We already know the meadows, forests and highways of Switzerland through countless Bollywood films where actors gyrate around trees and do the regular masala stuff. I’m in Basel for a project these days. The other day, I wanted to figure out the town. A friend lent his bicycle so I could go around during the weekend. It was lovely to pedal down the roads beside Rhein, the river around which Basel is based. The bicycle gave me the freedom to move around at my own pace.
Then came the time to return it and I discovered a flat tyre. I rushed to a repair shop since neither I, nor my friend who had lent the bike, had a puncture repair kit. Thus began my tale of horror. One look and the mechanic wanted to replace the tube. “Replace?” I quizzed him. “Yes, we recommend that.” “But it’s just a puncture”, I protested. “Sure, but this will cost you less”. “How much?” “9.5 Swiss francs for the tube and 20 for labour”. 20 Swiss francs is the minimum wage for an hour’s work in Switzerland. My mind went into an auto-calculative-currency-exchange-rip off-mode. One Swiss franc equals Rs 65.83; that makes it about Rs 2,000! “How much for puncture repair?” I asked. “It takes more than an hour so add another 20 Swiss francs for labour”. With no choice, I handed over the cycle. I was sullen. Something that would have cost me Rs 20 back in India made me shell out Rs 2,000 here. Thoughts raced through my head.
That labour and manual work is recognised and paid for well, is great. I wish our government works towards that too. It will lead to a more equal society, and as a result, a more developed nation. Given our huge class difference, it would bridge the gap by bringing a lot more people above poverty line than any other policy or politically motivated calculation. Since we have limited money, it may require a cut on the inexplicably huge salary packages of a few equal to the amount of time that a worker carries bricks on his head. Rest assured, it won’t starve anyone to death. It won’t even snatch away luxuries or supress creativity. But it may make us a healthier and equal society. It is also likely to reduce deaths from starvation and the discriminatory practices that are a part and parcel of our everyday lives. In a world where money is not merely a currency to buy or sell anymore, but unfortunately a currency of dignity, it will mean ‘dignity’ for more people.
If you think it may lead to some sort of devaluation or bad economy, you are wrong. After all, the same amount of money would continue to circulate. Many people would start doing their own work and even question the existing gender and caste discriminatory approach to certain kinds of work. We do not need to raise the wages to 20 Swiss francs per hour, rather we could have a sensible ratio for different kinds of work. If we are to ape the west, Switzerland isn’t such a bad place to start with. A general physician makes about 10,000 Swiss francs per month while a cycle mechanic, about 4,000. If we take the doctor as a benchmark, the mechanic earns about 40 per cent of that. We can apply the same to India. Don’t we love our mechanics? They don’t waste a tube for a puncture and they repair it in just about 15 minutes flat. So we just need to learn to appreciate and care for our people, irrespective of their status. That apart, the ‘use and throw’ attitude of the west is another extreme, almost hedonistic in a way. Because the labour cost is higher, they save by throwing away and replacing things. The attitude towards a worker, thus, remains the same, even if wrapped in niceties.
(The writer is a film-maker, musician and doctor)
Parvez Imam