Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Get Ready To Be Bangalored, in Bombay


Opportunity..or Threat ?

Some 500 km due south-east from Hyderabad is the tiny village of Jallikakinada (population: 3,000). Aquaculture and paddy farming are the principal sources of livelihood in this Andhra village.

Like other villages in the region, Jallikakinada has its share of young men and women who migrate to the cities, typically Hyderabad, looking for jobs. Educated or not, they are often forced to migrate because thanks to technology and mechanization, both aquaculture and farming don't really need more labour.

In the last few months, some of Jallikakinada's youngsters have been staying back to work in a small 50-seater `rural' BPO centre. They've been joined by others who've actually returned from cities like Hyderabad. The tasks they carry out could be termed simple and routine, from `populating' databases and payroll processing to some simple human resource and accounting functions - all real-time.

Your Job Could Go

While the tasks may be simple, the implications of their activities could be significant – note that Jallikakinada's youth are performing functions which were otherwise being carried out by staffers of IT services company Satyam Computer in the city of Hyderabad.

Put simply, these youngsters are doing to Hyderabad and potentially Bangalore and Gurgaon, what these well-known IT& BPO clusters have done to employees of multinational corporations in the United States & Great Britain.

And put a little bluntly, if your job in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore can be categorized as an `outsourcable process', one day very soon, it will be. Rural BPO itself is not new, firms like Lason Technologies are already outsourcing low-value, global contracts onto small towns in Tamil Nadu.

The difference here is that it's all within the country and its gathering momentum. Initial news reports and one international wire agency report (after the inauguration last month) rightly highlighted the rural potential but did not pay much attention to the urban fallout.

We Call It Grammit

Sixty kilometers away from Jallikakinada is the village of Eethakota, Here, in another, recently constructed 50-seater BPO, young graduates or process associates as they are called work two shifts (6 am to 2 pm and on to 10 pm), performing another range of internal processes for Satyam including the filling up of time-sheets for staffers on external projects.

At Satyam Computer's city offices in bustling Hyderabad, chairman B Ramalinga Raju does not want to be drawn into a discussion on job losses. Nevertheless, he's quite excited about the project. His team has even given the exercise a name; GramIT or village IT. Having given it a term, Raju's now converted it into a verb. "It's a bit like getting Bangalored, instead we say GramIT." He pronounces it as Grammit !

What started this off ? Several factors. For the Byrajju Foundation (endowed by Satyam's Raju), these villages are part of a larger village adoption project in the state. But, as the 41-year-old Sharath Choudary, a Bits Pilani man who is running the Foundation's GramIT program, puts it: "There is a social case but let me tell you, there is no social case without a business case. Or else its charity, not development."

Thanks, But Would Prefer 6 Sigma To A Pub

The business case seems crystal clear. For starters, compared to the city, salaries are roughly half here (Rs 2,500 to Rs 4,000 per month). Morever, says Choudary, "The rupee goes further in the village. People here eat at home and walk or cycle to work."

And the clincher seems to be this. Raju says the commitment levels are just `enormous'. "While young people in the city would look to do more interesting things or leisure activities in the evening, in the two villages, they are attending six sigma quality sessions."

Of the combined workforce in both centres, roughly 40% are women, including housewives but no, as Choudary says ruefully, daughters-in-laws. "That might take some time," he admits. But the reverse migration numbers are quite fascinating. Some 10% of the staff working here have actually returned from the cities, a few even giving up industrial jobs.

The selection procedure is stiff but not rigorous. After a basic aptitude cum skill test, the associates are taught basic English skills and use of computer keyboards. Then begins the quality effort. The targeted accuracy level in the beginning is around 90%. Chaudary says the acceptance of the need and desire for quality control came more easily to them then the English language. "I thought it would be the other way round," he says.

And It Could Get Much Bigger

The GramIT organization structure is quasi-corporate. The Foundation has developed a build, own, operate and franchise (BOOF) model. The centres, incorporated under the mutually aided co-operative society act, will remain as franchisees. The Foundation will also manage the processes, market the services, as it is doing now and will ensure that there is a uniform look and feel for the customer.

How big could all of this get ? The Byrraju Foundation wants to go upto 150 centres employing 15,000 people, by December 2006. Extrapolated, it means roughly that many jobs could go or will not be created in the cities.

If picked up in other states by entrepreneurs or similar organizations, the numbers could be far larger. As could be the potential for rural employment. At the `virtual' inauguration of the Jallikakinada facility last month, AP chief minister YS Rajasekhar Reddy called it a great opportunity for educated, unemployed village youth. In the hands of the private sector, words like that could quickly mean something.

