Why Did NRN’s Call for a 70-hour Week Cause an Explosion of Rage?
Long revered as the ‘simple’ middle-class, super-success story, the Murthys of Infosys are perhaps perplexed at why social media (with often leads the mainstream media coverage) seems to explode at their comments these days. This time around, it was NR Narayana Murthy’s ‘request’ that India’s youth must emulate the Japanese and the Germans (who rebuilt their respective nations after the World War), and work for 70 hours a week to build our nation, which caused an uproar. Mr Murthy, one of the founders of Infosys, was speaking to TV Mohandas Pai, his former colleague, in a podcast interview.
 
It would be wrong to dismiss the reaction he triggered as that of entitled youngsters fretting at the suggestion that they should work harder. In fact, barring a small group of supporters, Mr Murthy’s call provoked a strong response from every section of society. Women pointed out that they already work over 70 hours, since they continue to have primary responsibility for running their homes, looking after children and even aged parents. Youngsters raised concerns about health, long commutes and work-life balance. Bureaucrat Ashok Khemka pointed to the huge chasm between static entry-level salaries and that of top management. Markandey Katju, former Supreme Court judge, wrote a blog post that concluded, “So Narayan Murthy is talking through his hat.” Kishore Mandyan, a former diplomat who has worked with the United Nations, probably explains it best when he says, “To equate industrial work with nation building is a stretch. Productivity is a function of qualitative work conditions, less of length of time in office or shop floor. This is common sense.”
 
Unfortunately, the ‘70-hour’ headline drowned out the fact that Mr Murthy had correctly touched upon several important issues such as low productivity among Indian employees, government corruption and delays caused by the bureaucracy.
 
Those who actually heard the podcast would know that Mr Murthy dwells at length on the bad old days of a closed economy and stifling bureaucracy and how economic liberalisation has unleashed the inherent entrepreneurial talent of India. He then goes on to discuss productivity issues and exhorts the youth to contribute to nation-building, in a message that aligns with the ruling philosophy of ‘kartavyakaal’ where you are expected to do your duty without any expectation.
 
While social media outrage is often manufactured, fomented and misdirected by digital marketing experts, this time around, the spontaneous outburst indicated that the tech billionaire had touched a raw nerve. His exhortation does not take into account growing income inequality which is already showing signs of translating into social unrest. A worrying sign for the political class is that protesters have begun to target homes and properties of their elected representatives, perhaps taking a cue from the tactic of using bull-dozers to quell public protests.
 
Income Disparity: Large sections of people do work over 70 hours a day or more, and, in urban centres, they spend another three to four hours on a gruelling commute which involves traffic jams or over-crowded public transport. They do this out of necessity, as is evident from the fact that unemployment remains high at 7.1%, despite a small dip in September. The gig-economy, which created scores of corporate Unicorns with billion-dollar valuations, is built on the back of young Indians, who work extremely long and tiring hours, without job security, pensions, social security or significant corporate benefits.
 
This leads to the incongruity of people with post-graduate and doctoral qualifications applying for  government jobs as peons and clerks, even in relatively prosperous states such as Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa and Tamil Nadu. After all, government jobs have inflation adjusted dearness allowance, pensions and much less work pressure. At the same time, migrant workers (skilled and unskilled) from Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa, the North East, and even Bangladesh, flood these very states for work. All the southern states have a much higher per capita annual income than the national average of US$2,300 and lower population growth. The tourist industry and the plantations (tea, coffee, cashew, spices and fruits) of south India are highly dependent on migrant workers from the north. One coffee plantation owner admitted to us that they are desperately short of labour and do not ask  questions about the nationality of workers, who put in more than 70 hours every week in order to be able to remit money home or the ‘benefit’ of having their families live with them.
 
In an eye-opening thread on X, MK Nidheesh (@mknid) vividly describes the  influence of migrant workers in the south. He says, a 35-seater weekly bus service which traverses 2,000-km between Orissa and Kerala and charges Rs3,500 per seat is always packed! Doesn’t this illustrate how hard people are willing to work in order to improve their lot, when their own government is unable to provide worthwhile employment? Mr Nideesh reveals that one in four adult males in Kerala are interstate migrants. Have you heard of any government (centre or state) paying focused attention to the social changes triggered by this mass migration within India for work? Their sheer numbers as well as their plight were noticed only after the forced lock-down of 2020 after the COVID pandemic. But that, too, did not lead to any effective government emphasis on the phenomenon of migrant workers within India, their economic impact on respective states, or the medical, transport and infrastructure facilities required for their specific needs.  Contrast this with the fact that India’s luxury car market will hit a record high in 2023 as BMW, Audi and Mercedes Benz are posting their best-ever numbers. According to a report, Audi posted a 97% jump in retail sales in the first half of 2023 alone. It is the same with super-luxury apartments, destination weddings, jewellery and branded products.
 
