There is a call centre life apart

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					                                          The Social Ticker

     Backcountry Entrepreneurs
                                Information technology goes to villages...

                                                   Charu Bahri

       here is a call centre life apart   preneurships, it was a smart move.        signs. The current economic down-

T      from the hype and cool
       hoopla of One Night @ the
Call Centre, and it is one that young
                                          Today, with an average monthly
                                          income of Rs 4,000 back home
                                          where living costs are a fraction of
                                                                                    turn has led to this lifestyle showing
                                                                                    some signs of flagging, but that’s
                                                                                    largely in the urban areas. In rural
Daryll Khongrymmai knows well. In         those in Delhi, Khongrymmai earns         and mofussil India, a parvenu
2005, Khongrymmai relocated to            a seventh higher than the minimum         lifestyle is usually given a reality
Delhi from Bhoirymbong in                 Rs 3,500 Basix pays to entrepre-          check by tradition, so the changes
Meghalaya to advance his prospects.       neurs. He is optimistic about soon        were not particularly cataclysmic.
Like many people from the Indian          expanding his venture to top the Rs       For      all  practical      purposes,
northeast, he spoke reasonably good       5,000 mark and, in time, further          Khongrymmai is safe from the
English, and bagged a call centre job     still. On his way there, he is lapping    transnational avalanche of dis-
that paid about Rs 15,000 a month.        up any advice – all the more impor-       missals.
   “My salary seemed a princely           tant in the cash-strapped rural areas         The IT sector in India has come a
sum considering that I had no eco-        – that he is given by Basix trainers,     long way since 1985, when it
nomic opportunities back home,”           such as the need to price services        employed only about 6,800 people.
says Khongrymmai. And he had              according to the clientele’s ability to   According to NASSCOM, the num-
brought some serious responsibili-        pay.                                      bers grew to 280,000 in 1997 and to
ties along, unlike many of his young          Khongrymmai is the face of a new      650,000 by the end of 2002. The IT
colleagues who were freewheeling          India – literally. It is a tired, old     industry has been growing at a year-
their way through life on the back of     phrase that has been churned              ly average of 38 percent over 2005,
sudden, if eventually fickle, IT          through almost every demographic          the base in terms of headcount. At
largesse.      It      didn’t      take   study done in the country since the       present, India has an impressive 63
Khongrymmai long to realise that          last decade of the previous century.      percent share of the offshore com-
the only way he could save to repa-       Nonetheless, it speaks of, and to,        ponent of the US$ 120-150 billion
triate money back home was to             that section of educated Indian           global BPO industry. NASSCOM
scrimp in the here and now.               youth who would probably have             also predicted in 2003 that the
   Khongrymmai soon woke up to            been employed as underpaid work-          demand for IT professionals would
the truth that the grass was a lot less   ers prior to 1990.                        shoot up to 1.1 million by 2008 if the
greener in Delhi than he had                  Since the turn of the millennium,     growth trends held. The growth
thought. Finally, ready to grasp at       these youth have had a place to flock     trends, especially in the urban areas,
any straw to move back to a more          to – the sunrise IT-enabled BPO sec-      haven’t held. While that’s not to say
homey genteelness, he heard that          tor. Scores of pundits hailed even        that the sector is in reverse gear,
Basix, a leading microfinance and         the most basic units of this sector,      upwards of 50,000 IT professionals
livelihood promotion institution,         the so-called call centres, as harbin-    were pink-slipped from September
was shortlisting village-level entre-     gers of an economic revolution.           to December 2008. With an estimat-
preneurs for the 2,000 Common                 And so it was, promising and          ed half-million jobs under a guillo-
Service Centres (CSCs) to be set up       delivering enormous disposable            tine poised to fall if growth doesn’t
in Meghalaya and Orissa. He               incomes, which led to a cascading         perk up by end-2009, a serious slide
promptly applied for a position.          economy with arriviste bars and           could be in the offing.
   Although it was ostensibly a ret-      dance floors, foreign FMCG labels             One way out of the mess is
rograde step back from the usually        and      weekend      boisterousness,     through the back door that is always
urban-based, smart-talking, high-         American street fashion and elec-         open to but rarely used by Indian IT
speed information technology entre-       tronic goods as its most visible          corporates. The IT sector is showing

