Hyderabad Callingby Christian Parenti, with photos by Jessica Dimmock
The Indian night is suffocatingly hot and the curving streets of old Hyderabad are dark and quiet. On a small little hill nearby, a dilapidated Hindu temple wears strings of yellow bulbs. A few motorbikes and rickshaw cabs are pulled up to a dimly lit tea stall. In an empty intersection, a sacred cow pulls mouthfuls of shredded paper from a heap of recyclables. The air is scented alternately with sweet spice and rancid effluence. The scene is old India in all its glory and all its squalor.
Hyderabad, the capital of the Andhra Pradesh state in southern India, is one of the country’s largest technology hubs: a center of the economic vortex that is fast transforming India. The boosters call it “India Shining”—the new economic landscape of outsourced business services, technology parks, software development, malls, brands, cell phones, and traffic jams. I am having midnight tea with one of the men who helped bring this transformation to Hyderabad, turning it into a globalized high-tech business center.
“This crowd, the young crowd, has a different work ethic, different values.” He is talking about the university-educated, English-speaking 20-somethings who work India’s countless call centers. You have likely dealt with them on the phone. They use fake names like Steve or Sarah and provide tech support for home computers and cable TV service; they collect credit card bills and try to coax mortgage payments from “underwater” homeowners in the U.S. and U.K. The Manager—who did not want his real name used—set up some of the first call centers in India about a dozen years ago and now runs a “450 seater” that collects debts on behalf of U.S. hospitals. But he’s not happy about all the changes.
“It’s a hateful job,” says the weary Manager and launches into a withering critique of his own industry. “You have automatic call distribution. So the more calls you are able to handle, the more calls you receive. They have to work faster and faster. Everything is measured and graded. The pressure is tremendous.”
On and on he goes explaining the mechanized life of constant surveillance, claustrophobically tight managerial oversight, limited bathroom breaks, and ever-escalating productivity goals. It sounds like something from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.
“The abuse from the callers is unending. I have seen girls cry from it. Think of being in her shoes,” instructs the Manager. “She is from a middle-class family—educated, adored, treated like a princess—and then suddenly she is subjected to all this. Think of house prices in America right now, plummeting. Think of the resentment. People are losing their jobs. And now she faces all this—slang, insults, humiliating and rude suggestions. She is taking 70 to 120 calls a day!”
To reach the U.S. during business hours, the call centers begin work as night falls and run until dawn. Like his employees—“the kids” as he calls them—the Manager works at night and lives a life disrupted: his relations with his family are discombobulated; he misses his kids; he is constantly exhausted and has been for years. The flesh on his face hangs puffy; deep bags underline his eyes which are fixed somewhere between a crazed twinkle and a somnambulant thousand-yard stare. “It’s my jet lag. I live in New Jersey even though my body is in Hyderabad.”
The metaphysics of the night are taking hold: the privacy and permissiveness of the dark, the disorientation of fatigue, are loosening his tongue. “The kids are learning bad habits. They are getting acculturated by the work. The American culture is seeping back down the data pipe into India. Think about it: they are talking constantly to America, constantly absorbing the culture, the assumptions and ways of your country.”
The Manager thinks the kids have succumbed to the seduction of brands and debt spending; that they are losing their moral bearings, slipping away from the old Hindu gods and the teachings of Islam. The unattended, sacred, paper-eating cow in the intersection lumbers away around a corner, as if to say: tradition, exit stage left.
Revealing a rather conservative worldview, the Manager goes on: “There is a decline in morals. I found two young women engaged in sexual activity with each other in a bathroom. I had a girl ask for several days off because she needed an abortion! I’m glad the women have more freedom, but unfortunately many of them don’t have the maturity to handle it.”
His concerns are a classic jumble of anxieties about social change and the role of women; although he does not say it or even see it as such, the implication is that female sexuality is the bellwether of, or trigger for, social decline. Versions of his lamentations are echoed all over India. Call centers are blamed for corroding Indian culture, spreading a culture of debt spending, drinking, childish pop culture narcissism, and illicit sex.
