Thursday, February 09, 2006

Tech Towns

Over the past few years there have been continuous reports in various media about India's emergence as a global power in the IT sector. Spearheading this charge are the two cities of Bangalore and Hyderabad (affectionately known as Cyberabad). Taking advantage of the cheap, highly educated and, perhaps more importantly, English-speaking workforce many British and American companies have outsourced back-office work to India. Most notorious among these is the outsourcing of call centres. In Britain especially there has been a huge outcry about this practice, lamenting the loss of jobs from the British economy. This is nothing but racist, protectionist rubbish masquerading as an economic argument. These very same people praise national companies to the high heavens when they are successful overseas or are dominant in their fields, but when our companies are out-competed fair and square by companies from developing countries (from ex-colonies no less!) then there must be foul play afoot. Perhaps, although it may not be expressed aloud, it is thought that skilled, value-added jobs are for us, and menial, agricultural jobs are for them (not that that should stop us from subsidising our own farmers,but that's another rant). Instead we should be happy for the Indians who are managing to improve their lot by competing directly with us, instead of having to abase themselves for our favours, for our crumbs. Our common humanity should see also that these jobs, and the wealth they create within communities, are more vital to developing nations than to ourselves. Plus, both as consumers and shareholders (all of us are the former and even most of us are the latter too in some way or another) we benefit directly from the reduced costs of the services that are provided.

Many politically interested people of my generation are vehement anti-globalisationists, often either out of a knee-jerk rejection of anything American (or which seems to embody Americanism) or due to some romantic notion of the superiority of traditional ways. Whilst I am no big fan of America myself such attitudes are not helpful to developing nations. I am therefore a strong believer in the globalisation of employment opportunities. If Indians (or Sri Lankans, or Bangladeshis, or whoever else) can provide the same quality services at a reduced cost they should be allowed to do so without any let or hindrance. World trade is a door that most certainly ought to swing both ways. I am deeply persuaded by this both ideologically, and because it provides fascinating anthropological opportunities.

In Bangalore the place to see and be seen is MG (Mahatma Ghandi) Road. I spent a good while just sitting there, absorbed by seeing the beautiful people of Bangalore trying to outdo each other in conspicuous consumption at the many street cafes, designer boutiques and lounges, flush with their IT money. The whole call centre phenomenon fascinates me. I would have loved to have met someone who works in one to get their impressions on the "culture training" that is required when dealing with customers from Europe and North America. Not only do they have to adopt another accent and identity, but they also have to learn about the pop culture of their clients so that they can "chit-chat" with them. It's a pity there's not a call centre tour aimed at us curious tourists as I'm sure there would be a market for it. At least I got to do the next best thing when I visited Hyderabad; namely visiting Ramoji Film City.

Shame on you if you haven't heard of it! This is India's answer to Disneyland (or is that Disneyworld?) or Universal Studios. It claims to be the largest studio complex in the world, and still manages to find room for a theme park with rides (a grand total of 6 rather timid little things that would probably be too tame for travelling village fairs). The whole place is shockingly dire, with little to do except potter around the various gardens and aimlessly wander amongst the many souvenir stalls (selling the standard T-shirts and caps as well as some random inclusions such as desk lamps and saucepans. I'd love to see the situation: "well, I needed a new desk lamp so I went to the film studio.") and many restaurants and food stalls (it seems Indians are easily contented as long as they have enough to eat). Not only were the sets made out of papier mache and plaster, but it seemed like all the amenities were as well. Our harassed guide wasn't having a good time of it either as people kept insisting that he speak in their language. He therefore only had time to quickly sputter the name of each "attraction" in Telugu, Hindi, Kannada and English before the next one came along. The one saving grace was being able to actually observe a film shoot of a song and dance number. Being in movies may sound like a glamorous job, but the poor dancers were standing around for hours on end in the full glare of the sun and only sporadically bursting into action, only for it to last about 10 seconds before the dissatisfied director screamed "cut". Add to that a gaggle of leering spectators and I'd rather face a classroom of hormonal adolescents, thank you very much.

But there is more to both of these cities than just computers and kitsch. Both were the capitals of sizeable Muslim kingdoms in the Middle Ages and the Islamic influence is still very strong in the local population and the architecture. Good news for me as I could finally get some meat as I've been a de facto vegetarian since Christmas. The kingdom of Golconda (the old name of Hyderabad) was one of the 5 Deccan sultanates that continuously waged war against the Vijayanagars of Hampi. During the British Raj it was an independent, though subservient, kingdom and almost became a separate country in 1947. It wasn't until a full year after Independence that India subdued the separatist region. Hyderabad is also the centre of India's pearl industry; a rather strange phenomenon, it seems to me, as it is some 250km from the sea. Nevertheless the streets around the old bazaar are full of jewellery shops, mainly catering to Muslim women. It is a faintly ludicrous sight, seeing these women decked out head to toe in strict hijab, with only a slit for their eyes, poring over various chunky, gold necklaces that they will only ever be able to wear in private.

1 comment:

RJ said...

India's back-office and outsourcing biz is now taking on a more non-English character as well, since France, Belgium, Quebec, Germany, Austria, and Japan are outsourcing so much of their work. Europe in particular is a gold mine for countries receiving offshoring work-- the companies there, especially in Germany and France, thoroughly abhor the labor laws that make their own country's employees so expensive and poorly matched for the job, so they're going offshore.

French companies have been hiring lower-cost workers mostly from Romania, Albania and Greece, where there's long been a strong French cultural presence. Germany in contrast has been hiring largely from Russia, the Ukraine, the Baltic countries, and especially Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria (German is the lingua franca in Eastern Europe), thus greatly costs while tapping into an educated, skilled workforce for back office operations.

Now, both France and Germany are looking to India, due to India's high-skilled workforce and established IT and outsourcing industry. Only the relative lack of French- and German-speakers in India has hindered this, but this is rapidly changing. The Southern States like Tamil Nadu, and some education officials in Bangalore, have been initiating training programs and schools using German and French as educational media, thus graduating students fluent in these languages, while more and more Indian students are leaving to study and work abroad in Europe. Over half a million outsourcing jobs will be created from Continental Europe within the next 5 years or so, and India is smartly positioning itself to capture the lion's share of them.

China's getting a share since its population is also quite multilingual, lots of Japanese-speakers especially, with many people learning German, Spanish and French as well. But India has the headstart here, and I would expect to see at least another 300,000 non-English language outsourcing jobs go to India within the next few years, reinforcing India's reputation as the prime destination for the outsourcing business.