Indian outsourcing firms find greener pastures

As the business matures in India, companies are setting up offices in rural areas, with lower costs and, possibly, fewer office romances. In the process, they're bringing middle-class values and modern aspirations to the tradition-bound heartland.

V. Bharadwaj had never used a computer before landing a data-entry job at an outsourcing firm here in India's Karnataka state. Now he spends his days quietly tap-tapping on a keyboard in a converted school building next to a field of dirt-caked sheep.

Initially his mother was worried for her only child, fearful the 20-year-old would meet the "bad" women who populate the wanton call centers of Indian TV and movies. That changed, however, with his first paycheck, more than his parents ever made, and a new sari for his mother's birthday.

"Now she wants to know how much longer I'll be at it," he said. "She's counting saris in her head."

As the outsourcing business matures in India, its tentacles are extending from the big cities of Bangalore and Hyderabad to small towns such as Bagepalli. Their appearance is spurring profound economic and social change, bringing middle-class values and modern aspirations to the tradition-bound heartland.

"We're getting pulled by tradition while moving very fast with modernity," said Nandu Ram, sociology professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "Values are changing quickly, with the young in a position to carry the country along."

The 140 twentysomething workers here in Bagepalli, a town of 25,000 people two hours north of the state capital, Bangalore, work from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. handling data-entry work for a U.S. logistics company and several Indian clients.

Seeking lower costs, an estimated 20 centers have been set up in the hinterland in the last few years, with 180 more in small cities. Bangalore-based Rural Shores has six small-town locations, including Bagepalli, with plans for 30 by 2013 and 500 by 2017, or one in nearly every Indian district.

The explosive growth of Bangalore's information technology sector in recent years has relied on youngsters moving from the countryside, but many have struggled with homesickness and adjustment problems.

"Many youngsters come for a job and don't know how to behave, how to follow red and yellow traffic signals," said Nagesh Hegde, assistant editor at Bangalore's Prajavani newspaper. "They're driven by the TV culture, which only shows the glamour in the city."

Taking jobs to the countryside boosts rural employment and helps maintain the social fabric. "My parents are delighted I'm here rather than in Bangalore," said B. Srinivas, 25. "I can go back to my village every night, and I'm more respected in the village."

Some workers live in Bagepalli; others, like Srinivas, come from villages an hour or more away, traveling on the ramshackle buses that ply the back roads.

In a sexually conservative society where most marriages are still arranged by elders, call centers have earned a reputation as racy places where young men and women cavort late into the night.

One of the main characters in the 2007 Indian film "Life in a Metro" is a call-center employee whose colleagues are shown drinking, smoking and having premarital sex.

In a case this month, a young man from a Brahmin family reportedly killed his fiancee, whom he'd met at a New Delhi call center, after his parents refused to accept her because of her lower Jaiswal caste.

Rural Shores and competitors say they tread carefully when moving into the countryside. "Although we import the jobs, we don't import the [outsourcing] culture," said Murali Vullaganti, the company's chief executive. "There are a lot of sensitivities there."

Company managers meet with local elders to dispel fears and hold open houses for parents to see their operation. There's no overnight shift, and a planned late shift, until 11 p.m., won't include women.

Chennai-based Desicrew, with four centers in rural areas of Tamil Nadu state, has overnight shifts but ensures they're all-male.

"Most parents have never even seen a typewriter," said Prashanth Booravalli, manager of the Bagepalli center. "And now their children are working on a computer."

But even as the companies are careful about respecting tradition, communities are changing. B.R. Keerthi, 22, said the center has encouraged locals to become more modern in their outlook and has improved communication between generations, driven by an appreciation of the youngsters' earning power and enhanced opportunities.

"Older people respect us more," she said. "They listen more to younger people now."

For men, the added money and prestige can translate into attracting a better-looking, smarter, more socially prominent spouse. "My plan is to work for four years, save and get a really good wife," said Arun Kumar, 23.

For women, it may mean they don't have to settle for any man their parents push their way.

Keerthi, 22, said she's seen friends marry early, often to rather unappealing men chosen by their parents, and doesn't want that life. Her plan: work two more years, gradually loosening her parents' grip, pay her own way through graduate school and then move to the big city and never look back.

"With this salary, I can now hold them off," she said. "If you're determined, you can do things these days, even if you're a girl."

Employee V. Aruna, 23, said she plans to continue working even after marriage. "If he says no, I'll just keep trying to convince him," she said, laughing nervously.

The center has also brought Christians, Hindus and Muslims together in a state that recently saw a spate of church burnings.

"Religion stays outside the door," said Noor Fatima, 20, a Muslim and one of the center's most productive workers. "Working together really helps us understand each other, that in the end we're all Indians."

Setting up a rural center can entail higher training costs because some rural residents lack basic skills in using computers.

But salaries are lower — starting at around $110 a month compared with $155 in the cities. And, because there are few white-collar jobs around, employees tend to work harder and stay longer. "Once they pick up the basics, they do phenomenally well," Booravalli said.

Setting up centers in the countryside is not without infrastructure problems. Booravalli spent a recent morning trying to find someone in charge to speak to after the center's electricity bill inexplicably rose by 50%, as if someone was trying to see how much could be gotten from the new golden goose.

"Perhaps he was off having tea," he said. "You know how difficult it can be to catch our government officials."

Booravalli, who grew up in a village, said he figures his employees are adults and doesn't try to play moral policeman, but he's noticed at least one pair in the flirting stage.

"So far, we haven't had a marriage, which typically happens in city call centers," he said. "But the first one here would be a big deal. I'd be the celebrity guest for sure. That would be huge."

Anshul Rana in The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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