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July 11, 2003

Cyber Coolies??... No way!!

IT experts or cyber-coolies?

The success of India's information technology industry and related businesses has produced such a euphoric and exuberant reaction that some of its more enthusiastic celebrants have already declared India a 'knowledge-based society' and 'information superpower' which qualifies it for special global status.

This 'knowledge-based' description sounds odd, to put it mildly, in a society in which almost half the population is illiterate, the general level of skills very low, and transmission of knowledge severely restricted by the hierarchies of class, caste and gender.

It's true that calling India, a 'knowledge-based' socirty is stretching it a bit too far, but it is also true that India has made long strides towards achieving complete literacy. Praful Bidwai conveniently hides behind the hackneyed phrase, "almost half the population is illiterate". Perhaps he does not know that the 2001 census put the literacy figures at 66 percent and the rate of growth of literacy has never been faster than it has been in the last decade. Moreover, Bidwai's brief description of the Indian society projects a very dark and backward image of it (those who will harp on "being realistic" can go take a hike).

But euphoria over it could be misplaced -- not only because growth has now slowed down to 26 per cent, according to the latest figures.
Err... hasn't Mr. Bidwai forgotten that little fact about globally depressed market conditions?? 26-30 per cent growth in these times is impressive!!
Even if the ITES/BPO business grows five or eight-fold over the coming five years, as optimistic projections estimate, its contribution to India's GDP will remain relatively small.
Are we talking about India's status as a "information superpower" or are we talking about the contribution of the Indian software sector to the GDP?? I thought it was the earlier point that Mr. Bidwai was talking about! So the correct figure to flaunt here would be to say that India's share in the global offshore BPO market is a whopping 66 percent!!
There are other basic constraints on IT growth too, such as poor infrastructure, low telecom density (just 5 out of 100 Indians are connected), and one of the poorest levels of penetration of computers (less than 6 machines per one thousand people, as compared to China's 19).
But does Mr. Bidwai know that India is placed much higher than China or Russia on the Network Readiness Index??! Moreover, there is a much higher economic freedom in India than there is in these other countries.

Another thread that Mr. Praful Bidwai picks up is the one about the protests in the West against outsourcing of jobs to India. Now this is one issue that has been flogged to death in the media in recent times.
Similarly, in Britain, The Sunday Times carried the 'shock and horror' headline: 'Banks prepare to shift 200,000 jobs to India.' This has so alarmed British trade unionists that they have decided to launch a campaign against India's call centres and software industry which, they feel, are big 'job-snatchers.'
Now first thing here is that the Sunday Times headline was nothing more than a cheap shot! The media resorts to sensationalism and creates an unhealthy hype that hurts both the sides. The facts of the matter are entirely different. The US/UK businesses are outsourcing their work to India out of need to cut costs. Its this desperate need which if not addressed would anyway lead to job cuts if those businesses cannot bear the losses. Moreover, the money that these businesses save by outsourcing can then be plowed back into the market, something that will slowly perk up the cash starved markets!! Job cuts are an inevitable repurcussion of recession and blaming it on outsourcing is childish and vile at the same time!
In the US, Silicon Valley programmer Kevin Flanagan recently shot himself to death, because he couldn't face the prospect of losing his job to outsourcing. Ironically, before being given the marching orders, the programmer helped train the very same Indian workers who were supposed to take over his job. Flanagan's suicide was an extreme step. But his circumstances were by no means exceptional. He was one of some 800,000 Americans who have lost their jobs to outsourcing in the past year alone.
With due respect to the departed, I must say that Flanagan's step was foolish!! Morover, India isn't a stranger to this phenomenon. Thousands of mill-workers were displaced in Mumbai alone when the once-flourishing textile mills were shutdown one after the other during the past decade... and that too when the entire country was going ga-ga over the process of economic-liberalisation in India! There were many many such suicide cases as skilled workers suddenly found themselves out of work and livelihood. But is the scene still so depressed??! ... No!! Things sort out over a period of time. There's no need to make a hue and cry over these things!
The crux, the key, is low wages. That's the bottom-line! India's ITES-BPO, like its computer software business, is heavily concentrated in low-paid jobs and low value-addition segments.
This argument is as old as the Indian Software industry and doesn't even merit consideration anymore! We all know that Indian software industry is built upon the foundation of "cost-advantage".
Thus, a good proportion of the sub-programmes in Windows 95 and 98 were developed by Indian engineers. But it's Bill Gates who skimmed off the profits!
Surely Mr. Bidwai, you are mature enough to know that this was an almost idiotic argument in a serious discussion!!

There are lots of valid points in the article and I quite agree with many of them. But the general tone of the article is so downright pessimistic and condescending that it rankles!! The article finishes off on a low note projecting Western companies as the oppressors and the Indians as the victims... mind less cyber coolies with no rights or securities labouring. As an Indian software developer, i find that insulting and demeaning... and totally untrue!!

Posted by Supersam at 06:44 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Sameeeeeerr!! This is great. I loved the 'greenish' look. :DDDD.
About the article, I agree with the writer. Truth is pessimistic and we Indians are too sensetive(immature) to handle the truth. So your reaction is valid. ;) [now I scoot from here, b4 someone kills me :P]

Posted by: Preeti at Jul 14, 2003 1:39:46 AM

Sapna: Thanks!! :-)

Shanti: True true!! :-)

Posted by: Sameer at Jul 13, 2003 7:03:13 PM

Well, in the Bidwai universe, anyone who can take control of their destiny is a mindless moron and anything that is good for India is oppression - yawn!

Posted by: Shanti at Jul 11, 2003 10:37:06 PM

me too came in to echo Sampada's thoughts.. abhi tak toh this site is lookin good baby!!

Posted by: Sapna at Jul 11, 2003 9:23:01 PM

well thank you Sampada!! :-)

Posted by: Sameer at Jul 11, 2003 8:38:34 PM

This has got nothing to do with your post.


Cool...! :-)

Posted by: Sampada at Jul 11, 2003 7:37:00 PM