36    The Caravan, August 1-15, 2009
AP Images

            The Caravan, August 1-15, 2009   37
increasing interest in basing its          neither motivated to reach out to vil-        Doing away with the concept of
enterprises in the rural and               lagers nor equipped to deliver the         paid employees, the new model
mofussil areas, where costs – in           services. Moreover, the government         has a village-level entrepreneur
terms of overheads, salaries and           unrealistically planned to run these       (VLE) setting up a CSC and func-
infrastructure – are reputedly             technology-driven ‘socialistic’ ven-       tioning as a storehouse of infor-
between a quarter and a half of            tures on subsidies, financial input        mation that is usually obtained
costs in the urban areas, and where        that is unsustainable in the long          from district and block-level gov-
the target clientele is expanding,         term in a market economy.                  ernment offices. A CSC will also
even if it does not yet have deep and         Ashwanth G, a founding member           offer the village hosting it and sur-
endlessly reliable pockets. On its         of DesiCrew Solutions, a rural BPO         rounding villages a range of
part, the government has long had a        venture, says, “No venture can be          Internet-enabled desktop publish-
sturdy rural component in its IT           sustained on subsidies or free-fund-       ing (DTP), educational, financial
policy, even though its largely            ing. If the venture is to be taken seri-   and health services.
hands-off regimen vis-à-vis the IT         ously by the stakeholders, it must be         For instance, a villager who wants
sector has meant – till now – that IT      drawn on commercial lines. This            to open a bank account no longer has
entrepreneurs have played it safe          brings accountability to the activity      to trek for a day to a nearby town to
and unadventurous in the metros.           as well as enables loopholes to be         have her or his photograph taken
                                           covered to ensure efficiency.”             and to struggle to fill a mountain of
        he virtual return to the grass-       This observation emphasises             application forms, losing a day’s

T       roots is imbued with irony.
        Technology-driven call cen-
tres touch the lives of a relative
                                           the merits of private enterprise,
                                           but the profit-oriented private sec-
                                           tor has long been loath to invest in
                                                                                      wage in the process. A trained rural
                                                                                      entrepreneur now facilitates this
                                                                                      process at the village CSC for about a
handful of privileged urbanites (80        rural India, where the low pur-            fourth the usual cost.
percent of IT professionals are from       chasing power of villagers prolongs           Gunaranjan explains that while
the metros), a fact that has led           the gestation period of service            there is no doubt that a demand for
social commentators to speak of the        providers and makes nonsense of            the inexpensive services that CSCs
urgent need to level the playing           the market calculus of turnaround          deliver exists, entrepreneurs must
ground - and offset the economic           times and breakeven intervals.             take into account the villagers’ abili-
downturn – by propelling informa-          There is one way to break this trep-       ty to pay. Otherwise, he says, “They
tion technology to rural India.            idation: private-public sector part-       will simply forgo the experience
    Although the rural areas house         nerships, which Ashwanth endors-           (service).”
70 percent of the national popula-         es. “Tying up with the local admin-           But it’s not easy to ignore the
tion, the agricultural sector’s contri-    istration to provide e-governance          future at your doorstep. The 1,500-
bution to the GDP, at only a fifth of      services assures a rural business of       strong farming community in village
the total, is diminutive. Out-migra-       a low yet steady demand for its ser-       Thirukuvalai in Tamil Nadu lived in
tion of farming families to cities, and    vices,” he says.                           a state of information deprivation
the ensuing pauperisation of                   These ground realities led to CICs     for decades. Now, however, thanks
migrants in the urban areas, is lead-      being remodelled to make CSCs.             to     Chennai-based        DesiCrew
ing to a money drain out of the rural      Explaining the new prototype and the       Solutions, the community is looking
areas.      Prodigal      sons      like   rationale behind it, PS Gunaranjan,        forward to more solvency. The
Khongrymmai can help reverse the           associate vice-president (Operations       women in the village are spearhead-
trend and check the haemorrhaging          – North East), Basix, says, “The CSC       ing this upgrading of ways and
of money.                                  model was conceptualised because           means.
    In recent years, having acknowl-       the absence of commercial enterprise          Like other DesiCrew centres
edged that information access was          in the public model translated into        across Tamil Nadu, the Thirukuvalai
vital to the betterment of socio-eco-      insufficient motivation to run the         centre echoes the organisation’s
nomic conditions in rural India, the       centres and draw village-folk to           founding premise that there is no
government sought to proactively           access the information services. The       big hurdle to teaching a rural work-
use information and communication          public approach was converted into a       force new skills and turning it into
technologies through Community             partnership between private and            service providers at rural BPOs,
Information Centres (CICs) in the          public enterprise. Consequently, each      modifying, according to need and
villages. But the urban-rural divide       CSC is intended to offer much more         ground reality, the business model
is a vast chasm bridged with precar-       than the government-to-citizen             of city-based BPOs. DesiCrew – a
ious structures, and CICs failed to        (GTC) information services planned         company       incubated      by    the
take off. Simply put, CIC staff were       to be delivered from a CIC.”               Telecommunications and Computer

