The time has come

Life imitates art.

And governments imitate private corporations.

Now light years ago, I started working life as a Management Trainee at a global, UK-headquartered bank in Mumbai, a bright eyed and bushy tailed graduate from the Well Know Institute of Management in Western India, or WIMWI, as referred to in case studies. Upon getting the first role with responsibility, after an initial training period, a Management Trainee became an Assistant Manager. In due course, and with some good performance evaluations, one could become a Manager, and thereafter, a Senior Manager. The world beyond a Senior Manager was too far and too dim to worry about at that stage.

Management trainees joining the big American banks of those days, went from Assistant Manager to Manager, then to an Assistant Vice President followed by Vice President. Perhaps there too, the world beyond Vice President was too far and too dim to think about.

As realisation of this unfairness dawned, the bunch of Management Trainees in our bank were up in arms, to the extent well-paid and well-fed youngsters can be up in arms against a desirable to work for corporation. This ‘upping in arms’ was usually a whisper in the ear of the boss after a monthly report had shown signs of an improvement in performance, or as a joke with the HR Manager when he was sufficiently drunk.

I cannot be sure about the other participants in this ‘upping in arms,’ but I don’t think we were very serious about it, nor did we ever believe that it would happen.

If ever a war was won without a shot being fired, this was it. A few months later the bank had adopted the structure of AVP and VP after a Manager. It was a heady feeling. Not a paisa increased in our salary. Not a single benefit changed. Even the dark abyss beyond Senior Manager, which everyone secretly hoped to reach fast as that is where the serious money apparently started, got pushed back further away by a step. It was a victory that we savoured for many months.

Many years later I came to know that my WIMWI classmates who had joined American banks were fighting for a Senior Manager designation that they did not have. But it was after a few drinks. I cannot be certain.

It was our secret. It was our victory. Though I departed for other pastures after some years, friendships formed in the first job endured. At a recent meeting with some people from the bank, I learned that management trainees can now go all the way to Senior Assistant Certified Business Corporate Vice President, though it might take 86 years. I was glad to know that youngsters have so much to look forward to even before they reached the point of serious money.

I was reminded of this history when I read the headline in today’s newspaper that screamed “Indian Railways redesignates post of ‘Guard’ as ‘Train Manager’ with immediate effect.”

I looked up from the newspaper, refocused my gaze, and read it again. To my amazement, the headline had not changed. Indian Railways, India’s largest employer, and that counts for something, clarified that the move, being demanded for some time, would result in a “dignified designation for them without any financial implication, so that, they can also lead a respectful life in the society.”

Further, it seems that “The demand was raised as the designation ‘Train guard’ had become outdated and in society people commonly draw reference that he/she may be a guard in some private firm etc..”

Clearly, all those who answer to the designation of a ‘guard’ in some ‘private firm etc,’ belong to a species that deserves our contempt and scorn. Thank you, Government of India, and thank you, Indian Railways, for making that clear.

I was overcome with emotion, thinking about the thousands of people designated as ‘guards’ toiling away at their jobs who would now be able to lead a life of dignity toiling away at the same job for the same pay under the same working conditions.

And that is not all. “An assistant guard will now be called assistant passenger train manager, and the goods guard will be called goods train manager. Senior goods guard has been re-designated as senior goods train manager, senior passenger guard is now senior passenger train manager.” Trust the government to go the whole hog.

“Manager, huh,” I said to myself, looked away from the newspaper and wondered how much time would be allowed to pass by the government before making the move to the vice president structure.

There were questions on my mind as I have a train journey coming up soon. During past train journeys I have met various people working for the Indian Railways, such as the people who keep the cabin clean, those who serve refreshments and the obvious ticket checker, but never the erstwhile ‘guard.’ I was left wondering if the person serving the refreshment would take umbrage if I called him ‘bhaiya’ (brother in Hindi) which has historically been acceptable in all situations, or would I be better off addressing him as “Assistant Manager In-cabin Passenger Nourishment?”

It is another matter that the opportunity of meeting the ‘Train guard’ has been taken out of my hands, for no fault of mine.

Word gets around. One man’s meat is another’s poison.

The lady who works in our house is on leave today. Her phone is switched off. My wife is wringing her hands. We can anticipate the issue. For once she believes I am better placed to solve the problem, with my long years in large corporations. Our neighbours seem to be faced with a similar situation. Another chapter is about to be written in the struggle for the development and recognition of the disadvantaged, that has gone from servant to maid to house-help over decades, with no change in duties or benefits. Clearly it will no longer be enough. The time has come for a new name to be called by.

The residents’ society has called an emergency meeting to decide upon the new designations for the help. I did not know this, but the email also said that the society guards are not at their stations and are engaged in a heated discussion in a corner of the society and words like ‘Director,’ ‘Manager,’ ‘Founder’, ‘Evangelist’ have been heard issuing from that direction.

Uncertain times seem to lie ahead.

Your suggestions on possible designations will go a long way in enabling more people to live a life of dignity.

Did someone say, “What’s in a name?”