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Peora is a tiny picturesque hamlet, almost hidden amid the giant pine and oak trees, sitting at above 6,000 feet in the highlands of Kumaon in Uttarakhand. Kamala Bisht’s father is a poor farmer in Peora who dabbles in the real estate business during the tough months when his fields lie fallow. Life for Kamala’s family has always been about limited means, uncertainty and an unspoken frugality. Last year, though, things started to look up when Kamala joined B2R, a rural BPO slowly and silently spreading its wings over the Kumaon hills. “I would have been sitting at home doing nothing. But we have found a new means of livelihood in the village,” says Kamala cheerfully. Pratap Negi had resigned himself to the fact that, like his elder brother who works in Chandigarh, he too would have had to leave the hills to look for work. But then, employment landed at his doorstep, literally. Now, it is a hard task to drag the hyper-energetic 18-year-old, who has just matriculated from school and joined B2R as a trainee, away from his computer terminal. “I will spend some money on myself, but most of the salary will go towards family expenses,” he says, visibly excited about the first paycheque he will bring home to supplement the earnings of his farmer father.
Youngsters like Kamala and Pratap are a common sight in Orakhan, a small village in the hills near Nainital. In skinny jeans, smart T-shirts and floaters, with their B2R identity cards proudly dangling from lanyards around their necks and the traditional pithiya on their foreheads, the enthusiasm they have for their jobs is there for all to see. Due, in no small part, to the paucity of job prospects in the hills. “Non-agricultural jobs are few and income from agriculture is limited,” says B2R CEO Dhiraj Dolwani. “Our aim has been to fill that gap,” he says, “To provide employment opportunities for the young and, in turn, stem migration to big cities.” B2R’s motto is: “Bring work to where people are, rather than people to where work is.” And Nasscom estimates underscore the soundness of their adage. According to the software industry association, there are about 5,000 seats or jobs in 50 non-urban BPOs—a figure that is set to rise to a whopping 1,50,000 by 2015. “Of these, we will have 6,000 seats,” says Dolwani. Their modus operandi is to keep it small and far-flung. “We don’t go to places where the infrastructure is already present. Instead, we take the infrastructure along with us to the remote areas,” says Dolwani. Of course, there are problems; the delays, the permits and the red tape. But on the plus side, there are some heartening revelations. According to him, 70-75 per cent of Uttarakhand already has a dormant optical fibre network. “bsnl just needs to wake up and energise it,” says Dolwani.
Interactive session A B2R employees meet at Orakhan village. (Photograph by Narendra Bisht)
For all the clarity of ideas, B2R’s origins had been more serendipitous than planned. Dolwani, a software engineer with seven years of experience in BPOs, had quit and was building a house in Ranikhet. Frequent interactions with the local youth and NGOs opened his eyes to both the problems and potential of the hills and sparked in him an urge to do something for the benefit of the community. He joined hands with co-founder R. Venkatesh Iyer who had worked in NIIT for 22 years. They worked with various NGOs, like Aarohi and Umang, connected with the local communities and eventually decided to partner with Chirag, a rural development organisation, to launch their first BPO centre in Orakhan in September 2009.
“Earlier, there was no other option.... Why should I work for the same salary elsewhere, when there is opportunity available at home?”
B2R is housed in a shabby building smack in the middle of the small market of Orakhan. The only hint to what lies within is an obscure board, stating: “Rural ethos, Business ethic”. Inside, one small, badly ventilated room snakes into another. But, even further inside is another world. Smart computers line the tables, handmade charts and posters on the mud walls invoke Apple and Panasonic and speak of quality control and customer satisfaction. Here, groups of twentysomethings are doing business with around 10 clients, as wide-ranging as Indiamart Online, Eastern Book Company and Population Services International (PSI). “The idea was to set up a base in rural India, but to make it world class. The quality targets are stiff, the same as they would be in a city,” says Dolwani, “and the rural youth are just as good at delivering as any urban competitive youth.” What also helps the fledgling business is that the attrition rate is low as is the cost of running the show.
