Why and how Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs theory is relevant in the Indian context

Abraham Maslow's concept of Needs that motivate human beings, opened up a huge amount of research in applied behavioral sciences. Since then, the scope of this research has extended to all countries and is not confined to the West. Some practical understanding of why and how this concept if relevant in India is sought to be explained in this article.


Given the complexities of life that we have in India, and the kind of organizational changes that are happening as a matter of routine, a superb concept such as Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of Needs theory does have huge practical implications. In very simple words, let us understand this concept. Maslow postulated that a human being's in life are arranged in a hierarchy. At the lowest level, we have the physiological needs, that is a need for food, water, physical intimacy with life partners, shelter and so on. The next in the hierarchy is the need for Safety and security. That is, the same human being wants to own a house, a car, a good amount of savings and so on. This is one aspect of life that is very important for all of us. After this level, we are motivated by what he calls as "social needs". In other words, these needs relate to the need for loving others and also being loved. Basically, these needs are for socialization. After this level, there is a need for what he called "self-realization" needs. In other words, the need for recognition and achievement. And finally, on top of the pyramid, there is a need for what is called "self-actualization. That is, the need to realize the actual potential of what one is capable of becoming.

Maslow was firm that one level of motivation will start only when the level is completely fulfilled. That is, when one level is fully satisfied. Level two, for example, will happen, when only has adequate housing. Then the man longs to have his own house and so on. Be that as it may, in India, the realities are totally different and what we actually see is the base for our understanding of the concept. In the Indian context, a) All the needs overlap at the same time b) There are many who literally want to jump to level five c) Realization of level four is very difficult in India d) Social insecurity means level one and two are so important and e) Generation Y is only for the level 4& 5 immediately.

All the needs overlap at the same time

Picture this situation. Ram is a Deputy Manager of Finance in a huge conglomerate. He is just thirty. He is a qualified cost accountant. Within the next three years, he would easily be promoted to the level of Senior Manager, that is, two levels above. He is hardworking and his skills have been recognized by the Management. Seemingly, he was a very healthy person. However, he suddenly suffered a stroke. The doctors were wondering why it happened. He had emergency surgery. The company rules allowed him a reimbursement of three lakh rupees. However, his bills were double this amount, and he had to withdraw almost eighty percent of his accumulated PF.

Does this story sound familiar? Well, it was a real-life story. Ram was shattered. After he resumed work, he was not given the same portfolio. A very young chartered accountant was recruited from outside and he was given the slot previously occupied by Ram. This made him very sad. The Mangement simply said that he had to totally recover and then they will consider something. Ram was even sadder. Left with no other option, he resigned his job and took up another job at a slightly senior level in another organization. However, his previous medical record was the guide here too. He was not given the exact responsibilities agreed at the time of interview.

By this time, his wife intervened. Enough is enough, she said. Your health is very important, and just stay alive. Do not be bothered about your promotion or career. This is exactly what happened. Ram was no more aggressive. He did get promoted, but the fast track dreams that he had nurtured, went for a toss. This is exactly what happens in India. Our security needs are so important. When we never have it fully satisfied, with record inflation eating us up, we are forced to sacrifice the level four needs. In the very same human being, the levels of motivation overlap. However, at some point in time, we give up and only one need takes over. The current trend where anyone over 45 is not encouraged, will only add fuel to the fire in the years to come.

There are many who literally want to jump to level five

In India, the materialism of a tall order and spirituality go together. One can find a Corporate executive slogging it out for 16 hours per day. On Sunday, he would be in the temple for four poojas and would spend some four hours there. Such instances are very common. However, there are many who literally give up everything, and jump to level 5. These are people, from say, Ramakrishna Mission. The youngsters are never married. They're just immersed in some sort of social work. Maslow's hierarchy of needs does not apply to them. However, we should also note that this is a personal preference and choice.

Realization of level four is very difficult in India

Have you heard that many young professionals, like chartered accountants or research scientists, have a huge problem here, in India, but shine so well, in the USA or some country in Europe, within just three years? What happens?

It is very simple. It is nothing but plain and simple politics. Some selfish boss, who would be threatened by the presence of the talented youngster, would immediately do everything possible to crush him. The poor guy simply resigns his job and goes abroad. He is highly talented and goes abroad. He is quickly recognized and is very happy. This familiar story is repeated again and again. It is a rather regular, monotonous story. Our Indian situation is always unique.

Social insecurity means level one and two are so important

In India, we now have maximum insecurity. The NEEM scheme has become the only source of employment for millions of people. There is absolutely no social security. The markets are indeed growing, but the benefits are available only for a select group of people. For example, those in senior positions with regular jobs can feast on the costly food items, through the likes of Swiggy. Similarly, they can comfortably do all their shopping in the fancy shopping malls. However, this crowd is just two percent to five percent of the total population of India.

Generation Y is only for the level of 4 & 5 immediately

There is this Generation Y. They are highly qualified from the IITs and the IIMs and the NITs or the ISB. They have very high post-tax salaries. They are a happy lot. So, the first three levels of motivation are "givens". For this Generation, the aspiration is only for the levels 4&5. However, they are for immediate satisfaction of these two levels of needs and are very impatient. They change jobs at the drop of a hat and are very good at understanding the value of value-added experience. For example, they would expect to become Vice-Presidents, with a huge range of diverse responsibilities, at the age of just 27. They start searching for jobs where the elbow room for maximum satisfaction is very huge. Once it happens, the process of consolidation of such high-quality experiences happens in double quick time. A very senior generation, now into their late forties or early fifties, is very uncomfortable with these young guys who are always raring to go. However, some companies have the same young generation of owner-managers who play ball. The urge of this Gen Y to realize their higher order needs to be properly understood.


The complexities of the levels of motivation, as propounded by Abraham Maslow, are very unique to India. However, complexities may change if the external environment changes. For example, if the economy improves and the regular jobs in banking and in IT are back, the spending habits of individuals will become that much better. One does hope that this situation will present itself as a reality, sometime in the near future.


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