India: IT industry the new killing farms, techies the new farmers?

Asia Human Rights
July 24, 2017
Reproduced with Permission
Asian Human Rights Commission

Gopikrishna Durgaprasad, a 25-year-old gainfully employed young man, committed suicide a few days ago in Pune, Maharashtra. With Maharashtra seeing thousands of suicides every year, and being the state with the most farmer suicides annually, Gopikrishna's death would not have been significant news on its own. What was different about this case though, was that Mr. Prasad was an Information Technology (IT) professional, not a farmer. He was not distressed by an immediate catastrophe like crop failures or its opposite, bumper crop production ending in price crash, both of which hound farmers to distress and death. Mr. Durgaprasad was still worried however, as his gloomy suicide note indicates. Reading it should send a chill down the spines of those in power, and make them act before the country's Information Technology sector, the driver of Indian economic growth, becomes the new killing farms, and IT professionals the new farmers.

"In IT there is no job security. I'm worried a lot about my family," Mr. Durgaprasad had written in his suicide note found in his hotel room, according to the police. He could not have been more right. After decades of boom that hid the gloom brewing in the Indian countryside, the flames have reached the IT sector too. It is now rife with threats of lay-offs; estimates put them at a staggering high of 200,000 per year, and continue for three years at least. That is 200,000 well-educated, well placed, upwardly mobile, mostly young people, suddenly losing all they have, unable to pay their car and apartment installments.

It is important to note here that it is only the scale of the crisis that is new, not the crisis itself. The mushrooming of engineering colleges in the country has led hundreds and thousands of youth entering the work force every year, but with disproportionately lower opportunities. This, in turn, has allowed employers to keep firing old employees, and take new ones at far lower salaries. Cutting of costs and maximizing their profits in this manner, has serious consequences. Even a cursory look at the attrition rate, the number of employees leaving a company for every 100 joining it in a year or any specified time, brings this fact out. The attrition rates in the IT sector almost always remain more than 10 percent, and often even shoot through the roof at 20 plus. Of course companies try to attribute this to employees leaving at their own will to pursue higher studies and so on, but independent studies like those by Forum for IT Employees (FITE) and New Democratic Labour Front-IT Employees Wing (NDLF-IT Wing) present a shockingly different picture.

They have repeatedly exposed how the attrition rates are in fact high because of layoffs attributed to 'poor performance' without any transparency in the performance appraisal process. The organisations have approached labour commissions and filed petitions against the companies on account of ill-treatment of employees, sudden layoffs on grounds of unsatisfactory performance, lack of transparency in the appraisal process, and threats by supervisors.

Sadly, the situation is going to get far worse with new protectionist visa regimes across the world. Though the changes in both United Kingdom and the United States hit the Indian IT professionals the hardest, they are not the only ones. Going by the example of Singapore, which followed suit soon after and banned visas for entry-level IT professionals , the future is all set to get only bleaker. Just to give an example, the new visa regime put in force by the UK government has already denied about 30,000 Indian techies opportunity to work in the country on short-term visas, further affecting their employability back home too.

The home runs IT professionals have enjoyed for more than a decade seem to have ended. Mr. Durgaprasad's suicide is an indication that the gloom of the countryside has come to the cities now. The FITE's comment on his death is a warning for all stakeholders:

"FITE has reiterated several times that most of the IT employees working in metropolitan cities are migrants from rural and suburban areas. These layoffs not only affect the employees, but also the livelihood of their families. It is high time that the government intervenes in this issue and comes up with effective solutions. FITE demands proper inquiry into the untimely death of Gopikrishna and a reasonable compensation for his family".

The warning does not come in a vacuum; for instance, Tata Consultancy Services, one of the biggest IT companies in the country, has announced the closure of its Lucknow office just before the suicide of Mr. Guruprasad. The closure of the 33-year-old office will directly affect more than 2000 employees, and indirectly affect all those who depend upon them, including the tea sellers, the cabbies, canteen owners, and so on.

Ignoring the warning will be disastrous not merely for the personal lives of the IT professionals and the industry, but it will have a snowball effect, bringing the whole economy down. The growth story of the economy, as iterated above, has almost entirely depended on the IT sector, even as agrarian distress ensnared lakhs and lakhs in the villages. Every single retrenchment in the sector will affect the ancillary services.