After booming sales over the past couple of months, dishwashers are in short supply in many Indian cities. The waiting period for some of the reputed brands is as long as two months. Dishwasher detergents have disappeared from supermarket shelves and online retailers. The Covid-19 pandemic has given the dishwasher its moment in India. If it leads to a greater adoption of dishwashers in Indian households, it will be a good thing for Indian society.
It’s easy enough to understand why the demand for dishwashers has surged. The lockdown and social distancing considerations have increased the number of meals cooked and eaten at home. At the same time, access to domestic workers is limited. The additional load of cooking and eating at home has literally piled up the dirty dishes in and around the kitchen sink. Many people have come to realise that dirty dishes don’t get cleaned merely because they have been left near the sink — someone needs to do them. If the falling apple triggered Isaac Newton to theorise about gravity, it could be unwashed dishes that led him to his first law of motion, or Émilie du Châtelet to the law of conservation of energy.
Dishwasher is the new washing machine
Given that Indian men are notorious for doing the least amount of housework compared to their counterparts in many other countries, it falls to the women in the house to wash even more dishes than they did previously. Even in households where men share the workload, the women’s share is invariably disproportionately high. As I wrote in a previous column, work-from-home risks hurting “women’s job performance for reasons not related to talent and effort as women find themselves having to do more housework in addition to their professional work.” The growth in the demand and use of dishwashers — and washing machines, dryers, vacuum cleaners, microwave ovens and so on — is therefore a good thing, for it can shift the load off women (and men).
Swedish physician and data analyst Hans Rosling was right to celebrate the washing machine as the greatest invention of the industrial revolution. He notes that it not only freed women from having to do the hard work, but allowed them to cultivate their minds and those of their children. This is true for the dishwasher and all appliances that free people from having to do back breaking work.
That’s not the only reason why the greater use of dishwashers is good for society. A dishwashing machine is not just a substitute for washing them by hand — it is better at the job, is more water-efficient and could well have a lower carbon footprint. No, I’m not a dishwasher salesman, nor have I been paid by the industry to write this. I write this from personal experience, spousal approval and empirical evidence.
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No, it won’t take away jobs
At this point, I can guess what you are thinking. Won’t this lead to the loss of employment for millions of people who work as domestic workers? Actually, it is unlikely to. Indeed, it might cause more people to be employed in providing domestic services. The increase in the number of households with washing machines was accompanied by an increase in the number of people employed as domestic workers. Clearly, economic growth created the demand for both washing machines and household workers. Instead of washing clothes manually, the household worker now perhaps loads the clothes into the machine, puts them out to dry and folds them into the cupboard — and does other housework in the remaining time. Similarly, dishwashers too won’t replace the household worker in India in the near future because there are many tasks that machines cannot do.
Why it doesn’t click in India
It’s interesting to ask why dishwasher demand has hitherto been so low. Before the lockdown, fewer than 1 per cent of households owned a dishwasher. According to a report in The Economic Times last July, “Estimates by dishwasher makers put the market between Rs 140-200 crore. In contrast, the size of the residential air-conditioner market in India is around Rs 20,000 crore, refrigerator Rs 21,000 crore and washing machine will be about Rs 8,000 crore.”
Hiring a domestic worker is certainly cheaper. But doing it oneself is not. A machine costing Rs 30,000 to purchase, and Rs 500 per month to run, works out to Rs 33 per day (over a five-year machine lifetime). Leaving out those who enjoy this work, it may be that a lot of people who decide to spend an hour a day cleaning up dishes are undervaluing their leisure time.
Or, of course, enjoying their leisure time by passing on the task to someone else in the household. But lockdown is making people acutely aware of the real economic cost of their time.
There are other reasons why dishwashers are not more common in middle-class households: home sizes and designs do not allow for it, electricity and piped water might be unreliable, and social proof — “my friends have it”— is lacking. I’ve also come across the “it won’t work for Indian cooking” argument, which ignores the fact that many manufacturers optimise their designs for local conditions.
As I have argued earlier, the pandemic offers us opportunities to move to a more desirable equilibrium. Dishwashers and many other home appliances allow the households that can afford them to be more productive and free up more time for leisure and enrichment. The higher economic surpluses they generate will benefit everyone in society.
Columnist Shobhaa De is quoted as once writing that she preferred her human domestic helper because “A dishwasher wouldn’t wish me ‘Eid Mubarak’ or ‘Happy Diwali…A dishwasher wouldn’t provide me with a sane, practical commentary on current affairs first thing in the morning.”
That was 18 years ago. Today’s smart dishwashers come with internet connections and smartphone apps. They could soon connect you to gossip networks and current affairs commentary. Sane and practical, I’m not sure.
The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.
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