hardworking youngsters wholesale—even if they were poorly
skilled—because it made sense to staff projects heavily. The more
warm bodies assigned to a task, the higher the bill that could be
presented to the client. But the practice of calculating bills in this
manner has waned; customers now pay for outcomes and impact.
Meanwhile, the poorly skilled youngsters who stayed with their
firms have received promotions and raises with clockwork regularity, until they’ve turned into mid-rung engineers who are now
too costly, in their thousands, to sustain. Cue the purges.
Within the industry, Bansal’s grim views encounter profound
disagreement, at least in public. Perhaps this is understandable:
Association of Software and Services Companies, predicts only a
“decoupling” of revenues and head count over the next few years.
If Indian IT required three million employees to touch $100 billion in annual revenue, she says, it will need only 1. 2 million to
two million additional people for its next $100 billion. By 2025,
when revenues reach $350 billion, Gupta predicts, the sector will
have added another 2. 5 million to three million jobs to the four
million it holds today.
Companies are eager to explain why automation won’t hollow
out, and might even expand, their swarms of employees. For one
thing, it isn’t as if machines can make people instantly redundant.
“Jobs are not structured in such a clean way,” says Giacomelli, at
Genpact. The architectures of modern work that have developed
over decades all have human beings at their center; they rely upon
people’s agility and their capacity to hold different things in their
minds. “People do many things, so it’s not that easy to extricate
one task or the other and make that happen through AI,” he says.
Companies also insist that they want to reskill the employees
who risk being supplanted by automation. If an engineer’s work
is best taken over by an algorithm, “it isn’t fair to then say ‘You
don’t have a job,’” says K.M. Madhusudhan, the CTO of Mind-tree, a services firm that employs more than 16,000 people.
“Can we teach this engineer programming? Maybe not heavy
lifting, but some scripting, which is not that difficult. For every
role, we believe, there are adjacent, higher-level skills that can
be acquired.” Madhusudhan calls this a “humane approach.” It
will result in fewer job losses, although he acknowledges that
firms like his will also be creating fewer jobs. “The numbers that
were possible before will not be possible in the future,” he says.
“That is the bigger concern for a country like India, because we
still produce a lot of engineers, and not everyone will get a job.”
This is a familiar pattern in history: every technological
stride forward has meant that the same amount of work can be
done by fewer people. “Whenever there’s a revolution, there’s a
worry about fewer jobs. It happened with the Industrial Revolu-
tion as well,” says Ravi Kumar, at Infosys. “The reality is, though,
that there’s more consumption,” he adds. That eventually
increases the need for new kinds of labor. At the moment, he
says, enterprises spend 65 to 70 percent of their IT budgets “just
to keep the lights on”—to pay for infrastructure and routine sup-
port. If that money is undammed, it may well pour into new—
and as yet unimagined—streams of revenue and employment:
“It would mean a much bigger canvas for us.”
But even if he is right, there is a tension between the long arc
of these revolutions and the far shorter one of human lives. In
the near term, people will lose their livelihoods. Sunil Kumar is
still without a job.
In June, he filed a petition for wrongful dismissal with the
office of the labor commissioner, a state body that resolves
industrial disputes and enforces labor laws. Once, when he
checked on its progress, an official advised him that his fight
was likely to be a lengthy one, and now he suspects nothing will
come of it. “Whatever confidence I had, I’m losing it,” he says.
When he reads his newspapers, he stops just short of the business pages, which frustrate him. “There will be companies saying many things: ‘We’re hiring this many people, there are many
opportunities.’ The CEOs keep saying it. I stopped reading all
this,” he says. He knows he ought to start looking for a new job,
but he hasn’t been able to pull himself together; it is as if his dismissal had stymied life itself. “I haven’t been able to concentrate
on anything,” he says. “It’s very difficult now.”
Samanth Subramanian has written for such publications as
Wired, the New York Times Magazine, and the New Yorker. His
most recent book is This Divided Island: Life, Death, and the Sri
There is a tension
between the long
arc of technological
revolutions and the
far shorter one of