“Apne safed hati dekh liye” — “Have you seen the white elephant” A short dark man in shorts suddenly darted in front of JRD Tata as he was making his round in the shop floor of Jamshedpur Plant. Most thought this is a mad man, those who knew him thought this time pranks of this man has got beyond tolerance.

The senior officers quickly wisked away this man. There were talks of taking disciplenary action against him. But the personal managers advised against it. To the adivasis around Jamshedpur, this man was a uncrowned king. Any undue punishment will have huge adivashi backlash, so they chose to ignore it as a prank from a half mad character. That was Debilal – a sweeper in Plant-III of Tata Motors.

Debilal was in his mid-thirties, he was very sincere in his job and will always be humming some song. Although he was a janitor, he will occasionally pull some pranks on officers. There used to a bully officer who loved to shout at the people on smallest slip. One day Devilal got a dog with a shirt and specs . On back of the shirt written “Mukho” with big letters and let loose the dog in shopfloor.

In the nearby villages Debilal was counted as a man with great wisdom. People will come to him for all kind of advice. No one took any penal action against him and learnt to live with these  pranks as sign of madness.

Next day, as Debilal came to clean the room I asked him why did you tell such thing to Tata. Here is the dialog:

Me:     Why did you jumped in front of  Big Boss

Debilal: I was refering to the new Forge Plant you people have put up. I thought he is wise man and would listen to me.

Me: What is wrong with the Plant

Debilal: It is a White Elephant. Just a costly show piece that does no good

(I thought, this has gone too much – this illeterate sweeper is questioning wisdom of Engineers.  The plant he was referring was fully automated forge plant that produces Front Axle Beam and Crank Shaft. In early 80s, that was the best technology one could get.

Moreover, fresh from PG in Industrial Engg, I thought, let me teach this fellow not to mess with professionals. To teach him a lesson, I started to question in the ragging style.)

Me: Really! How do you say this plant is costly. It has all robots – latest technology in the world

Debilal: Maybe it has lot of new technology, I am a stupid fellow, I can only count on what it produces at what cost

Me: (Oh my God! What does this fellow know about cost)  What is to cost

Debilal : OK! let us start from the begining – there is the old plant that produces Crank Shaft. How many burners are there in the old plant and in the new plant to heat the material

Me: (I was taken aback – not sure) You tell me

Debilal: In the old plant there are 8 burner, in the new furnace there are 12 of them. That’s because new furnace a wide opening for the robotic arm, in old furnace operators could manipulate material with a much smaller opening. In addition old furnace was round like a “Handi” New one is a straight one that only heats the shop, not the iron.

Me: (Now cautious) OK, Fuel cost is not all you know

Debilal: Well, old plant just needed half a bay, new plant requires two full bay

Me: New Plant do not require any man.

Debilal: Who says – It still require two operators to take care of occational miss, then it requires one person to continiously do maintenance and has a maintenance staff of five to do maintenance on regular basis. In the contrary, old plant was much simpler, just required five operator and only a weekly maintenance. The only thing the new plant has over the old one that it do not require the skilled forge smiths, you can run the plant with engineers and operators without any experience. But it takes more people.

Debilal: Not only the plant is costlier to operate, it produces less job per hour. Robots produce only 30 odd piece  per hour against 45 piece in the manual operation. Moreover it requires special billets without any bend in the new line. Old line could manage with some small bend in billets.

(Now my ego totally shattered – I realize this non-matric sweeper, has just taken a class on benchmarking. Still I had not learnt the lession. As last resort I try –)

Me: OK, I take the new plant may be more costly. Actually there are more thing to cost than the comparison you did. But tell me, what is your stake in blocking Tata’s way. What you have to get out of it.

Debilal: This land belongs to me, we people have created this land from forest. You people from outside have come with your money and knowledge and converted the paddy field to a truck factory. We are thankful to you. But at the same time, if people are not working to best of the intension then it is my duty to raise voice and object.

Debilal: As I see it, this new plant is only good in replacing skilled adivasis with urban, unskilled, college educated folks. Had it been more productive, I would have still accepted it, but as it stands, this new plant is not even as productive as the old plant. This I can not tolerate. If Mr. Tata did not listen me on one to one basis, he will have to face mass movement in future.

Saying this, Debilal left the room, humming – “Bombay se aya mera dost, dost ko salam karo…”

Now, I felt what Adi Shankara must have felt in the bylanes of Varanasi. I saluted Debilal in my mind and hold him as one the great teacher I have come across.