Rural outsourcer brings hope to remote village

By Ravi Nessman

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Oct. 6 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

The government is trying to change that, spending $6.5 billion to lay fiber optic cable to each of the country's 250,000 towns. India's innovation czar, Sam Pitroda, says it will open up a flood of rural development. It can bring telemedicine to villages without doctors, better teaching tools to remote schools and jobs in banking, insurance and other information fields to towns currently dependent on agriculture.

The rural outsourcers are the pioneers. With just over 5,000 jobs, they make up a tiny fraction of India's $16.9 billion outsourcing industry, but trade group Nasscom estimates they will account for 84,000 jobs in five years.

Rural Shores, one of the bigger companies, employs 1,300 employees in 12 centers across eight states. By 2020, CEO Murali Vullaganti dreams of employing 200 people in each of the nation's 500 rural districts.

"It may take a little longer, but that is our goal: 100,000 rural youth," he said.

B2R's Dolwani said he is doing nothing more than pushing forward the entire premise of the outsourcing industry: Moving the work to where it can be done cheapest.

Growing disillusioned with his former life as an executive at urban outsourcing firms, Dolwani and a partner toyed with starting their own company in the hills of the northern state of Uttarakhand, where they had routinely vacationed to escape the city.

There was a ready supply of educated, frustrated youth, but could they do proofreading and data entry? Dolwani passed around a book of short stories by American teenage girls and gave an impromptu comprehension quiz to local youths, whose mother tongue is Kumaoni, second language is Hindi and who began studying English in the sixth grade. They had potential, he said.

B2R rented the only building of any real size in town and Dolwani began what he assumed would be the long, costly process of connecting to a faraway Internet line.

The fiber optic cable, they were told, was running right under their office, laid during an earlier program to spread Internet access, but never turned on, Dolwani said.

"It was like a dead snake in the ground," he said.

While he waited months for the state-owned telecom company to activate the line, he made do with achingly slow mobile data networks. Even now, he uses a wireless system that operates over radio frequencies as a backup.

They paid to upgrade the village's phone and electricity systems, installed a generator to work through the daily power cuts, gave employees intensive English and skills training and opened for business three years ago. They replicated that plan in four other villages in the region, and employ nearly 250 people in total.

The B2R workers begin each morning with a prayer, a regimen of calisthenics, the national anthem and an ever-changing roster of games. Women once too shy to speak in public in this conservative society, now tackle male co-workers and talk trash during a raucous game of kabaddi. A few wear jeans in place of the traditional baggy salwar kameez.

Jagdish Sanwal, who had left town to work for Nokia, came back for B2R. Other men said they had been planning to leave when a job opened up. Most of the women said that for the first time they had options other than marriage. Families once wholly dependent on the vagaries of the harvest, now had a reliable income.

As she peels garlic and watches field hockey on TV with her father and brother, Shoba Bisht, 20, straddles the traditional woman's role of domestic labor and the man's role of earning money and being doted on.

Her mother packs her lunch for work and gives her time to rest after, but Bisht still helps cook dinner. She does laundry on her day off, but no longer collects wood in the forest.

Two years ago when she was offered a B2R job, her brother laughed and told her he would never let her take it.

"In my family, girls are not allowed to go out for work," said Bisht, whose last name is common in the region.

Her mother forced him to relent.

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