For rural India, Net jobs may offer new promise

1 town's example frames alternative vision of growth
2012-10-07T00:00:00Z For rural India, Net jobs may offer new promiseThe Associated Press The Associated Press
October 07, 2012 12:00 am  • 

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 ID 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 V.K. Madhavan, who has spent the past eight years running Chirag, a local development organization.

Deepa Nayal's two sons persuaded the 47-year-old widow to retire from her 1,890 rupee ($38) 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 jewelry 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," 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 percent 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 urbanize.

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."

Fewer than 5 percent of rural Indians have ever used the Internet, and many have never heard of it, according to a recent study by the IMRB 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 $6.5 billion to lay fiber optic cable to each of the country's 250,000 towns.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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