Chocolate and Gold Coins

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Why Are They Doing It That Way?

I have to write a whole post on the wonderful stay we had at Kabini Lodge in Nagarahole National Park near Mysore, India. On the last day of our stay, I observed some yard work. I don’t like to do yard work but I have a lot of experience observing my parent doing yard work and know how it would be done in the U.S. These Indian workers were doing it very differently. It made me wonder: “Why are they doing it that way?”

I will describe the task and how these workers were doing the work. The task was to remove the sod from about 400 square feet of lawn. Six workers worked the entire morning doing this task. In the U.S., obviously we would use power equipment instead of hand tools and it would take two workers an hour to complete everything. But my father would have done this very differently, and he only had hand tools for doing gardening.

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?

I thought about it and came up with reasonable explanations for three but not four of these questions. I thought it might be fun for you to try to think about this yourselves and see what explanations you might come up with. I will post my answer to three of the four questions next week.


  • About the pick/showel thingy, it's called a phavda, at least in Marathi. We use those instead of shovels in India because (as you noticed), most labourers don't wear shoes, so it would be really difficult to get the showel into the ground.

    By Blogger Kunal, at 8:07 AM  

  • "The picks looked very dangerous with bare feet. Why didn’t these workers protect their toes from injury?"

    Even the low cost of providing protective gear is higher than the total liabilities resulting from an injury to the worker. Life is cheap in India.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:32 PM  

  • Hi Kunal and XC-135

    Kunal: Correct. Shovels are useless in India because most workers lack proper footwear. Actually, one needs thick sole boots to use a shovel. Lack of thick sole boots means lack of demand for shovels and lack of shovels means lack of demand for thick soled boots.

    And this is quite unfortunate. Anyone who has used both a pick and a shovel will prefer the shovel. It uses leg power. Legs are stronger than arms by several times.

    XC-135: Indeed, the risk of injury does not seem to motivate poor Indians the way it would motivate more prosperous Americans. People try to be careful but if the occasionally injure themselves, they just suffer. They do not think that it is necessary to take precautions against one-in-a-million risks. The fellow who holds the coconut in one hand and slices it with a machete in the other has probably never missed (since he has two hands) but it might happen. But it does not occur to him that this slight risk is worth avoiding.

    Is safety merely a luxury good or is it part of the culture? In the U.S., our culture demands safety. Liability laws make sure that employers provide a safe working environment. Over time, the culture of safety is contagious and even the self-employeed and the do-it-yourselfer become more safety conscious. It may not really occur to the workers with the picks that they are taking a risk.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 2:37 AM  

  • Is the question you don't have an answer to the second one? Try as I might, I can't think of a reason why they'd use those bowls instead of a wheelbarrow. The difference in capital investment cannot be all that much.

    The most plausible explanation is that those bowls can be used in many more situations than a wheelbarrow, which can only be used on flat ground, so it is not worth investing in it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:20 PM  

  • Hi Ravikiran: Bingo!

    I could not understand the lack of wheelbarrows either. They are ubiquitious in any U.S. garden shed but I didn't see them in India. I did see these wok-bowls in several places.

    The wok-bowls are more generally useful: they can be used to hold cement or they can be used to transport goods up stairs. But wheelbarrows are inexpensive and why not have both?

    Maybe they are just too bulky or maybe they never caught on in India or something. But one guy with a wheelbarrow could have replaced the two guys with the wok-bowls in this example. I'm sure there is a logical explanation here - I just don't have it yet.

    The wheelbarrow would have had another really useful application: transporting water pots to villager's homes. I saw lots of women fill up pots with water and transport it on their heads to their homes. Given that there is not going to be a pipe to your home, why wouldn't you reduce your burden a bit by transporting two pots in a wheelbarrow? My guess is these villagers didn't have any wheelbarrows. I cannot understand why not. They cannot be that expensive.

    One possibility is that the wheelbarrow requires more skill to use on uneven terrain than maybe I thought. I remember losing control of the wheelbarrow a few times as a child (but children are clumsy). It may require some skill to control a fully-loaded wheelbarrow over rough terrain and the few times that the wheelbarrow in India, the users gave up before they acquired the skill to make them truly useful. Just a guess.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 2:53 PM  

  • Hi Ravikiran
    I think I figured out the wheelbarrow issue. It has to do with the monsoon. For two months out of every year, wheelbarrows would be useless in India because the ground is just too muddy. Therefore some other tool is used in lieu of the wheelbarrow (I don't know what it is but I can guess). Poor people cannot afford two tools to do one job so they rely on the more general tool.

    What is the more general tool? I don't know, and I haven't seen it. But I would guess it is like a cross between a wheelbarrow and a sedan chair: two horizontal poles and a bucket in between. Has anyone seen a tool like this in India?

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 9:39 AM  

  • I think that's right.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:49 PM  

  • Michael,
    Also, the feudal structure, that is ingrained in every layer of the society may be at work. Traditionally, women carry the bowl like thingies while the men dig.

    By Blogger Nilu, at 4:06 PM  

  • Thanks to everyone for helping solve this puzzle.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 7:07 AM  

  • I love your blog, always learn a lot from it. Thanks, good day!
    Small items,big luxury!

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  • By Blogger Yuesir, at 5:02 AM  

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