In anticipation of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government’s third anniversary, the May 16 edition of The Economic Times devoted its front page to lionise Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s performance on the economic front through his tenure so far. “3 years on, Modi sweeps polls”, ran the headline, while results of a poll conducted with industrialists, market heads and the public led the newspaper to pronounce – “Modi sarkar: Teen saal, bemisaal (Modi government: Three years, unmatched)”. India’s top CEOs, ET tells us, “gave full marks to the Narendra Modi government for its stewardship of the economy, praising the focus on building infrastructure and the crackdown on corruption”.
However, conspicuously missing from ET’s evaluation are certain facts which reflect rather poorly on the current government such as the latest Index of Industrial Production (IIP) numbers showing the disastrous impact of demonetisation, bank credit growth falling to a six-decade low and the ever ballooning non-performing assets or NPAs of state-owned banks which stood at a mind-boggling Rs 6.14 lakh crore in February (NPAs got just one mention in ET’s evaluation). Further, despite promising crores of jobs during campaigning, job creation has been remarkably low under this government as well – another aspect ignored by ET. And while job creation has been underwhelming, the fact that even existing jobs are increasingly coming under risk, especially in the Information Technology (IT) sector, is omitted from ET’s glowing tribute to Modi’s economic policies.
Over the past month, reports have been trickling in of mass-layoffs at leading IT firms including Infosys, Wipro, Tech Mahindra, Cognizant and others, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the economic downturn of 2008. Reports suggest that the seven biggest IT firms plan to layoff at least 56,000 employees this year, more than double the number they laid off last year. While Infosys and industry body National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) have denied there are mass layoffs in store, with the latter stating “no significant changes have been reported or observed this year”, others have painted a grimmer picture.
Based on an analysis by McKinsey & Company which was released in February 2017, K Lakshmikanth, Managing Director of executive hiring firm Head Hunters India, painted an even grimmer picture. “Out of the 40 lakh people which are there approximately [employed in the IT sector today], according to McKinsey, 20-24 lakh have to be retrained,” Lakshmikanth told Newslaundry. Half of these employees, Lakshmikanth said, cannot be retrained because “many of them are old schoolers, many of them are not exposed to new technologies, many aren’t from the top engineering colleges”. From this pool of employees, “4-6 lakh [employees] will disappear in the next 3-4 years”, Lakshmikanth concluded. Apart from the challenge of new technology, he listed shrinking margins, automation and rise of protectionism in foreign markets as the main reasons for the downturn in the IT sector.
Despite the predicament facing the IT industry, India Inc’s poster child, coverage in the mainstream non-business press of these layoffs has been muted. In the period between April 15 to May 15, the Times of India’s Delhi edition carried three reports on the layoffs (on April 21, May 9 and May 11) of which only the May 9 report explored the issue in some detail. Meanwhile, Hindustan Times featured four reports (on April 21, May 11, May 12 and May 13) on the topic, of which two were republished from HT’s business- publication Mint and the remaining were from news agency PTI. An editorial in HT on May 8 refers to the dire situation of the Indian IT sector, primarily blaming automation and protectionism of foreign markets for its plight. For its part, The Hindu carried three detailed reports on the issue (April 19, May 12 and May 14).
In the same period, The Indian Express published five reports on the layoffs (April 21, April 25, May 11, May 12 and May 13) and an editorial on May 15 on Infosys’ plan to recruit 10,000 Americans even as it cuts jobs domestically. In relative terms, IE’s coverage was the most comprehensive; not just because of greater number of reports but also due to their depth and detail. Crucially, across all publications, none of the reports were featured on the front page. They were instead relegated to the business pages.
As far as English news channels are concerned, the goings-on in the IT industry hardly got a look in. Obsessed as the medium is with “super exclusives” and “mega exposés” these days, it is hardly surprising that news about layoffs wasn’t given much prominence. With the exception of CNN News 18’s Zakka Jacob, who devoted the May 11 edition of his show ‘Face Off @9’ to debate the issue, it was ignored during primetime on other channels – NDTV, Times Now, India Today TV, NewsX and Republic TV. NDTV, India Today TV and NewsX did have brief 4 to 5 minute segments discussing the layoffs.
Newslaundry attempted to contact media representatives of Infosys, Wipro and NASSCOM – but we did not get any response.
According to NASSCOM’s Strategic Review 2017, the Indian IT industry’s worth is projected to go beyond USD 150 billion, contributing an estimated 7.7 per cent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). With nearly 40 lakh employees, it is India’s largest private sector employer. However, there is no denying that today the industry is in a state of flux, even if one considers McKinsey and Lakshmikanth’s projections to be too pessimistic. Unfortunately, English media’s aversion to prominently highlight this issue can be deemed as another failure to adequately inform its audience about an issue which has a substantial impact on lakhs of lives.