The Gig-economy and Inequality
Bhavish Aggarwal, founder of Ola Cabs, was among the first to support Mr Murthy’s views. We have seen how the cab-hailing business almost came apart because their managers refused to listen to the drivers and adjust the algorithms to ensure they got homeward routes at the end of the day and received timely payments without punitive deductions. Both Ola and Uber drivers had to unionise and resort to strikes before they were heard. Mr Murthy spoke about how he taught his cook to order online; did he not notice that delivery agents work gruelling hours and get management attention only when there is a controversy?
 
Women workers of Urban Company also went on strike (Urban Company's Women Employees Strike Work; Company Denies Exploitation Charges) to protest against extremely high commissions and costs. Here, too, research by ActionAid, a rights group, showed that gig work platforms discriminated against women, since they were "unable to respond as quickly or work as many hours as men because of unpaid care responsibilities." In fact, the entire gig-economy is a contributor to income disparity, since rewards and stock options are concentrated at the top, while companies try to guilt-shame customers into contributing to the income of delivery workers by providing pre-programmed tips. Ashok Khemka has put a number to this disparity by pointing out that the Infosys chief executive officer’s (CEO’s) pay was 2,200 times that of a fresher; the disparity is far greater when it comes to gig workers.
 
Corruption in Government
Mr Murthy did say “…unless we reduce corruption in the government at some level… reduce the delays in our bureaucracy in taking these decisions, we will not be able to compete with those countries that have made tremendous progress." He goes on to elaborate that “every government is as good as the culture of the people. And our culture has to change to that of highly determined, extremely disciplined, and extremely hard-working people.”
 
The two statements contradict each other. High levels of corruption and callous administration adds time and cost to doing business and forces people to spend hours of productive time on issues that are completely avoidable. Mr Murthy is surely familiar with the anger of company secretaries (CS) and chartered accountants over the faulty deployment of the reporting and compliance software of MCA21 by Infosys? It added countless hours of unproductive work to the schedule of professionals and things haven’t changed after it passed the baton to L&T Mindtree for Version 3 of the software. In many cases, it led to loss of business. To put it mildly, corporate professionals did not enjoy the convenience of online systems that Mr Murthy’s cook did.
 
The same is true for the automated personal taxation system, which is spewing demand notices going back to 2003-04, although people are given to understand that they do not need to preserve their data beyond seven years. No amount of outrage on social media has moved the government to look at the issue or to waive interest payments, when notices have been issued beyond seven years. Many are simply paying up the demand because the time, cost and mental harassment of fighting a callous system are higher. One would argue that making the government accountable to people by fighting for our rights is also part of the culture that makes for great nations; but few industrialists want to encourage this effort, unless it specifically hurts their own interests.
 
Finally, let us not forget that the government passed the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Act in 2018 making it harder to investigate and prosecute corrupt public servants. So, the youth working 70 hours a week would benefit them as individuals, but hardly contribute to national building.
 
Comments
Kamal Garg
7 months ago
Smart work is more important than hard work. And if the productivity in India is less, it is because of work environment, processes, and lack of support that reduces the productivity and just by increasing the work hours, the problem is not going to be solved.
SRS
7 months ago
People like NRN worked for >70 hrs/wk., both when he was working as an employee and as an entrepreneur. He made the assumption - wrongly! - that people who were similarly educated and aspirational would want to emulate his example, especially when they are young and have the ability to learn, build personal intellectual and economic capital, and, over the course of their careers, gain significantly from it. And that the nation would also gain from it. He was addressing people in that slice of society who actually can grow the country and its economy, well beyond our current capacity.

Unfortunately for him, even people in that tiny slice of India would rather kvetch, complain and emote rather than follow his example - for it is they, in the chatterati and "intelligentsia" who have led the explosion of (mostly faux) outrage and empathy for the classes of people who they are not a part of, and who NRN's message was not focused on. They see him as a multi-billionaire without seeing the man who worked for years for other companies to build up the experience and expertise to strike out on his own (with partners) and build a company that employs and has made tens of thousands of his employees also wealthy.