Across India, the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, of which call centers are a crucial component, pulls in 30 billion dollars a year. But Indian intellectuals condemn the centers as “digital sweat shops” where the best and brightest young minds are turned into “cyber coolies”—mental brawn laboring long hours for low pay. A Ministry of Labor-connected think tank published a damning report on the centers, calling them “a wastage of human resources” and accusing them of a “de-skilling of workers” that will have negative long-term economic effects.
The prominent journalist Praful Bidwai summed it up thus: “It’s a dead end. It’s a complete cul-de-sac. It’s a perfect sweatshop scenario, except that you’re working with computers and electronic equipment rather than looms or whatever.”
There are occasional demands for unionization and at one point in 2008 some call center workers formed an underground “e-union” that sought better wages and working conditions by threatening to sabotage service. Until very recently the turnover rate at the centers—often exceeding 100 percent per year—has been so high that union organizing is nearly impossible.
More broadly, the centers play an oversized role in popular culture. Only about 175,000 Indians work in the centers but they show up everywhere: the hit film Slumdog Millionaire had scenes in a call center; novels are set in call centers; numerous low-budget films use the weirdness and cultural confusion of call centers as their foil. In one, an Indian guy simultaneously juggles calls that include a suicide prevention hot line, tech-support for a broken TV, and, yes, phone sex. Needless to say, it goes badly.
In a country where arranged marriages are still common—newspapers here are full of classified ads placed by parents seeking husbands for their daughters—there is a particularly acute anxiety about how call centers are changing the social position of young women. At call centers, young women slip from the control of their fathers, mothers, and judgmental aunties. They are released into the anonymity of the night, allowed to mix with unmarried men, talk to strangers in America, and, with their wages, are drawn into the culture of consumerism.
Agitated middle-aged and middle-class Indians fixate on the role of women in all of this. At a dinner, the wife of a businessman, herself a stay at home mother, claims birth control use is on the rise and refers to it mockingly as the “i-Pill”—something for selfish kids. She derides morning-after treatments, like RU-486, as the “not wanted 72.” For people like her, the call centers and “the kids” employed in them are the vectors of a terrible moral disease, the agents of a great cultural unraveling in which family and religion are replaced by fast food and spending.
Could a few hundred thousand people working in call centers actually transform a place as big and complex as India? Of course not. In this regard, the moral panic about high-tech night work in India sounds much like the moral panics of an industrializing past.
When textile mills first began in New England in the 1830s, the farm girls who became mill girls were also accused of being dissolute, trinket-obsessed trollops. So it is again, but this time in India. The old semi-socialist system is giving way to global capitalism, transforming the role of women in society and driving the elders crazy.
The 9:30 p.m. shift is about to begin at a Bank of America call center. Naren Narender, 26, is sitting on the curb of a parking lot with his friend and workmate Mahima Shah, waiting to start work. Both are well-dressed in Indian back office casual. She wears a tight, bright orange floral tunic and jeans, he, a dark, wide-collared shirt and charcoal slacks.
Behind them rises a nondescript metallic office tower that fades into the night and behind it stands a rugged semi-desert ridge. Similar office parks line the road, which sinks through a small curving canyon.
A decade ago this side of Hyderabad—now called Cyberabad, or Hitech City—was rocky scrubland, dotted with massive igneous rock formations: piles of house-sized boulders that teetered improbably as if they’d been deposited from heaven. The boulder piles were a famous topographic feature of this area, the Deccan Plateau. Nomads from Rajasthan—distant relatives of the Roma of Europe—used to traverse this terrain with their flocks, camping on these boulder-strewn ridges, making forays to the edge of town to entertain the city folk with their eerie music and seductive dancing.