It does come as a total surprise to find modern technology, processes and savvy professionals in a place that does not even register as a blip on the Indian map. And there are two other villages that have been witness to such changes—Leti Bunga and Chhimmi. And an entirely new set-up is coming up by mid-August near Naukuchiyatal. “We plan on creating 100 more 50-seat centres in the next seven years and aim at providing employment to 6,000 families,” says Dolwani.
Youngsters, who have studied till the 10th standard or higher, are inducted into these centres after a three-month-long training period at a starting salary of Rs 4,200 a month. B2R’s current workforce is 152-strong. Seven batches have been employed and we meet the eighth batch of 18 people who are, as part of their induction, visiting the three existing centres on a mini bus. B2R is no NGO with any mandate of social reform. It is very much a corporate house with familiar aims like quality, commitment, long-term sustainability and profit-making. However, the company ploughs 33 per cent of its profits back into social and community initiatives. “The idea is to hardwire social commitment with business goals,” says Dolwani.
What has helped is the literacy rate in Kumaon, which at 70 per cent is way above the national average. English is mandatory after the sixth standard and most youngsters have a good base in the language. What’s lacking are opportunities. A recent NGO survey pegged the average monthly income of Kumaon farmers at Rs 1,011 and approximately 40 per cent of the region’s households are known to have had at least one male member migrating for work. B2R’s rural BPOs have brought cheer to this despondent landscape. No wonder 30-year-old Jeevan Singh Jeena quit his job in Rudrapur to join B2R’s Orakhan office. “Earlier, there was no option available. People used to relocate to Delhi and Bombay,” he says. Like Jeevan, Tarun Bisht and Jagdeesh Sanwal left jobs with established companies in Haldwani for team leader posts in B2R. Twenty-year-old Neeraj Singh Negi’s logic is sound: “Why should I work for the same salary elsewhere when there are opportunities available at home?”
New kid A fresh recruit, singled out by a mark, being inducted. (Photograph by Narendra Bisht)
The most remarkable change, however, has come for young women, who make up nearly 60 per cent of B2R’s workforce. “Boys could go out for work. Women did not have the option and used to be confined to their homes. Now, they are supporting their families,” says Jeena. Rekha Bhatt, a 20-year-old MA student, whose parents stay in Hartola while she stays in a rented house in the nearby village of Reetha, says: “I am not very far from home, so I meet the family every weekend. But I have become independent and more aware of my responsibilities. It feels good.” Hema Devi, 24, works in B2R’s Leti Bunga branch, housed in a building owned by her father Diwan Singh, who also runs a small grocery shop below the office. “I am no longer a burden on the family,” she says. “It completely changes the fabric of their involvement in running the home and in decision-making,” says Dolwani. Offering a relatively conflict-free escape from a traditional set-up typified by low life-opportunities, it’s had another sort of effect. “I used to be very hesitant. But I’ve grown in confidence from standing on my own two feet,” says 20-year-old Kavita Raikwal, who walks to Orakhan everyday from her home in nearby Simayal. “I don’t need to ask anyone and can buy what I need,” says 19-year-old Deepa Bisht. Others are trying to build up on their small savings. “I have my own PF account now,” says Kamala Bisht, with a palpable pride in her voice. There are other more indirect spin-offs. The PSI’s family planning and women’s health helpline, on which some of the girls work, has helped foster an awareness of health issues. “The information we share with the callers is useful for us too,” says Kavita Negi.
And when there’s work to be had, everyone and everything seems to perk up. Take Suresh, who owns the small village halwai shop, Raikwal Sweets, famous for its sinful besan laddoos. He has no idea what BPOs are or what helplines do, but his shop is now the unofficial B2R office canteen. Suresh says he is now doing an entire year’s worth of business in a month. He used to operate out of a small rented space. Now, he is building a shop of his own. Right in the shadow of B2R.
Also Thiruvananthapuram, June 29, 2010