Dammit, What Can You Grammit !

The initial success has already caused a look at new functions that could be outsourced; a large organization can have upwards of 200 small processes. Choudary says the Foundation is already talking to a major hospital for digitizing and maintaining its records as also to the State Government of Andhra Pradesh for a major, yet under wraps, project. More will come, he promises. Satyam was just the beginning.

Consulting firm Accenture partner Sudarshan Sampathkumar, who advises Indian companies on `internal' outsourcing says most outsourcing decisions in the country are strategic and not cost driven. This is in sharp contrast to the west where most corporations embarked on outsourcing for cost reasons.

Telecom companies and banks for instance, have driven the creation of call centres.
But the success of efforts like GramIT could make a strong cost case as well, as it is in the case of Satyam Computer. According to Sampathkumar, support services usually constitute 1% of sales in a company. "That's the kind of starting potential you are looking at," he says.

The Byrraju Foundation's Choudary admits the fact that there is a social case to their proposition opens doors but it would not proceed without a business case. "Organisations will demand high quality service level agreements (SLAs). And we have to deliver what you can expect from the best."

Having tasted some success, Satyam's Raju is now on the roll. "Whenever we meet, the first thing I ask my colleagues is; which of your processes have you Gram ITed today ?"

(The Original Article Appeared in Hindustan Times, Bombay, this week)

Monday, September 19, 2005

The Art of (Media) Mismanagement

General Musharraf, make that Pakistan, did it again. While the talks in New York between the General and Manmohan Singh appear not to have reached anywhere, Pakistan’s media management did. At least as reflected in the writings of Indian journalists who were present at a briefing following a disastrous late evening media briefing which was notable for one fact, nothing was said.

While the PMO clammed up that evening and went to sleep, the Pakistanis were at work, on our journalists. The result; it sounded like Pakistan was the nice guy trying to get the peace process moving and all that. Whatever the facts, it was a victory for media management. And guess what, this ain’t the first time. Pakistan has mastered the Art of waging a image battle and they seem to do it with such consummate ease, it isn't even funny.

London, 1998

The year was 1998. For want of a more productive word, I was `hanging around’ at BBC’s broadcast centre at White City, a London suburb. Deciphering the entrances from the exits at this Pentagon-like building can take a month, about the time one spent there.

A typical day passed slowly, with activities ranging from attending a 8.00 am meeting, `bashing’ phones, chasing predictably dead-ended leads to helping out the Asia affairs section. Boredom was setting in rapidly and with no major challenges, journalistic or otherwise, I began eagerly looking forward to my last day at the great institution. Till one day when, quite literally, the bomb dropped.

A fresh-into-power Atal Behari Vajpayee government announced on, May 11 that the country had returned to nuclear glory. Pandemonium reigned at the BBC news room, like it must have in newsrooms across the world. A flurry of calls went out to geo-political, regional and appropriately, nuclear experts. And a desperate hunt for an India expert to speak on the economic impact began in the city of London.

Without much success, at least in the early hours. Till a show producer chanced upon this `hanger-on’ and asked if I had any views to share on the subject. “Of course,” was my response. Did I have a view ? Well, not quite, not then at least. But then who could pass up a chance like this ? A few quick `fact-finding’ phone calls were made back home. Half an hour later, I felt I had a view.

"Hey, We Saw You."

I don’t know whether it was the insightful views or the fact that I was on the Beeb looking most dignified and important on a big news day that caught people’s attention (there was perhaps one news channel in all of India), but it sure worked. Later, I did ask many of the folks what they thought of my views aired on the Beeb. They struggled to remember. “Yes, yes we saw you,” they said brightly.

The hunt for `talking heads’ continued in earnest, former prime minister I K Gujral came on, acknowledged the scientific success but was careful to caution against jingoism. Nuclear experts arrived and commented on a host of matters ranging from radiation to the potential weaponisation. The news was still hot but beyond all the mish mash of opinions, it was not clear where things were headed next. Till a man called Mushahid Hussain walked in.

Hussain Talks

Hussain was Pakistan Information minister and he was in London. The purpose of his presence there was not clear to me, one reason quite clearly was to trash Benazair Bhutto on behalf of his prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Whatever the reasons were, one call and he was at the Beeb the next day. It was my job to fetch him from the reception and guide him through the labyrinth of corridors while eliciting his views on the latest developments in sub-continent.

The tall, stocky and dapper Hussain came on like an old friend. In a minute, the former journalist (he was once editor of The Muslim) had established where I was from and what I did there. He spoke of his own contributions as a columnist to some Indian newspapers and even some memorable meetings with a newspaper publisher or two. We spoke largely about journalism and journalists and even the dumbing down of newspapers back home.

