In many ways, 24 year-old Thanam Lakshmi is just like any other young woman in the small town of Kollumagudi, roughly 200 miles South of Chennai in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. She lives with her parents, likes stuffed animals and watching Tamil movies on TV. She helps her mother with the household chores. She says her prayers at the small shrine in her living room, goes to the temple on the weekend and during the many religious festivals. In her spare time she sews her own clothes, the salwar kameez combination worn by almost all the young women in the countryside, or makes small toys.
But in one important aspect Thanam Lakshmi is different from most of the other girls she went to high school with. Every weekday including Saturday she gets up at 5am and, after a quick breakfast, makes her way to a small concrete building in an alley behind a row of small grocery stores, where she joins roughly twenty other women and a few men in their early twenties for the early shift at Desicrew, a rural business process outsourcing company. For the next eight hours, she and her colleagues enter data, manage databases, transcribe interviews, or aggregate information from the internet for corporate clients from India and the US. For this, she earns around 4,000 Rupees (US$ 85) per month.
While her salary is only about half of what she would receive in a comparable position in Mumbai or Bangalore, the significantly lower cost of living in the countryside more than compensates for the difference. This is what makes rural business process outsourcing (BPO), that is the shifting of back office tasks from urban locations to small towns and villages, interesting from a rural development point of view, says Saloni Malhotra, co-founder and CEO of Desicrew. On the one hand, firms which outsource parts of their operations to one of Desicrew’s five rural delivery centers realize an average of 40% in cost savings. On the other hand, the creation of high-skill employment in the Indian countryside, where career opportunities for high-school or college graduates are severely limited, with wages that are sufficiently attractive, creates an alternative to migration and may help slow or even reverse the brain drain that has affected rural areas.
In practice this means that young men like Rajaguru do not have to migrate to Chennai to find work that fits their educational profile, allowing him to look after his mother and younger brother while his father is away at work in Dubai. Moreover, by living at home, he calculates, he is able to save more money than in the city where food and accommodation are expensive, money that he invests into improving his parents’ house, a concrete structure next to an Evangelical church at the edge of town. Internal surveys by Desicrew attempting to measure the impact of rural outsourcing corroborate the anecdotal evidence. On average, team members save 80% of their income, much more than would be possible in urban areas despite the higher salaries there.
For rural young women the situation is more difficult. Unlike their male counterparts, many of them do not have the option to work in a city, as their parents object to their moving away from home. Mangai is a case in point. After having studied microbiology at a local college, her father refused to let her work outside the immediate area, making sure that she would stay with her parents. Similarly, Bala Maheshwari was offered a marketing job at a company in Thanjavur, a provincial town three hours from Kollumagudi, but her parents did not agree to her relocating. The reasons for parents’ unwillingness to let their daughters go, explains N. Kasinathan, manager of the Kollumagudi Desicrew center, are a combination of safety concerns and cultural restrictions placed on women. A big factor in this respect is the fear that young women or girls ruin their and their family’s reputation by being seen with members of the opposite sex. Letting a daughter move away from parental control is thus potentially dangerous for the social standing of a family, and will at the very least generate enough of gossip for parents in conservative rural Tamil Nadu to find it unacceptable. With local employment for educated women restricted to working in one of the small shops, where salaries rarely exceed 1,000 Rupees, most therefore stay at home, helping with household chores or looking after the family’s animals. “Of course not all rural parents are conservative”, N. Kasinathan points out, “but parents who let their daughters go to the city are not the issue.”
Both Saloni and N. Kasinathan are well aware of these cultural factors. By offering high-skill work that does not require moving to a city, they believe that rural outsourcing can play an important role in empowering rural women. According to Saloni, often the act of going to work by itself has a positive impact on their self-esteem and confidence. The fact that their earnings contribute significantly to the household budget further strengthens their bargaining power at home, and, she hopes, leads to more freedom in such things as when and whom to get married to. Out of this consideration and the observation that women tend to work harder, Desicrew has an implicit policy to focus its hiring on women and accordingly around 70% of their team members are female.
