Trying To Hold Down Holidays...

In April, 99-year-old Moraji Desai, Indian Prime Minister for two years in the 1970s, passed away. As soon as word of his Monday morning death got out, companies, banks, and government offices shut down. They stayed closed through Wednesday out of respect for Desai. On Thursday everything remained shut--it was a Jain religious holiday. And Friday was Good Friday, another public holiday in India.

Indians grumbled, mostly about not being able to go to the bank all week. But given the country's penchant for holidays, it wasn't surprising. After all, there's a saying in Hindi: "Saat war, aath tehwar," or "Seven days in a week, eight holidays."

BAD RECIPE? India has perhaps more holidays than any other country in the world. While industrialized nations average 7 to 12 per year, India has about 40, including both national and local holidays. If you take into account vacations and sick leave, Indians work on average little more than three days a week, which may not be the best recipe for development.

Of the annual holidays, many are religious, created to placate India's multitude of minorities. Although Jains make up just 0.5% of the population and Christians just 2%, the whole country closes down on their holidays.

Then there are local holidays, with politicians creating more each year to woo constituent groups. The central state of Madhya Pradesh shuts down on the anniversary of the birth in 1770 of Ghasidas, a lower-caste leader from the eastern part of the state. "The holiday was declared for political reasons," says Anand Mohan Mathur, former advocate general of Madhya Pradesh. "Nobody from outside Ghasidas' area knows who he is. Yet the whole state is paralyzed for a day."

Mathur, 68, and some of his fellow lawyers started the Reduce the Holidays Campaign in 1991. They have succeeded in getting Madhya Pradesh to cut a handful of state days off. Now, with the help of some prominent writers and activists, they are taking the campaign to the central government. Not only do they want Delhi to cut the number of scheduled holidays but they want Indian politicians to sign statements declaring there should be no holiday called when they die. Mathur says former Prime Ministers V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar have already agreed to sign such pledges. Mathur and his group plan to visit Delhi in the coming weeks to try to get current leaders, starting with President Shankar Dayal Sharma, to sign, as well.

Getting the support of both politicians and the Indian public won't be easy, Mathur acknowledges. People, after all, like their holidays. But he hopes that a country that calls Mahatma Gandhi the "Father of the Nation" will start to live by his example. "Gandhi was a man who believed in work," says Mathur. He probably wouldn't be too keen to learn, then, that Oct. 2, his birthday, is a holiday.

India's holiday glut, say economists, is emblematic of the country's attitude toward work. "We don't have an especially strong work culture," says S.L. Rao, director general of the National Council of Applied Economic Research. And that wasn't helped, critics say, when in the 1980s then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi reduced the workweek from 51/2 to 5 days. Many economists would like to see a six-day workweek in India. But they also realize it still won't change the fundamental outlook toward work and productivity. Much of the problem, they say, can be traced to India's endemic corruption and its massive underground economy.

That economy is estimated at more than one-third the size of the country's gross domestic product. The signs of funny business are everywhere--from epidemic tax evasion to government bureaucrats who supplement their income with baksheesh, or bribes.

Some analysts hope that India's four-year-old program to make the economy more open and competitive will give birth to a pervasive work culture. No one, though, expects the changes to take place overnight. "We're used to being told what to do," says the National Council's Rao. And if that means being told to take a holiday, most are more than happy to comply.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.