He was carrying a copy of the Times, London which he asked if he could hold up during the television interview. I couldn’t answer this, the Beeb show producer said ideally no. The Times full page story was an investigative piece on Benazair and her husband’s nefarious financial dealings and Hussain was here to prove that it was not Sharif and he who were gunning for her, even The Times was !

Pro On Stage

The nuclear tests were obviously the bigger story and the Boston University educated Hussain took the stage like a pro. He spoke of the imbalances the tests (Pakistan would go ahead and do its own tests a few weeks later) would create in the region and essentially how his country was all for world peace and progress and would continue that way, were it not for the hawks over there at India.

He also argued, I don’t recall the specific words, that the tests represented the BJP government’s handiwork and did not necessarily represent the mood of the people of India. Later, he would argue, equally vociferously, that it was India’s tests that forced Pakistan to carry out its own. All in all, several masterly strokes of media management.

While Hussain held forth in London, the smart and extremely eloquent Dr Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan Ambssador to the US, was doing the rounds in Washington. Lodhi not only presented the Pakistani point of view with intensity and passion but was also blessed with the fact that there was no one of consequence to counter her. She left a lasting impression. Co-incidentally, Lodhi, a PhD in economics from the London School of Economics, also worked as a journalist (she was editor of The News), before moving to foreign service.

"Open Up, India House"

Back at the Beeb in London, the editors and producers were aghast. They had been pounding at the doors of India House, the Indian Embassy at Aldwych, to send someone up to speak but there was no response. “I can’t believe it, we’ve been almost begging them to come and say something,” said the Asia affairs editor. To no avail. The Indian camp was either too busy celebrating or had not worked its responses out or more likely, had not decided who to empower and who not. This was a government that had just come into power.

Months later, I asked Homi N Sethna, the man who led the team that conducted 1974 nuclear tests, how they had managed the fall-out. He didn’t want the details to emerge in public domain but suffice to say that it sounded extremely well thought through. Among other things, he spoke of how embassies and ambassadors were involved in detailed briefings that would ensure the message was consistent. Indira Gandhi supervised most of effort personally.

After the initial bouts of media and image mis-management, the BJP government may have learned its lessons. But the larger institution has perhaps not - information and image management is a nagging problem with most governments and their functionaries in India. Relative success can be attributed to the instincts of those in power at that time and failures to the lack of a constant, well-tuned approach.

Mission Uniform

The Pakistanis appear to have scored once again this time in New York, at least going by the reports. Musharraf or not, there is a consistency of approach, when it comes to articulating the government’s point of view. Am not an expert here so will defer to them to draw appropriate conclusions and make relevant suggestions. But the problem is not a new one, so someone needs to crack his or her head on it.

Some years ago, a CEO of a Silicon Valley company told me that the sign of a good, vibrant organization was one where everyone from the CEO to the junior most employee said the same thing when it came to articulating the company’s mission. This does not come out by accident, it comes out because of sincere efforts and determination. And of course a buy-in.

Its tough to extrapolate that to a nation, but it surely can be to a group of ten or twenty bureaucrats who feel motivated enough to present a point of view and not characteristically clam up. And surely not go to sleep.

Monday, September 12, 2005

More People Died in New Orleans, So What ?


Rejoice, it took them longer to get assistance

An interesting bundle of statistics is floating around the internet. A bundle which somehow contrives to prove that we in India and Mumbai were actually better off on Terrible Tuesday compared to what New Orleans went and is still going through after Hurricane Katrina lashed the city.

There is no argument on fact, since the US government did react late, flood control mechanisms did fail and the administration did sleep through several warnings on the dangers of the levees collapsing or the water overflowing into the low lying New Orleans.

Some of the figures are terribly out of context as a Class III student will tell you but that’s not the issue here, it’s the genesis of such garbage that needs to be addressed. Okay, America took greater losses in Katrina compared to Mumbai. Possibly true, but do we know for a fact what we lost in Mumbai on Terrible Tuesday. I am yet to meet someone who says he has a clear economic fix, collective or individual. Its amazing how lack of knowledge turns into statistical reality !

How Does It Change My Life ?

That is still not the point. I have a simpler question, make that three. How does it matter if more people died in New Orleans or half the Home Guard is in Iraq fighting a lost cause ? Specifically, just how does it improve my life ? Let me put it this way - I utterly fail to understand how my gloating over America’s misfortune or its misplaced sense of priorities will improve the miserable quality of life that I am subjected to in this city and country.