Getting to this point, however, was not easy, N. Kasinathan recalls. Parents were initially hesitant to let their daughters work in an environment where they would meet young men, in particular at a company that had no local track record. Stories of office romances in urban outsourcing centers did not help either. Starting with only two employees, N. Kasinathan went on a public relations blitz, explaining rural outsourcing and its advantages to the local community, talking to teachers, talking to parents, and, crucially, assuring them that their daughters would be safe at Desicrew. The benefits of well-paid regular employment were easily conveyed in an area where most people are faced with the uncertainty and seasonality of an agricultural economy. Word of mouth about the company being “a good place for women” did the rest. Nowadays, N. Kasinathan has between 30 and 40 applications on file, more than he can currently hire.
Those young women who do have a job at Desicrew have turned into important, in some cases the principal, earners in their families. They spend very little on themselves, preferring instead to contribute to household expenditures and saving the rest. Sitting on the bare concrete floor of her parents’ two-room house, Sangheeta is proud to be working. With her father a day laborer and her brother affected by Polio, her salary more or less doubled the family income. She is planning to buy a sewing machine to be able to make her own clothes, something her friend, neighbor and co-worker Maheswari has already done. Most young women can tell similar stories of investment: bicycles, sewing machines, a new roof or a satellite TV, both a status symbol and virtually the only form of entertainment in rural Tamil Nadu, have been bought with the money they make. All of them stress their savings.
This financial power, together with the prestige of working for company that is seen as modern and urban, has made the young women at Desicrew more confident and active in household discussion, their parents claim. It is not clear, however, how far confidence and financial independence have been translated into giving the women more freedom over their own life. The fear of acquiring a reputation as a “bad girl” and the resulting parental punishment prevents them from such simple things as not wearing their hair in the thick braid ubiquitous in rural India. Jeans or T-shirts are equally out of question, and “hanging out with guys” might lead to a severe beating. Despite their financial contribution, none of the women have much say in the choice of a future husband, a lack of freedom that they are acutely aware of, but that they share with their male colleagues.
While the changes in attitudes that are necessary to lead to more freedom for the rural young are unlikely to happen overnight and might only indirectly be helped by local job prospects, N. Kasinathan is already observing the effects of Desicrew’s presence in Kollumagudi. “Parents are more interested in education since we came here”, he has observed. Without local employment for educated people, many parents who did not want their children to migrate to a city saw little reason to send them to school longer than necessary to work in agriculture or any of the blue-collar jobs available in the area. Even though high-skill employment is still rare, the example of Desicrew and the prospect of similar companies coming to the area has made parents keen for their children to acquire computer skills and English knowledge. Most see no future in agriculture.
The expansion of education in the countryside, Saloni stresses, has to go hand in hand with the creation of high skill jobs in order to create sustainable rural development. Although she has no problem recruiting enough qualified team members at the moment, the growth of the company from 130 to over 1000 employees planned for 2010 as well as the success of other firms in a similar position requires a large enough pool of qualified workers. Infrastructure investment is equally important. So far, the company has persuaded the Indian state-owned telecommunication group BSNL to provide high-speed internet service to Kollumagudi, but moving further into the countryside might not be so easy. In the end, it may not be the lack of demand but a scarcity of educated employees and infrastructure, particularly in remote areas, that hampers the growth of rural outsourcing.
The concept of rural development matters little to the young men and women at the Kollumagudi center. For them it is the income, the contribution to their family’s income and, particularly for the women, the feeling that they are not condemned to sitting around at home with nothing to do. They all want to continue working at Desicrew once they get married, but that depends on whether their future husbands will agree. If not, the wedding will most likely be the end of their career. For Thanam Lakshmi this moment will arrive soon.
© 2010 Martin Ranger
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