38    The Caravan, August 1-15, 2009
Networking Group (TeNet) of IIT-         that is higher than the earnings of      More important, though, is the busi-
Madras – has successfully created,       her parents, who are usually farm-       ness horse sense that philanthropy
through rigorous training, screening     ers. On completion of training, the      makes: the company’s innovative
and testing, a network of rural ser-     girls become full-time employees of      rural IT business model has given it
vice providers.                          DesiCrew. Staffers located across        a cost advantage by permitting it to
    DesiCrew’s rural BPO units,          DesiCrew’s rural BPOs earn any-          circumvent the high rentals, salaries
called “rural delivery centres”, train   thing between the minimum pre-           and attrition rates that plague
villagers and allot to them various      scribed wage (for Tamil Nadu) and        Indian urban BPOs. Going the extra
projects, depending on aptitude. So      Rs 15,000 a month.                       mile into the boondocks has resulted
far, DesiCrew has trained rural             It makes a difference when the        in a win-win commercial situation
teams to offer services related to       beneficiaries of your job are from       for DesiCrew, its urban clients and
publishing, such as manuscript digi-     your own village. It was the opportu-    its rural workforce.
tisation (print-to-text and handwrit-    nity to do local good that motivated         DesiCrew’s Kollumangudi centre,
ing-to-text), proofreading, format-      Sugitha to drop her job in Chennai       where 25 of the 28 associates are
ting and page-setting, and transla-      and, like Khongrymmai, return            young women, represents not only a
tion services in various Indian lan-     home.                                    reverse brain drain but also women
guages. DesiCrew’s teams also take          “My parents are open-minded           power.      The    centre’s    head,
on data entry, translation and tran-     and permitted me to live and work        Kasinathan Narayanan, says, “Most
scription of data gathered by market     in Chennai,” she says. “But, unlike      of these qualified (Class 12 pass)
research companies to validate           me, most of the young women who          young girls are not permitted to
research premises. Some of the           work at our centre face many social      move to the cities. But even if they
organisation’s associates have even      restrictions. Their families forbid      found employment in Chennai, they
been trained for jobs in Geographic      them from relocating to cities. If not   would not be earning more than Rs
Information System (GIS) plotting,       for this job, the girls would have no    6,000 a month. In the city, they
telecalling and datamining.              other employment opportunity in          would have to rent a room and pay so
    During a training period with 25-    their village.”                          many overheads. It makes sense to
year-old Sugitha Dhead of the               Absorbing women into its work-        stay at home.” Some young staffers
DesiCrew centre in Thirukuvalai,         force generates considerable good-       at Kollumangudi say that while in
each girl earns a monthly stipend        will for DesiCrew in the villages.       the cities they were saving only 20