Does a ridiculous statistical comparison change the fact that I am exposed to sub-Saharan living conditions in this country, right in my city, Katrina or no Katrina. Does it change the fact that garbage lies strewn on streets regularly, the streets themselves look and feel like they’ve been bombed out and people travel like cockroaches in suburban trains ? Remember, its proven that cattle travel in better conditions.

Sure, our criminally minded bretheren were extremely considerate on 26th July and did not display untoward or deviant behaviour. I would think that’s because the floods brought them to their knees as well, but let’s assume I am wrong. In which case, we should weed them out and reward them and/or forgive them for all their sins. After all, they more than cleared the benchmark set subsequently by a few natives of New Orleans.

Geniuses, All ?

Does this also mean that the folks at our civic and state administration are actually geniuses who toil night and day, who we’ve been unfairly pillorying against for, oh one almost forgot, not doing their job and taking a holiday when everyone needed them the most. Perhaps yes, because in New Orleans, federal assistance only reached a day later. So, by that stretch, the BMC need not arrive at all, or better still not exist.

Such fool-hardy statistical comparisons might warm the cockles of some self-exiles and make them say, “Hell, what we left behind was not bad at all. Maybe one day we should go back.” Or alternatively, it’s a taunt to the country whose nationality they’ve embraced, blindly or otherwise. “Hey, I gave up my third world existence for a first world and is this what I get ?”

Guess what, it still does not matter. I don’t know about the poor people in New Orleans. As a lover of jazz music, I would express more than the normal levels of sympathy with the citizens of that city but that’s about it. Their plight is not my biggest concern. My plight is. To the best of my mind, my continued misery in this lawless city is a bigger issue to me right now than a statistical comparison with someone who, guess what, might just be worse off.

I Pay, So I Deserve

Millions of people, like me, pay taxes in India. As tax-paying citizens, we deserve and will fight for the best that we should get. Whether it is better civic leadership or better responses to crisis situations. Terrible Tuesday was a disgraceful failure in leadership and only sought to highlight administrative rot that had set in long ago. It only brought to boil frustration that had been bubbling for years.

As a tax payer, and thus the salary payer of our many civic and government employees, I am entitled to service. They better serve me, because they are paid to do so. They are not paid to draw comparisons with someone who is worse off, first or third world. I am not saying they do, but they dare not take refuge there.

They are not paid to hand over public property (which belongs to me and them) to slum lords, encroachers and builders and bring to ruin a city which is carrying maybe four times the people it can. They are not paid to make my life more miserable, whenever I engage with them, whether its while buying a house or performing any of the innumerable tasks they are supposed to.

Sure, we have an undying spirit, one that ensures we bounce back. Its good to feel good about it, when we are down, not when someone else is. That's not undying spirit, that's behaviour that borders on the savage.

Ever driven on Mumbai’s streets in the middle of the night. Seen the people sleeping on the road dividers. Wondered why they do that ? Its clearly the most unsafe place to be parked, given that inebriated private secretaries of politicians or sons of industrialists might run them down and of course get away with impunity. Yet they are. I don’t know why, but I am sure it’s not their first choice when they repair for the night. Do the poor of New Orleans sleep on road dividers on the street, highly unlikely.

Again, does it matter how the poor of New Orleans sleep. Not to me. Maybe they don’t sleep at all. But it matters to me why Mumbai’s homeless sleep on road dividers, like so many other things in this city.

We Do Some Things Better, So ?

There are lots of things we do better, try security at airports, higher education and citizen gun control. But I am not here to draw comparisons. I want the best. The best part of Katrina was that there was advance warning. I think I deserve advance warning, about calamities and perhaps, one day, even corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. As a tax-paying citizen, I want my government to learn from the mistakes of others and incorporate them in its own response plan.

Most of all, I want, as a tax payer and citizen, government and other citizens to set standards, not to fall over each other lowering them and gloating when someone else goes down under.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Katrina vs Terrible Tuesday

Chances are, he stayed back

Biloxi, Mississipi, a city on the Gulf Coast, has often been brought to life by novelist John Grisham; his readers would recall a series of courtroom dramas set in the district courts around there. In Grisham’s world of big litigation, `wild-eyed locals’ would typically make the trip from New Orleans (Louisiana), Jackson & Mobile to watch the proceedings.

All these streets and neighbourhoods came to life over the weekend, somewhat graphically but not quite in the idyllic and quaint fashion that Grisham has often described them. They came alive on CNN, as localities wrecked beyond recognition, with homes and cars lying atop each other and snapped power lines. Cataloguing the destruction would have been a challenge, even for Grisham.

More people have died in the demure sounding Hurricane Katrina that hit the states of Louisiana, Alabama & Mississipi than the menacing Al-Qaeeda triggered 9/11 attacks. In contrast, Mumbai’s Terrible Tuesday was tame.

