough? Those are the facts. One can have one’s own perception or point of view; someone may say that nobody should be let off, or performance should not be a criterion. But these are the numbers. You can’t quarrel with the data. You can quarrel with the opinion.

A sector can never remain a sunrise sector forever. We are now not at a sunrise level. We are now at high noon. But it has its own implications. The characteristics at the sunrise stage are very different—be it for a human being, an economy or a sector. We don’t aspire to be the sunrise sector any more; we aspire to be a world leader or a world-beating sector.

Are these sackings knee-jerk reactions in anticipation of the changes in the industry?

First, we are doing a disservice to ourselves by simply looking at the number of people who may have become redundant or whose skills have become redundant because what matters today is whether the net is a positive or a negative. The fact of the matter is that the net is a substantial positive. Both in the United States and in India and, for that matter, in every other company in the globe, there is this strange combination of people losing their jobs and people being hired simultaneously, which was never the case almost in the history of human endeavour. So this is a very new phenomenon. And if you look at it, the politics of this is extremely complex. You have a lot of American and European countries which are dealing with skills shortage and unemployment and the political ramifications of that simultaneously. We are also seeing a little bit of that here in India. Yes, the fact that there are some people who are lacking in the competencies required is troublesome. It is a matter which is of concern, both for employers and employees. I do not think that anyone should be complacent and believe that this problem can be solved if we just retain people as they are. It is going to get worse. So, I believe companies are doing the best job they can of coping, which is to keep your critical assets, to retrain as much as you can and replace those who are either non-performing or don’t have the requisite competencies.

The consequences of these sackings, however, are still felt differently across the hierarchy. For example, a vice president will not be sacked in the same way as employees in the middle or lower levels are. Is there not a humane way to do this?

Let us also understand that the IT industry has been a model employer and it continues to be a model employer even today. It has a track record of looking after its employees extremely well. So, it is wrong to argue that suddenly the industry or employers have changed from being angels to becoming demons. I think this is a broad generalisation which is completely unwarranted.

During the current phase of sackings, employers are allegedly making use of the registry maintained by NASSCOM. Should the registry not be more transparent?

This is a very good example of the kind of myths that are being perpetrated. It was also brought to my notice that there were rumours about employees being blacklisted or threatened with being blacklisted, and so on. There is no such system of blacklisting of any employees by NASSCOM; except where somebody has been accused of something like forging documents or some kind of criminal practices, which is akin to antecedent verification, which happens. Beyond that, NASSCOM does not maintain any kind of information about the performance level of individuals. Yes, maybe of the skills they have. What happens is that when the situation turns emotional, then all kinds of myths are perpetrated. All we can do is state the facts.

Is a n IT professional whose name figures in the National Skills Registry of NASSCOM aware of the kind of personal information that is stored there and how it circulates within the industry?

Frankly, I have to verify what the current dispensations [sic] are, but I don’t see any difficulty at all in that information being provided to an individual employee and giving him/her an opportunity to correct and update it. Accuracy of the information is also important from both the employee’s or the prospective employer’s perspective. In fact, in principle, I believe it should be transparent to the person. Now, how much of this information is made available to others is something for which we have guidelines because, clearly, you cannot publish this on a website.

You spoke critically of the unions, objecting to their existence in the IT sector. Why?

I think this is an example where certain comments were taken out of context. What I had said, and I stand by it, was that this is a sector which has looked after its employees and has never felt the need for collective bargaining as a requirement or a strategy. Because that has its own implications.

Number two, this is an industry which needs constant realignments. It’s in the technology business. And if one brings about a situation where such realignments are not possible, then. Yes. you will be “saving” 2 or 3 per cent of the jobs, subject to such realignments every year, which is part of life. It [the realignments] varies from 0.5 to 3 per cent, depending on many dimensions. But, let us be very clear about this, you will be jeopardising the remaining 97 per cent of the jobs as well. Because if a company fails to realign, fails to remain competitive, that company’s future is sealed. On one side, a company has a compulsion to look after its employees, on another, it has a compulsion to realign its forces. And the management’s job is to balance these two. So, in that scheme of things, if we bring a rigidity that prevents such realignment, we will be hurting the companies and the sector. India’s unique brand has enabled it to be globally competitive. Continuous adaptation has been the cornerstone of that continued competitiveness. And in the period of greatest change, if we change that paradigm, then we will be putting at risk our future in the sector. That is the context in which I had said it.

You used an interesting term, “rigidity”. Do you feel collective bargaining as a method or system of employees engaging with employers brings rigidity into a space like IT?

What I am saying is that a collective forum is important. There is no doubt about it. All I am saying is it’s already there. This constant dialogue with the employees as a group and as individuals is a continuous feature in any organisation; you can go and ask them.

I understand it is there, but unions are also about what happens outside the employers’ precincts. It is about the larger sector…

In our understandable desire to do justice to 2 per cent, if we are doing an injustice to 98 per cent, that’s not a good societal equation. So, there are no absolutes here; one has to look at it from a certain perspective. This is an industry where 60 per cent of the value addition comes from the employees’ own contribution. There is no industry where 60 per cent contribution comes from the employees’ own mental effort. So, how can such an industry ever function without keeping its workforce happy? Impossible. It is totally different from a manufacturing or a factory environment.

Has this position made NASSCOM unpopular among a large section of IT employees? The response to your statement from a section of sacked IT workers was, “Isn’t NASSCOM a union of employers?”

The only way I would react to that is to say that I would be very unhappy with what NASSCOM is doing if we were not true to the facts and to ourselves. And I believe also that we would be doing a huge disservice to everybody, not only to the employees but also to society, by trying to, shall we say, hide the magnitude of a challenge or the imperative for change. It is our job to communicate to employers and employees alike the realities that confront us. NASSCOM is not here for popularity. NASCCOM is here to tell it like it is, both to employees and employers. And we are facing a somewhat uncomfortable truth. But the bright side is, it is a problem, but there is a solution to that problem. And the solution is threefold: 1) new skills; 2) growth and expansion; and 3) opportunities outside the IT sector for technologically skilled people. When you look at all these three, the opportunities are immense. So, I also believe that the current rash of articles and reports saying that the end is nigh, predicting doom and gloom are, again, doing a disservice because they are not bringing out all of these aspects.

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