Bagepalli, India — Under harsh fluorescent lights, dozens of heads bend over keyboards, the clattering unison of earnest typing filling the room. Monitors flicker with insurance forms, time sheets and customer service e-mail messages, tasks from far away, sent to this corner of India to be processed on the cheap.
This scene unfolds in cities across India, especially in the high-technology hubs of Bangalore and Gurgaon, places synonymous with the information technology revolution that has transformed India’s economy and pushed the country toward double-digit economic growth.
But these workers are young people from villages clustered around this small town deep in rural Karnataka state in India’s southwest.They are part of an experiment by a handful of entrepreneurs to bring the jobs outsourcing has created to distant corners of India that have been largely cut off from its extraordinary economic rise.
Only about a million workers are employed in the buzzing call centers and pristine technology company campuses that have come to symbolize India’s boom — a tiny amount, given the country’s more than 1 billion people.
Almost all of those jobs are in cities. But 70 percent of Indians live in rural areas. India largely skipped — or never arrived at — the industrial phase of development that might have pulled the rural masses to cities. Over the decades a Gandhian fondness for — some say idealization of — rural life has also kept people in villages, where the bonds of caste and custom remain strong.
India has struggled unsuccessfully with the question of how to lift this vast underclass out of poverty. Some economists argue that India still needs rapid urbanization if it is ever to become a major economic power and provide jobs to its vast legions of unemployed. But the founders of Rural Shores, a company that is setting up outsourcing offices in rural areas, say it makes more sense to take the jobs where the people are.
“We thought, ‘Why not take the jobs to the village?’ “said G. Srinivasan, the company’s director. “There is a lot of talent there, and we can train them to do the job.”
Rural India was once seen as a dead weight on the Indian economy, a bastion of backwardness embodied by the frequent suicides of farmers eking out livings from arid fields, dependent upon fickle monsoons. But Indian and foreign companies have come to see India’s backwaters differently, as an untapped market for relatively inexpensive goods like low-tech cell phones, kitchen gadgets and cheap motorcycles.
Now some businesses have begun looking to rural India for an untapped pool of eager and motivated office workers. Rural Shores has hired about 100 young people, most of them high school graduates who have completed some college, all of them from rural areas around this small town. The company has three centres now, but it aims to open 500 centres across India in the next five years.
Most of the centre’s employees are the first members of their families to have office jobs. They speak halting English at best, but have enough skill with the language to do basic data entry, read forms and even write simple e-mail messages.
With much lower rent and wages than in similar centres in cities, the company says it can do the same jobs as many outsourcing companies for half the price. A Bangalore office worker with skills similar to those of workers here commands about 7,000 rupees a month, or $150, Srinivasan said. In small towns and villages, a minimum-wage salary of about $60 a month is considered excellent.
Here in Bagepalli, the Rural Shores office hums through two shifts a day. One set of workers answers customer service e-mail messages for an Indian loyalty card company. Another processes claims for an insurance company. In one room, workers capture data from scanned timecards filled out by truck drivers in the United States. They record nights spent in Abilene, Texas, deliveries in Kansas City and breakdowns in Salt Lake City, all of which the workers decipher and enter into a database.
Amid the clatter of slender fingers hammering at keyboards, R. Saicharan, 24, a business school graduate from Chennai, explained the frenzy of typing. “Every morning we get a download of images of time sheets,” he said. “By 7 p.m. we need to process 13,000 of them.”
The time sheets belong to American truck drivers, and Rural Shores has been hired as a subcontractor for a larger outsourcing company in Bangalore to do the data entry portion of the work. Deciphering scrawls on the scanned documents, the 20 workers on Saicharan’s team race to earn bonuses for being the fastest typist.
The current champion is S. Karthik, 20, a high school graduate who worked briefly in Bangalore but found city life too hectic and expensive. “Here I can live with my family,” Karthik said.