When Source for Change – an initiative of the Mumbai based Piramal Foundation sought to set up a call centre in rural Bagar in Rajasthan, the most common query from the menfolk was whether their women could really learn to use a computer. Back then, the men used to accompany their wives or daughters to the training centre and then wait around until they were ready to return home.
Today, men do drop by occasionally unannounced, but it is to enquire about jobs for their womenfolk at the call centre. The men have begun to realize that the centre offers two of the most valuable elements of social status: English and computers. The women, some of whom earn more than the men in their families, now have a say at the family table. And that is a tremendous leap forward in empowerment.
State level governments have thrown their weight behind these village–level BPOs, with an estimated 100 such centres already in operation around the country, though there a re no official figures available with Nasscom. Some BPO centers run from non-air-conditioned buildings that double as schools and marriage halls. The employees sit on plastic, stackable chairs and rush home to milk the cows when their shifts end. Others are run from modern offices where biometric IDs are required for entry and team leaders hold post-graduate degrees. Their common element is their location far from the big cities, in semi-urban and rural communities such as Ethakota in Andhra Pradesh state, Munnar in Kerala state and Shiggaon in Karnataka state. More than half the employees are women, and all employees are from 19 to 35 years old.
How does a rural set-up help the BPO industry? For one, it takes away a lot of the cost pressures. Even after investing in training, the rural BPOs operate at margins more than double those of the major cities like Mumbai and Bangalore, as wages are around $100 per month, less than half of what city BPOs pay. At the same time, it is not possible to shift this manpower to the cities since the majority of them do not wish to move because of the cost and because of the ties that hold them to the village, like family and land. And in case of women employees the attrition rate is far lower, as the women are less likely to migrate away from the village for work, and therefore stay around longer.
While land prices and costs have spiralled in the cities, the cost of a BPO set-up in rural (Nasscom prefers the term ‘non-urban’) locations is a fraction of that in the cities. The income of Rs. 4000/- to Rs. 5000/- a month is huge for any rural household, especially since it is not seasonal or project based, and brings in a steady stream of money for needs. This has the added advantage of giving the women a say in the affairs of the household.
Most of the BPOS in the rural belt are third party operators for the major service providers. Some however are captive units for major companies that function as an in-house call centre while fulfilling the company’s CSR objectives. BPOs are also partnering with NGOs to set up such centres. The major disadvantage however continues to be infrastructure, with rural areas not getting power for several hours a day. A heavy duty diesel generator and a broadband connection are the two things the centre has to budget for. But these are required even in most cities today. Training also is a lot more intensive as the average education level is lower.
These centres also move up the value chain, typically starting off with data entry and transcription work before moving to the voice segment. There is no doubt that these centres can have a strong impact on the BPO industry at least domestically if not internationally, and they herald a new dawn for a rising India.