But that was all of 10 years ago—a different era completely. Nowadays this place looks like a cross between San Jose and Las Vegas; technology campuses and strange futuristic, trophy office towers—alternately playful and menacing—rise from the canyons and the volcanic rubble. More than anything, the landscape invokes the sound studios of 1960s sci-fi television—the generic fake desert that always stood in for the surface of another planet.
Along with call centers, the nighttime work of Cyberabad includes a slew of other business services—check processing, investigating fraud and billing discrepancies, technical support for everything from computers to hot water heaters, maintaining medical records, monitoring Internet chat rooms. These are all part of the BPO industry. Practically anything that requires a command of English and does not need to be done in person can be done in India for only 20 percent of what it would cost in Iowa or Tennessee.
About 1.5 million Indians work in the IT and BPO sectors, and a few hundred thousand of them are at call centers. An estimated 250,000 call center jobs have left the U.S. for India, the Philippines, and Ireland in just the last eight years. In India a call center worker takes home about $4,000 a year.
The software sector—mostly writing, testing, and debugging, but rarely designing—also runs on a nocturnal schedule. That way it is easier to stay in sync with the teams working and calling the shots in Redding, Washington, Armonk, New York, or San Jose, California.
“I am into filmmaking,” says Naren brightly. “I helped direct a film that was in the Hyderabad International Film Festival. This is a job, not a career,” he says, gesturing to the office behind him. Naren’s film, rather fittingly for young man who works all night five or six nights a week, is about a hard toiling father who never sees his family.
At the Bank of America call center, Naren’s mission is debt collection: coaxing “underwater” American homeowners into paying up rather than mailing in the keys and walking away. From 9:30 p.m. until dawn he places his calls, moving west through area codes and time zones as the sun rises across America, and India sinks deeper into night. With all the gentle and graceful habits of old India, Naren talks his increasingly desperate American homeowners into servicing their debts and works on ways that they can come up with one more payment, and then one more. Interestingly, Indian call centers have a recovery rate that is about 25 percent higher than their American counterparts. Some attribute this to the compassionate and patient quality of Indian culture.
“It is all about feeling. We put ourselves in their shoes,” says Naren. “It is very intense and very stressful. One lady told me about a neighbor of hers facing foreclosure who had hung herself.” Every week Naren and his work mates “huddle” with managers who brief them on the intricacies of local tax laws and government programs that can help distressed home owners.
“One old lady had six loans with Countrywide. She was about to lose her home. I looked into how to help her. I found that if she paid her county tax instead of the bank paying them she could save money and was able to service the mortgage,” says Naren cheerfully. “She was so happy she cried and quoted the Christian Scriptures. That was very heart- touching.”
Naren is typical of the call center workers I meet. He lives with his mother, studied English at university, started this job when he graduated, and has been working it for a year and a half. Until recently, turnover in the call centers was high: more than 100 percent annually. But the economic downturn has changed that. The so-called “churn” is way down.
What do they do after work? Where do they hang out?
“People think call center workers are all young people freaking out but that is not what’s going on,” says Mahima Shah, slightly cross at my line of questioning. She is 28 years old, married, a former high school teacher, and the mother of a little boy. She is very much a lady, not a wild and crazy kid. Mahima started this job because her husband, a software programmer, was transferred from Delhi to Hyderabad. The call center pays “about 10 percent more” than her old teaching gig.
“This is really professional and the work is very difficult. We are marked on everything: efficiency, pleasantness, and success rates. The goal is 120 calls a day, but that’s impossible!”
They never have a few beers after work?
“When we get off work at 6:30 a.m., there isn’t even a place open to get food,” says Naren mournfully. “My relaxation happens on Sunday. It takes all day Saturday to just catch up on sleep and then I have one day to visit my family and my old school friends.”
“Sometime we have to work weekends as well,” adds Mahima. “If you count commuting time, we work 11 or 12 hour days.”
For several nights, I wandered around the strange nocturnal high-tech city, slipping into technology parks and chatting with the kids as they took their smoke breaks and had their midnight tea. I kept looking for the dark underbelly, the bad subculture. All I heard were stories like the one Naren and Mahimia had relayed.