India doesn't deserve people like NRN. We deserve to be a country of envious complainers and whiners. As one cynical wealth manager once said, "India is the country of tomorrow ... and always will be."
adityag
8 months ago
I don't understand why many give so much weight to opinions. Seventy hours asides, he's probably never heard of "smart work".
milindnadkarni
8 months ago
This was a statement made by "NRN" without realizing the ground reality and aspects such as :
(1) In most jobs, including those in s/w development area, it is essential to do SMART work in addition to HARD work. Therefore, instead of counting no. of hours spent on job, one should consider quality of those hours.
(2) He has conveniently not touched upon the fact that in today's times, companies (including Infosys) give NO job guarantees to those who are working hard and more than 70hrs/week. Employees are retrenched when companies make losses without considering the length of time they spent at the desk.
(3) Such statements send wrong signal to employees, who just "hang around" at the work place to "show" that they have filled-in the stipulated hours with very little acual work.
(4) When preaching youngsters to work excessive one should compare the hours put-in by the seniors and what the disparity in compensation
rameshjrdhr5
8 months ago
No need to work 70 hours a week to build the nation. Nation building is perhaps the job of underprivileges who worked more than 70 hours a week and getting less pay than the top brasses who need not work even 40 hours/week. Nation will be stronger automatically if income inequality is removed to the extent of 50% than current level.
Chandragupta Acharya
8 months ago
People are already working 70 hour a week on WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, etc. What more does Mr Murthy want?
drptgiridharan
8 months ago
Hard Work hardly works. Smart work is the Way forward. Our wages are colonially based on time horizon and not on productivity and qualitative. Board meetings rely on fruitful discussions and participation by one and all as directors are paid for sitting fees. looks weird. Fees should be based on what they contributed to agenda and TOR. do we prescribe that a director should sit all along the meeting gets concluded? Commutation of time from home to work place and back consumes most of the working time. Look at Govt offices dedicated and very transparent in displaying their working hours board. All said and done where board proposes, goat disposes. ????
shantanu.ambedkar
8 months ago
The fundamental issue for the Indian economy is not hard work but finding work at all. At a labour participation rate of 45% over all and only 20% for women, it’s blindingly obvious to anyone that there aren’t enough jobs. As a result those who do get well paid jobs do anything to keep them including working far harder than most of the world does. There are enough surveys which indicate that Indians are amongst the hardest working people in terms of hours spent at work. Therefore on one count NRNs statement shows his complete disconnect from reality and at another level displays a shocking lack of awareness of the macro factors affecting the country’s growth. Very predictably you had other billionaires of his ilk supporting his statements - those who benefit from their minions doing hard labour. Everyone else who suffers the real hardships of life in India is outraged - and this is not just at NRN but at the entire billionaire class which has created wealth for themselves without any obvious value add to the economy or to society
harsh_61
8 months ago
There are companies who do not make salary payments and who do not pay final settlement dues. There is no protection of law for such employees who do not fall in labour class except a 10 year civil court battle and mental agony. I am a victim of such an employer not being heard by any forum including Human Rights Commission of Maharashtra as I am harassed by a private employer. How any employee will be inspired to work 70 hours a week?
shaileshgan
8 months ago
The Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Act in 2018 has been effectively converted into a Protection of Corruption Act. In Maharashtra ACB sought permission to investigate in 418 cases.
Permission was given only in 27 cases and rejected in 66 cases. 325 cases were pending; out of these 309 cases were pending for over 90 days. Vive la Corruption
irda.sanjeev
8 months ago
Now a days being in news is important. The person who opposes late sitting is talking about ?? hours a week. Thats how india will become vishva guru? Ridiculous
david.rasquinha
8 months ago
Critics would do well to listen to the entire interview of Mr. Murthy by Mohandas Pai, instead of focusing on one factoid. Mr. Murthy makes many good points that are getting drowned out in the noise over the 70 hours. In fact, many of my generation did exactly that at the start of our careers.
hari.krv
8 months ago
The level of entitlement of leaders like NRN is unbelievable. He built a company solely on labour arbitrage and exploited our youth to phenomenally enrich himself. He now wants them to work longer for making him and his family even wealthier. Does age erase conscience altogether?!!!
yerramr
8 months ago
I beg to differ from the conclusion that '70 hours of work would benefit individuals but hardly contributes to nation building as both are in different chemistry. 70hours of work across sectors is also an impracticable suggestion. For example, in financial institutions, the working hours per week 6hours hs been done presuming that computerisation has automised several routine processes. But post the business hours, bank staff take another three to four hours to feed the KYC forms, particularly after the latest amendments!! They have in the process devote less attention with credit clients in farm and MSME areas. They have no time to interact with the farmer or entrepreneur. Earlier, they used to visit the farms and units and even undertake night halts that helped them to know and understand the customers that led to very few NPAs in those sectors. No banker of the current can claim that he knows his client more than what is stated in the KYC. Manufacturing sector works in shifts - some one, two, and three - each of eight hours for six days in a week - 48 hrs a week. Beyond this would violate the labour laws. Similarly, in several service sector undertakings, working hours are limited by the labour code. Several housemaids in urban and metro areas work for half an hour a day in 8 to 10 houses and take a wage of Rs.2000 per household. They pay no income tax. On top they also secure several social benefits linked to Aadhar - health insurance, food rations, free schooling in government schools, in some states. Here, social equity prevails. Many surveys hardly capture these hidden aspects. There is, therefore, a need for detailed fact-based surveys for arriving at the right policies concerning not only on working hours, poverty, equity, and several other areas.
kpushkar
8 months ago
Well said..
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