Mithi & Mississipi

Inevitable comparisons are being drawn between Terrible Tuesday and Katrina, notably Mumbai’s solid spirit in recovery as opposed to the looting and mayhem that descended on New Orleans, Louisiana. There are a few similarities between New Orleans and Mumbai, but the dissimilarities are starker and outweigh the similarities. First, the similarities:

New Orleans had its own `Mithi River’, the city lies between the Mississipi river and Lake Pontchartrain – the lake overflowed after the dykes or levees that held back the water collapsed. Powerful pumps that could have pumped out the water also stopped working. Estimates say it would take weeks if not months to pump out all the water.

New Orleans is largely below sea level and most of it was once swamp land. It now appears that there were adequate warnings over the height of the levees as also the over the dangers of taming the mighty Mississippi.

The rising waters not only flooded homes and forced people out of them but have now set the stage for disease or even the outbreak of an epidemic. Like Mumbai, New Orleans residents face the prospects of E-Coli and a host of water borne diseases. Still water breeds mosquitoes which in turn spread disease. A flood has converted a first world tourist destination into a third world disaster.

Clueless in Mumbai

The similarities end just about there. Unlike Mumbai, when no one had a clue which way the wind was blowing, New Orleans had no paucity of warnings on the oncoming hurricane. It was the flood-control mechanism which failed.

Reports say New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin urged people to leave town on Saturay and gave an evacuation order on Sunday when it looked like a Category 5 storm, with winds as high as 175 miles an hour would hit New Orleans.

Yet, evacuations were on in earnest even as the Hurricane hit the eastern coast of Florida, went back into the Gulf of Mexico and returned with greater fury, tearing west towards New Orleans. Many of the 1.3 million people (source NYT) living in the metropolitan area drove away. The people affected the most were the poor, did not have cars, who lived in the inner city and, in many cases, refused to budge.

In comparison, Terrible Tuesday was a truly democratic catastrophe. It brought everyone to their feet, knees and on the streets, forcing rich and poor to wade through filthy water. It leveled BMWs and Maruti 800s as it flooded hutments and basements of rich filmstars in Juhu (north Mumbai).

The State Fails To Deliver

Unlike Mumbai, Louisiana state officials seemed to have responded to the crisis. Federal authorities have been accused of neglect, while, interestingly in Mumbai, central government services in the form of assistance from the Navy and Air Force were available and willing but not asked for, not until it was too late.

Those on ground know best who failed and who delivered. Thousands of miles away,it is perhaps apt to focus on the few learnings that come of out such disasters. Its difficult to say whether New Orleans was a failure of leadership but it was interesting to watch President George Bush visiting the American Red Cross and attempting to say the right things, surrounded by workers, many of whom continued with their tasks and not by sten-gun toting bodyguards like Indian politicians.

Evacuation May Be A Bigger Disaster

Sitting in Mumbai, a pertinent question one must however ask is: if there were warnings of an imminent cyclone or some other natural disaster, calling for evacuation, how would the city react ?

My sense is, disasterously. At 18 million or thereabouts, the city carries five or six times the population it should, for its size and available infrastructure. An article in the Economic Times (on traffic congestion) today points to the sheer number of vehicles that emerge on the roads every day.

It says that every day around 1.1 million vehicles cross 1,225 junctions on a road length of 1,900 km with only 0.7 policemen per junction. It points to monstrous traffic jams - which incidentally are best experienced in north Mumbai where a small crossing will see several vehicles fighting with each other for right of way resulting in a jam for all.

Given that there are only three narrow roads, masquerading as highways, that leave the city, an attempt at evacuation would hit a hurdle at any number of points the highways connect with the local roads. Note, once again, that these are free for all roads that just happen to be a little wider.

Sit Back & Pray

If the trains work, then its fine, if they don’t then there is a bigger catastrophe that awaits. But trains already work on super crush capacities ie, people travel like cockroaches, cattle it is believed, travel in better conditions. The lucky few will fly out, if that’s feasible and if they reach the airports. Sailing out seems implausible too. Mumbai lost its maritime culture decades ago.

In a situation like this, desperation may give way to rage and serious law and order problems could arise. After the floods, angry commuters have been blocking and stoning suburban trains in north Mumbai (Thane & beyond) for not working. The fury is there, it just bubbles up some times, in some places. Elsewhere, it remains bottled. A sudden evacuation might blow off the cap.

In conclusion, were, god forbid, a similar disaster to strike Mumbai and there was a call for evacuation, you would most likely do what many poor New Orleans folks did, stay back and pray for the best.

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