Incremental to Revolutionary Change: Synthesizing Indian IR System Through the Lens of Punctuated Equilibrium Theory.

AuthorMehta, Prashant
PositionIndustrial relations


Industrial relations in India is a tripartite mechanism which includes three parties namely government, labor/employee and management/employer. Post Independence, India, as a nation, embraced socialism which led to the growth of public sector. Since, immediately post Independence, it was imperative that the country does not falter on production and productivity, any kind of industrial strife would have been an impediment to growth. Hence, government exerted enormous influence on the labor movement, guiding and controlling it with a paternalistic approach. The emphasis was on state controlled collective bargaining intended at avoiding productivity loss due to strikes and lockouts. The basic purpose driving these protective measures was to ensure that labor, being a weaker partner as compared to capital in the manufacturing process, is protected and safeguarded so as to promote social justice.

'The Trade Unions Act 1926', 'The Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act 1946' and 'The Industrial Disputes Act 1947' are three important legislations instrumental in shaping the industrial relations (IR) system in India. Interestingly, The Trade Union Act 1926 though has a provision for registration of trade unions has no provision regarding recognition of trade unions and thus leaving little scope for collective bargaining. Also, The Industrial Disputes Act 1947 gives unfettered authority to the government to intervene in any dispute at any time, making it difficult for employees and employers to come together for dispute resolution. The Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act 1946 which defines conditions of employment is just a ritual and does not prescribe any matter which empowers or educate the employees.

Over a period of time, enactment of multiple laws has resulted in often bizarre and complex employment relationships. The employers, with the purpose of bypassing the law to avoid hiring permanent employees and to get away with any penal action, resorted to different strategies like outsourcing or 'third party hiring'. As per Annual Survey of Industries 20162017, the proportion of contract workers to total workers increased from 34% in 2012-13 to 36% in 2015-16. This increasing trend towards contractua-lization points towards uneasiness of the industry to recruit full time salaried employees and to escape stringent labor laws. Srivastava (2016) in his study has also indicated towards increasing trend with regards to casualization and subcontracting of labor.

Punctuated Equilibrium Theory

Erickson and Kuruvilla (1998) in their one of the most important papers on industrial relations system transformation have applied the 'punctuated equilibrium' theory to understand the evolution of industrial relations system. They believe that just like social system, an industrial relations system also undergoes periods of relative stability with only little or no or very subtle change punctuated by periods of swift transformations. During these times of swift transformation, the basic nature and fundamental philosophy of the system comes under scrutiny. Gersick (2020) tends to define the generic form of the 'punctuated equilibrium' theory as an alteration between long periods when stable infrastructures permit only incremental adaptions, interspersed with brief periods of revolutionary upheaval.

Gersick (1991) in her first study elaborated that the three pillars of punctuated equilibrium are: (a) deep structure (b) equilibrium periods (c) revolutionary periods. She further states that the first of these, deep structure, is the most critical for understanding the models and it is the hardest concept to define and communicate. However, she attempts to define it as "a network of fundamental, interdependent 'choices' of the basic configuration into which a system's units are organized, and the activities that maintain both this configuration and system's resource exchange with the environment" (Gersick, 1991). This means for a change to be revolutionary, there has to be considerable change in the 'deep structure' of the system.

The theory clearly emphasizes that a stable structure that has evolved over a period of time and continues to change in a very subtle manner, this stable state is interrupted by a state of swift transformation, which leads to complete dismantling of the old system and establishment of a new system. These relatively stable periods of IR are interspersed with periods of rapid transformations named as "revolutionary periods" wherein the old structure is exposed to completely different parameters. It is during these revolutionary periods that 'deep structure' of a system dismantles and leads to the establishment of a new system.

The fundamental question is to determine the factors that are causing such abrupt transformations in the Indian IR. Historically it is known that periods of revolutionary changes are brought about by the factors intrinsic as well as extrinsic to the system (DeFronzo, 2018; Piore & Sabel, 1984). In the case of industrial system, intrinsic factors include employees and employers and government, while extrinsic factors include external environment, labor market conditions and eco logical factors (Kinderman, 2019). As Indian IR system is characterized by extensive state intervention and as it is based upon the premise of protecting the interests of the labor, the period since independence has remained largely stable. This stability in IR system, though has not evolved through interaction between employees and employers, has been imposed by the state through legislation and intervention. This stable system or system in equilibrium with its different components--employees, employers and government--is characterized by a 'deep structure' with its own peculiar features. In order to understand Indian Industrial Relations (IIR) system through the lens of punctuated equilibrium, we will have to examine the constituents to its deep structure.

Deep Structure of Indian IR System

It can be seen from the exhibit (Exhibit 1) that 'deep structure' of IIR is characterized by five fundamental, interdependent 'factors' that have configured to contribute towards industrial democracy.

* Tripartism and role of government --As stated earlier, India after Independence adopted socialism with the objective of achieving social equity for everyone through economic growth. As such, state-led the process of industrialization through the establishment of heavy industry and following the economic policy of import substitution. Given the circumstances, with nation at such a crucial juncture, states focused on prevention of strikes and lockouts. Most of the labor laws were therefore inherited as such...

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