Rural Indians now have the rarest of commodities - a company job - and more expected to come.
India's rural data-processing outsourcing jobs go boom
SIMAYAL, India // They come together each morning from the sloping forests. Some walk for more than an hour along muddy footpaths past terraced farms stacked like soft green steps. Some race their new motorbikes down narrow, cracked roads cut into the hillsides.
The team of young men and women wear identification cards on lanyards around their necks and have that rarest of commodities in rural India, a company job.
They work mainly in data processing for a 3-year-old business called B2R that is using the spread of the internet to transport India's outsourcing boom from metropolitan Bangalore and the suburbs of New Delhi to this speck of a farming village in the Himalayan foothills.
Before B2R arrived, Simayal was being drained of its bright young men as they left for cities to search for work. Its women had little option but to wed right out of school. Nearly everyone's survival was tied to the whim of the rains and prayers for a strong harvest.
Now, men are staying. Some who left have returned. Many women have put off marriage to work and are helping to support their families. Other new businesses are opening up.
The 50 new jobs B2R created brought a "glimmer of hope" to the 110 families in this cluster of farming hamlets barely touched by India's economic transformation over the past two decades, said VK Madhavan, who has spent the past eight years running Chirag, a local development organisation.
Deepa Nayal's two sons persuaded the 47-year-old widow to retire from her 1,890 rupee (Dh139) a month teaching job after they got hired. Mohan Singh Bisht, 20, helped his family build a six-room house. Khasti Fartiyal, 22, started paying for one of her sisters to go to college and bought an essential, expensive piece of gold jewellery for another sister's wedding. Many bought refrigerators, new clothes and motorbikes. Many are proud just to help buy food.
"There's a buzz around the place that didn't exist before," Mr Madhavan said.
The B2R staff in Simayal work above an old flour mill in a maze of rooms that had been intended as cramped housing for poor families. In the narrow, long central office, staffers sitting at small computer desks lining the walls work on a project for a legal publisher turning scans of court cases into searchable databases. In another room, women take calls on behalf of a family planning group. In another, staffers collect sales data for cellphone companies. The kitchen has been turned into the server room.
Outside, a steady procession of women looking aged beyond their years and dressed in threadbare clothes walk by carrying on their heads immense stacks of firewood and animal fodder they collected during hours of foraging in the forest. Their husbands and fathers tend to the apple and pear orchards.
B2R and a handful of similar firms are trying to offer an alternative road map for Indian economic growth. With nearly 70 per cent of the population - 833 million people - living in rural areas and its cities already overburdened, there is a limit to how quickly the nation can urbanise.
In the meantime, rural youth need jobs and poor infrastructure makes it difficult for manufacturers to deliver them. But with an internet connection, outsourcing companies can work anywhere.
"You get work over the internet, you work it over the internet, you send it back over the internet," said Dhiraj Dolwani, CEO of B2R. "It's a window to the world."
Less than 5 per cent of rural Indians have ever used the internet and many have never even heard of it, according to a recent study by the IMRB market research firm. Half the staff in B2R's office here said they had never seen a computer before this job.
The government is trying to change that, spending US$6.5 billion (Dh23.8bn) to lay fibre 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 centres 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 Mr 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, Mr 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? Mr 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 Mr Dolwani began what he assumed would be the long, costly process of connecting to a faraway internet line.
The fibre optic cable, they were told, was running right under their office, laid during an earlier programme to spread internet access, but never turned on, Mr 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 callisthenics, 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.
B2R faced some resistance when it moved into Simayal. Some families didn't want their daughters to work with men. Local youth, angry they didn't get jobs in the first round of screening, vandalised the office, Mr Dolwani said. The company held a town meeting to ease the tension, and now holds similar gatherings before opening new centres.
It hopes to attract clients by charging at least 25 per cent less than urban competitors, Mr Dolwani said.
Rent here is 15 times lower than in the city, electricity is cheaper and with little competition for staff, turnover last year was just 4 per cent. Urban outsourcers face 40 per cent turnover, according to a report by the Monitor Group.
While workers in the Delhi suburbs make about 8,000 rupees a month, B2R's start at about 4,700 rupees. Mr Dolwani said the lower salary is justified by the lower cost of living here, and many workers say they are still saving significant portions of their salary.
The Monitor report puts that salary in line with that of other rural outsourcers and significantly higher than many other rural jobs. However, the report warns that future cost-cutting could create "digital sweatshops."
Bhuwan Butholia, 28, who used to make 8,000 rupees with overtime in an auto parts factory 150 kilometres away, said the lower salary at B2R was a reasonable trade-off for being able to look after his parents and live with his wife and 5-month-old baby.
His mother disagreed.
"We were poor. We are still poor," said Hira Devi, 58.
While internet-based companies like B2R can provide some relief in poor farming areas, few believe it will eliminate India's need to build up urban infrastructure and attract more of its people to the economic hubs in the cities.
"It would go against almost all patterns of settlement. This idea that India can be a very developed nation and have half its people living in its villages ... to my mind it's kind of romantic. Maybe this stuff happens, but it's unlikely," said Partha Mukhopadhyay, a senior research fellow at Delhi's Center for Policy Research.
Still, the impact of bringing respectable jobs into the village has been enormous, said Mr Madhavan, from the local development group. Other young people have come up with ideas for setting up their own businesses. Some families are adding rooms to houses to rent out to B2R workers who live too far away to commute. And directly across from the office has risen a mini-mall with snack shop, luncheonette and welding shop. It's a sign, Mr Madhavan said, of faith in the future.
"You couldn't imagine this as a possibility five years ago," he said. "But today it's happened."