Stuck as chattel

The anecdote in Suketu Mehta's Maximum City that struck me as the most true was about one of the Bombay cops. Ajay Lal is from a rich family and can afford to be honest. He's also a hero in Bombay because he identified the gangster who set off a bunch of bombs. LA Confidential-style, he also advises movie types. But the gangsters have it in for Ajay. His family needs round-the-clock protection. Ajay desperately wants to leave India, to go someplace where he can lead a normal life.

Mehta helps him get a gig at a Washington DC think tank. Ajay is ready to leave, but his boss will not give him a "No Objection Certificate". Ajay can't get his passport without the certificate from his employer, and so he is stuck in Bombay.

It is not usual for employers in India treat their employees like chattel.

When I was in India last month, I got talking to a young cousin. He'd recently graduated college and gone to work for a large construction firm. After a year of not-exactly challenging work, he decided to go to graduate school. He got accepted in IIT Delhi, but they wanted him to prove his year of experience.

His employer refused to give him a reference letter. "We spent 3 lakhs ($7500) on training you," he was told, "pay us the money back if you want to leave." His salary for one year working at the firm? 1 lakh ($2500). Obviously, he didn't have even a fraction of the 3 lakhs they wanted.

"I'm not going to work for a competitor," he explained to his boss' boss, throwing himself at the company's mercy. It went all the way to the CEO of the company. But they refused to give him the reference letter.

"Ask IIT if they really need the letter," I suggested. His advisor didn't care, and was willing to take him on. But the graduate college was apprehensive. The firm had made a couple of big-money research grants. Not people to get on the wrong side of, you could hear them thinking, what's one 22-year old's dreams compared to hundreds of thousands of dollars?

I suggested that he ask the company if they would waive the 3-lakh fee if he agreed to come back to work for them after finishing his M.S. He did. Last heard, they're still mulling over the idea. Meanwhile, college starts in three weeks and my cousin is despondent.


  1. Strange that IITD is asking for such a letter. What if he had 0 years experience would it matter to them. Is experience warranted for the graduate program he signed up for?
    Let us assume he was trekking the Himalayas for a year would it matter to them?

  2. Just your typical suspicious Indian bureaucracy. My cousin listed his employer in his application. Now that he's admitted, he has to prove every line of it.

  3. Would not have expected that from the pillars of Indian knowledge elite

  4. This is very true and typical of Indian attitude. I worked for HP in India and when I wanted to move over to a different group because my project was getting over and the project offered by my manager was not what I wanted to do, he refused to let me off, sabotaged my chances and sent one of his stooges to threaten me with a bad review and stop my promotion.

    Since I had no choice, I decided to take up the project. But it was a huge mistake - I hated every minute of it and guess what - when my review time came, I was screwed anyways because I had resisted.

    Finally I got a job elsewhere and threw in my papers in HP.
    The section manager (manager's managers' manager's manager) called me to his room and demanded that I give 6 months notice as opposed to the regular 1 month notice as my leaving HP will hurt the project. He said he will find it difficult to find a replacement (as if that was my problem). At one point of time, he even spoke about legal action.

    Treating subordinates with disrespect and like a personal slave is ingrained in 99.99% of Indian managers. The corollary is also true - subordinates suck up as much as possible - as that is the only way to grow. It is not your contribution or technical abilities. Its just "Yes boss".

    Most managers in India are technically poor, lack etiquette, suck up to their US counterparts or bosses, promise just about anything in the world. They thrive in mediocrity.

    You can write a huge book about Indian attitudes and managers.