Chocolate and Gold Coins

Friday, January 06, 2006

Why Are They Doing It That Way: The Answer

A week ago, I wrote this post asking, “Why are they doing it that way?” It is a basic question: “Why would people in different countries perform the same task in different ways?” It isn’t just about technology: even if we insist on low tech tools, they way Indians and the way Americans would approach the same task would be different. Why is that?

Here is the observation and the four questions again:

The task was to remove the sod from about 400 square feet of lawn. Six workers worked the entire morning doing this task. …

There were six people to remove the sod. Two were older and were clearly supervisors. They did no physical work whatsoever. They only passed a few comments. In the late morning, both of the supervisors left and the work proceeded as before.

All four of the workers had nice shoes (not sandals). They all removed their nice shoes and placed them in one corner of the garden before starting work.

Of the four workers, two had the task of removing sod with a tool that looked a bit like a pick. Actually, it looked like a cross between a pick and a shovel: it was a tool you lifted and brought down with a pick motion but the blade was wider like a shovel’s. The tool looked thoroughly inefficient for removing sod and it did take an enormous amount of effort to use this tool as evident by the sweat the two workers were generating in the cool morning.

The remaining two workers picked up the sod with their hands and placed it in wok-shaped bowls. Each bowl was about 18 inches in diameter and could hold about 15 to 20 pounds of sod. They would lift each bowl to their shoulder and carry it 20 yards away to the dumping area. The two workers will bowls could not keep up with the two workers with picks.

As I observed this, I had four questions:

1. Why have two supervisors?
2. Why use bowls to move the sod?
3. Why use picks instead of shovels?
4. The picks looked very dangerous with bare feet. Why didn’t these workers protect their toes from injury?


1. Why two supervisors? The clue is the age of the supervisors: they were too old to do manual labor anymore. Chances are that there is an implicit contract here between the lodge and the workers that if they work diligently for many years, eventually they will become supervisors. This policy might lead to an excess of supervisors but so be it; it serves the purpose of motivating the workers to stay with the lodge.

2. Why use bowls to move sod? Why not use wheelbarrows? This one is partly a mystery because I cannot think of a really good explanation why the lodge would not use wheelbarrows. But a partial explanation is that wheelbarrows might not be very common in that part of India (or in other parts of India for that matter).

Wheelbarrows don’t work in mud, and India tends to be the land of mud during the monsoon. Therefore there must be some other tool that the locals use instead of wheelbarrows when the land is muddy. I haven’t seen the tool but I imagine that it might be two horizontal poles with either a cloth or a tub between them. This tool would require two people to use but it would be otherwise ideal for transporting heavy loads over marshy ground. A poor people cannot afford a tool for good weather and another for bad, so the make do with the two-pole-tool for all twelve months of a year.

The reason these workers weren’t using this tool on that day might have been partly a miscalculation. The supervisors thought that two workers with bowls would do about as well as the two workers with the two-pole-tool, but they were wrong. One person with a wheelbarrow could have done the work of the two people with bowls, so the lodge really should think about buying some wheelbarrows.

3. Why use the pick tool to remove sod? Why not use a shovel? The clue here is that the workers didn’t work with shoes on. It would be impossible the use a shovel with bare feet. Shovels are not popular in India because boots are seldom worn in India, and no one has a need for boots because shovels are not sold in India – it is a classic vicious cycle. And it is a pity that boots and shovels aren’t used in India because shovels use leg power and our legs are many times stronger than our arms (if you don’t believe me, imagine trying to pedal a bicycle with your arms).

Europe was lucky that the weather was colder in a way. They needed heavy boot for the cold weather and tended to use them year-around. So tools that could be used with boots (like shovels) could evolve in Europe but not in India.

4. Why don’t these workers try to protect their toes? The risk of injury is real. But it isn’t certain and it apparently isn’t high enough to motivate the workers to wear any protective gear for their feet. To understand why not, we should ask, “How much would you be willing to pay to avoid a 1 in 10,000 chance of losing a toe?” We in the west might pay $50 or $100 to avoid such a risk because it sounds really scary. But in India, the people cannot afford to pay so much and the risk of losing a toe might be less scary. I am not saying they don’t mind it; I’m saying they don’t fear it so very much because their life is already hard and pain is not uncommon. They can take some more pain. So they might pay a $1 to avoid such a risk. Well, what safety device for your toes can you get in India or anywhere for $1?

To some extent, it could be that safety, or disregard for safety, might be part of the culture. If others start wearing safety equipment, you might think you should have it also. In other words, safety needs to be marketed in India, and no one is doing it yet. It might be a tough sell at first, but there are definitely some safety devices that Indians would like to have.

The interesting thing about this exercise is that it reveals a lot about markets. For example, you might be able to market shovels in India to people who make their living digging, but only if you market the boots that go with them. Also the safety aspect of the boots might be a bit of a selling point as well, although maybe not so much initially until many other people start buying boots. Also, there might be more of a market for wheelbarrows in India if properly marketed.

Also there is another point: tools in one place might have a use in another place. For example, the two-pole-tool seems to me to be a tool that would be useful occasionally when wheelbarrows really wouldn’t work: like taking things up staircases or across marshy land. Is there a market for such a tool here that no one has tapped?

I would like to acknowledge the help from Kunal, XC-135, and Ravikiran in answering these questions.

4 Comments:

  • Michael,
    Why don’t these workers try to protect their toes? The risk of injury is real. But it isn’t certain ...

    The use of protective gear is very low in India, even in cases where there certainly exists a real occupational hazard. An example would be the welders. Constant exposure to the bright oxy-acetylene flame is sure to cause damage to the eye. But probably there is no awareness (and as you mention, money) among workers or the employers to buy protective gear.

    By Anonymous Srikanth, at 8:35 AM  

  • And:
    The pick-like tool is called a Mamootty and the bowl is called baand (~bond?).

    By Anonymous Srikanth, at 8:54 AM  

  • Hi Srikanth
    Thanks for those links. Have you seen anything like the two-pole-tool that I suggest must serve the role of a wheelbarrow? I cannot believe they only use the baand bowls.

    I would think that it would be easy to sell these workers on the idea of having protective eye gear in this case. These workers would not be absolutely poor: they have a specialized skill. And their eyes are at extreme risk. It must be the peer affect - no one wants to be the first sissy to use one.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 12:36 PM  

  • The "Baand" is primarily used (designed) for mixing cement and sand, and they dominate the market. Its a case of (bad) multi-purposing.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:11 PM  

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