Computer-based jobs provide more than a pay check – Part I

In India, computer-based jobs provide much more than just income to those coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.  The jobs are helping women and men quietly circumvent longstanding cultural barriers such as caste and gender inequality, providing youth access and exposure to the numerous personal tools available online, and helping fill a serious void in the education system.

Samasource’s Indian partners can be divided into two main categories – urban and rural.  The urban organizations are located in and working with youth and women from impoverished backgrounds in cities.  The rural organizations’ training centers and work centers are located in villages 2+ hours from cities, where there are few, if any, other employment opportunities and they are employing youth, women and refugees from the surrounding areas.

For rural Indian women, who are often prohibited from travelling far from home by their parents and/or husbands, or simply unable to do so due to safety concerns, the need to care for their children, or other reasons, the rural Business Process Outsourcing centers (or Rural BPOs) I visited are their only option for steady work due to the office’s close proximity to home.  At one partner, Desicrew Solutions, the workers travel between 30-45 minutes on average to reach the work-center.  If required to travel to the nearest urban center, the trip would take at least twice as long and cost twice as much making it unfeasible.

At Usha Martin Rural Services in Rukka, India, Shama, a 21 year old girl from a traditional Muslim family has found new confidence and enjoys the feeling of independence that this work brings her. “It feels nice to be able to work and earn money and not ask my brothers for my personal needs. Before UMRS, I had not worked and didn’t know what a job was all about. But now, I am confident and plan to work even after marriage.”

The village men, whose movement is much less restricted, often do commute daily or relocate entirely to the cities in search of work.  The resulting village brain-drain stunts village development and stresses the already struggling urban infrastructure.  Involved in village development for more than 9 years, Nitin Gachhayat, co-founder of Drishtee noted, “When the talented and high-earning workers leave the village, they reduce the demand for quality services, such as doctors, which prevents the services from reaching or remaining in the village.”  With jobs now within bicycling distance or a short auto-rickshaw ride, the men can also spend more time in and contributing to their community.  The shift from multi-hour bus/train/car commute to short bike-ride has obvious benefits to the environment as well.

For Usha Martin Rural Services, whose first work-center is located in Rukka, a village in the north-eastern state of Jharkhand (that did not show up on Google maps last I checked), the demand for such work is affirmed by the large number of young men and women lining up to join their program.  On a recent site-visit, one worker revealed to my colleague Sandesh Sharanappa that he had to swim across a stream (on more than one occasion) to get to work.  Usha’s Rukka center is one of the only options for consistent modern-economy work in the surrounding villages.

I have heard that escaping the constraints of being born into a lower caste without leaving your village is still extremely difficult, so the rural BPO is not the silver bullet for all villagers’ problems.  However, after visiting most of the major Indian cities over the summer, it is clear that they are not currently equipped to handle more rural-to-urban migration.  The rural BPO therefore is a promising option for spreading what have typically been city jobs to rural areas and alleviating some of the mounting stress on the city infrastructure.  Despite the rural BPO business model being in its infancy, in 5-10 years time, assuming continued growth in the outsourcing industry, it could become a common and significant source of employment in India and accelerate positive social changes along the way.

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