                                                                                  The Caravan, August 1-15, 2009    39
percent of their salary, they now        thing of her life. Finishing school,   But her mainstay is a personal
spend 20 percent and save the rest.      she moved to Guwahati to pursue        predilection – vocational educa-
   Far from Tamil Nadu, in Bihar,        graduation and learn computers.        tion: she enjoys passing on her
Drishtee has set up a rural BPO in       A confident Sharma subsequently        skills in computers to the village
village      Saurath,         district   returned to her village with ambi-     youth. While the average kiosk
Madhubani. The organisation’s            tious plans of starting her own        owner, a high school passout, earns
seven employees and 20 freelance         business. But, despite encourage-      between Rs 1,500 and Rs 3,000 a
workers in this village of 2,500 peo-    ment from her husband, she             month, Sharma has leveraged her
ple use the latest information and       found the going tough. A failed        education and business skills to
communications technologies to           attempt to operate a telecom           make Rs 5,000 a month.
provide services such as call centre     booth brought depression in its           She now dreams of buying a
support and digitisation to clients      wake. She grew insecure about          Maruti van. “I will be able to travel
in India and America.                    her capabilities. She was saved by     from village to village with my hus-
                                         a chance reading of an article on      band,” she says. “While I offer com-
       ut Bihar is not Tamil Nadu –      NASA       astronaut       Kalpana     puter classes, my husband, who

B      at the very least, it is harder
       here to integrate women into
the mainstream workforce. Asha
                                         Chawla’s journey from India to
                                         America and into the space shut-
                                                                                runs an electrical repairs business,
                                                                                can take on repair jobs. It will also
                                                                                be easy to transport my computers
Jha, the only woman among the six                                               for repairs. And, of course, we will
associates at the Saurath centre, is                                            be able to take family holidays.”
a 38-year-old homemaker and                                                        The list of rural IT entrepreneurs
mother of two. A high school grad-                                              is growing because they see both
uate from Madhubani, she had                                                    money and challenge in it. SM
never imagined that she would be                                                Chellapa, who works on map-based
part of the BPO industry. The cen-                                              activities at DesiCrew’s centre at
tre is a mere two km from her                                                   Palladam, dropped an offer to work
home, a distance she can safely tra-                                            abroad. Pavitra Shaktivel, also at the
verse alone. Speaking of how the                                                Palladam centre, is funding her
centre has impacted her life, she                                               graduation through her job.
says, “My husband always support-                                               Thenmozhi Senthilkumar, who
ed the idea of me working, but the                                              heads an all-girl DesiCrew centre at
society we live in would not accept                                             Apakudal, is one of the few gradu-
me travelling nine kilometres to                                                ates from her community of
the nearest town to work. Thanks                                                weavers. Following in her footsteps,
to technology and the computer                                                  several educated girls from her com-
and communications training pro-                                                munity have taken to working.
vided by Drishtee, I work as a call                                                “Education,” says DesiCrew’s
centre representative booking                                                   Ashwanth, “is the common charac-
orders for a retail organisation.”       tle. She decided to take the           teristic in all these examples.
   Jha earns Rs 3,000 a month            plunge, partnering with Drishtee       Education is the key to accept change
from Drishtee. She acknowledges          to open a village kiosk with an        and bring about a willingness to
that employment has altered social       investment of Rs 3,000.                learn the skills needed to work at a
equations to her advantage. “In              Like Basix, Drishtee perceives a   service centre. Fortunately, the
spite of the restrictions it imposes,    demand for services in rural India.    opportunities          presented      by
society respects and listens to          “We estimate that the untapped         DesiCrew reaffirm villagers’ faith in
women who are financially inde-          commercial potential of rural India    education. It makes them believe
pendent,” she says. “It feels great      is a staggering yearly $40,000 per     that schooling will make a difference
to have earned this respect in my        village service market. We are only    to their lives, so it is worth the effort
native village.”                         targeting a nominal 25 percent of      to send children to school.”
   Anita Sharma, who runs a              this,” says Drishtee managing direc-      Happy and back home with his
Drishtee kiosk in Sipajhar in            tor Satyan Mishra.                     ambitions a little altered but pride
Assam, wholeheartedly endorses               Sharma offers the same educa-      intact, Daryll Khongrymmai would
Jha’s optimism. After losing her         tional, finance and information        be pleased to know that he is
mother as a child, Sharma                goods and services as Drishtee’s       bringing a metaphorical fire to his
resolved to study and make some-         4,700 rural kiosks in the country.     people.

40    The Caravan, August 1-15, 2009