October 25, 2009 5:03:59 am
Off a desolate stretch of National Highway 7,two-and-a-half hours from Bangalore,outside a small town called Bagepalli stands one of Indias earliest rural back office centres.
Run by a company called RuralShores,the modest brick-and-concrete structure stands a hundred metres off the highway,a surreal setting for a BPO. Outsourcing,the shift of all kinds of work,including BPO jobs from the West to lower-cost countries like India,is a decade-old phenomenon. Now that same trend looks set to cascade into rural India.
The months-old Bagepalli centre is a three-room affair equipped with a dozen ceiling fans whirring at full speed. The power supply here is stop-go,so each of the rows of computers is equipped with its own battery back-up.
The office has no air-conditioning,cafeteria or soda vending machines,the usual trappings of Indias back office companies in Bangalore,Gurgaon and elsewhere.
Many of the employeesprocess associatesare high school graduates literate in Kannada,who live in the neighbouring villages. Housekeeping is done by barefooted Venkatraya,whose work attire is a betel-stained smile,a vest,fold-up trousers and a towel wrapped around his head,turban-like.
But these remarkable ingredients could combine to lead up to a rural back office revolution in the Indian countryside.
Bagepalli is the first of 500 such centres that RuralShores plans to set up in the next five years. Each will have 150-200 employees that will eventually total 75,000 jobs.
Providing a livelihood to rural youth could have a huge multiplier effect, says Murali Vullaganti,CEO of RuralShores. In a small town,200 people earning Rs 4,000 each month could stimulate further economic activity,he says.
Domestic banks and insurance firms are already attracted to the low-cost rural BPO model. RuralShores customers include the loyalty card firm i-mint and the Indian subsidiary of the London-based IT firm,Logica.
RuralShores second centre is running in Ratnagiri,Tamil Nadu,and two other centers will become operational next month in Tirthahalli,Karnataka and Bhiloda,Gujarat.
A glimpse of the revolution such BPOs could potentially set off is apparent in Bagepalli.
Teenager Lakshmi H.S.,pre-university fail,the daughter of a farmer in a nearby village,has been working as a process associate at the 100-employee centre for six months. She is the first girl in her family to work in an office.
Her family is indescribably proud of her job,says Lakshmi. As part of a team that processes health insurance claims for a customer,she is learning to speak English,write email and has picked up a smattering of medical terminology.
It was very difficult in the beginning but it is getting easier, says Lakshmi who takes home every detail of her workday as well as every rupee of her salary to hand to her parents and grandparents.
Suresh Singh,23,is a commerce graduate who cycles eight kilometres each morning from Ramsampalli village where he lives with his parents and his wife. Singhs father is a coolie in a nearby oil mill. Singh responds to customer service queries for a loyalty card company.
Bagepalli offers few other choices to educated young people like Singh. Moving to Bangalore is not an option either. It is an expensive city and I will end up spending everything I earn, he says.
So the RuralShores centre is something of a boon and employees come from villages as far as 35 kilometres.
I earn only a few thousand rupees but there is a career here for me, says Singh. His and his fathers earnings pooled together are enough for the family to get by.
Singhs manager Sailesh Abburu,23,leads the two dozen-employee loyalty card team. Abburu,a Masters in Chemistry,joined RuralShores a year ago to gain first-hand experience in a rural start-up. I want to eventually become a rural entrepreneur, he says.
Like Abburu,the dozen managers at RuralShores Bagepalli center are all single and bachelor or masters degree holders in their early twenties. Every one of them is a transplant from outside.
Abburu says the call centre has brought about a small economic shift in the area where the rents have shot up and spending patterns have changed. But the changes are slow. Bagepalli is something of a shock to RuralShores customers or prospectives who arrive at the centre.
The town has no hotel so customers stay in the rooms of a nearby ashram. It has no restaurants,only a couple of small eateries serving idli,dosa and meals.
It has no pubs,only two poky bars. It has no multiplex,only a theatre showing Kannada and Telugu movies. Should a customer require cash,the nearest ATM is a good 40 kilometres away.
Abburu says he and his colleagues wait for the weekend to make their escape. I am out of here every Saturday, he says. Abburu heads to Bangalore to catch up on Bollywood and Hollywood films,wander around the malls and hang out with friends.
The ritualistic highlight of his weekend is sipping a Kentucky Fried Chicken Krusher.
Prakash Srinivasan,29,who heads the Bagepalli centre,says a running rural BPO has unique challenges.
Associates sometimes do not show up at work for a day or two. When they return,they say their grandmother fell ill or a distant family member died.
A memo stuck at the entrance cautions a particular absentee employee that this is the absolute last warning he will receive. If he is absent again for weeks without sanction,he will be terminated from employment,the memo warns.
Obviously,the corporate culture that is taken for granted in Indian cities is slow in seeping into Bagepalli.