The Mad Axemen of Delhi

“What the hell was that?” I said. It sounded like something big had just crashed to earth right outside my window.

“I think they’re trimming the trees,” my housekeeper said, peering out.

Trimming? Huge branches were coming down in all directions, hitting the ground so hard they were breaking apart.There were several men sitting high up in the trees, hacking at them with axes, while others shouted up orders from below. This was trimming the trees, Delhi style.

I saw a particularly large bough land just feet from where my car was parked and, grabbing the keys, I ran for it. I had to clamber over debris piled up by the door.

Outside, it was raining wood. Holding my hand ineffectually over my head, I shouted to the axemen to let me pass, and they stopped for long enough for me to move the car.

None of the men in the trees had safety harnesses, they were just perched where they could. One looked in particular danger of chopping off the branch he was sitting on at any moment.

It turned out the Residents’ Welfare Association in the block where I live had decided the trees had grown too close to the flats and needed cutting back. They hadn’t bothered to let the residents know, or warn us to move our cars.

Back in the flat, my internet connection had gone. Looking out on the terrace, I saw one of the half-cut branches had fallen against the telephone cable where it ran into the building. I rushed out, shouting to the man in the tree opposite to stop, and tried to disentangle the branch from the cable.

It was a mistake, I shouldn’t have pushed my luck. The axeman looked at me uncomprehendingly and continued to hack away. The branch came away from the tree completely and I suddenly had its full weight in my hand, threatening to drag me off the terrace, towards the ground.

I let go in a hurry. My hands were scraped and bleeding. I went outside in a fury and demanded to see the foreman. The axemen laughed at me, a comical foreigner who was grabbing hold of falling tree branches for some reason. The foreman was contrite. He promised they’d be more careful.

In the UK, where I grew up, an operation like this would have involved roping off the entire area. No one would have been allowed in or out. The workers would have been made to wear safety harnesses, and bright, protective clothing, and no one would have been allowed so much as a few feet up a tree without specialised safety training. It would have taken days to organise. And it would have all cost a fortune.

In India, the job was done in a day.

And there you have Europe’s economic woes in a nutshell. How are European economies going to compete with India, with its hundreds of millions of labourers, prepared to work without safety regulations, for a fraction of what their European counterparts are paid?

It’s not just cutting down trees. It’s manufacturing cars and textiles and consumer goods. It’s mining and steel production.

“India is an emerging economy with a vast pool of cheap labour,” a friend told me. “You have the wealth concentrated in a few and then these huge numbers of people prepared to work for very little. It’s a model that’s never been seen before.”

But I fear it has. It sounds like the Britain of the Industrial Revolution.

The workers’ rights, safety regulation and minimum standard of living we in Europe have fought so long and hard to win since the days of the Industrial Revolution have turned upon us and are throttling us, because they make us uncompetitive.

We are faced with a horrible dilemma: jettison our values in order to compete or drown clinging to our ideals. And while we squabble over government spending cuts, the economies of India and China keep on growing.


  1. I trust this is not an article written in twentytwelve

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