“This is tense work; there’s not much time for playing. But sometimes when your team does really good the company will take you on a weekend outing,” said Uthej Sikha, who at 24 is already a veteran of the scene. He is taking a smoke break from his job with HSBC. managing billing and complaints, mostly on text-based chat platforms rather than the telephones. “The stress of it effects everything: personal life, health. I am losing weight. I have no time to myself. I get home, have some milk, and go to sleep.”
The one thing everyone wants is sleep. Outside another call center young men and women on break describe their back problems, stress, depression, stomach ailments—all caused, they say, by the stress, long hours, and lack of sleep. Partying does not seem high on the agenda. How could it be? Andhra Pradesh even imposed prohibition for six years, which it is only now starting to ease. Most restaurants do not serve alcohol and the few bars tend to be soulless, tacky, graspingly upscale, dismal little spots. There is no nightlife here, only night work.
The man on the other end of the phone is annoyed. “I’ve been waiting 25 minutes for a call back from a guy named Mike.” His voice is taut with pained self-control he puts the emphasis on the last word—Mike. The annoyed man sounds white, middle aged, middle-class, and American.
“I am very sorry, sir,” answers another voice, in crisp, youthful, Indian accented English. It is the middle of the night and I am listening in on this EarthLink technical support call quality control desk of an outsourcing firm called Knoah’s. They’re letting me see how the digital sausage is made.
We are on the fifth floor of a nondescript office building. An expanse of blue-gray carpet and low blue-gray cubicles lies before us; pale floor-to-ceiling vertical blinds are drawn closed against the hot black night. Even the air feels blue-gray: industrial grade AC holds at a refreshing 68 degrees.
Spread out across the back-to-back cubicles are ranks of young men and women in hip Western attire, with some of the women mixing in bright, richly-patterned scarves and long, traditional blouses. They murmur softly into their headsets, caress their keyboards, and scroll through bulky old monitor screens full of lists and charts. Above them on the wall, three digital clocks are set to the relevant time zones: Eastern Standard, Central, and Pacific. An eraser board nearby bears the message: “You can’t make omelets without breaking eggs.”
Knoah’s Vice President for Learning, Dr. Kiranmai Pendyala, guides me through the facilities. Knoah is a fairly typical example of the “business process outsourcing industry. The company has two large call centers—both are 450 seaters—where they handle technical support for EarthLink, Palm, American Water Heaters, Royal Cash Register, and the computer accessories firm Kensington. The company’s name is meant to resonate with Americans: “Like your Noah but with a K for knowledge,” explains Dr. Kiranmai.
Dr. Kiranmai, tall, in her mid-40s, wears a long white blouse and blue jeans. Her electronic Knoah badge hangs from a cord around her neck. She is in many ways emblematic of the overqualified, highly professional, flawlessly polite workers that drive the Indian tech sector: she holds a Ph.D. in English, has published several books, sits on examination committees at Oxford University, and has lived and worked in the U.S., Hong Kong, and Singapore.
As Vice President for Learning, she trains and gives “reorientation” to the 1,000 or so youngsters who work for Knoah. The training consists of perfecting a neutralized English and staying up to speed with technical questions. All calls are monitored and analyzed with computer surveillance system; mistakes, technical or social, can be addressed in real time with a pop-up text messages from a supervisor.
As we talk, we stroll among the cubicles of the American Water Heaters section of the call center. Run out of Tennessee, AWH’s corporate colors are red, white and blue.; Iit’s slogan is “Rely on American,.” bBut the company produces water heaters in China and outsources its technical support to this floor. In one corner of the office stand half disassembled water heaters. The young phone jockeys have taken them apart so they may better understand the objects they are talking about.
Dr. Kiranmai confirms a lot of what I’ve heard elsewhere. At first, many American firms were wary about outsourcing customer service to India. It was in response to this that Indian call centers began talking up their cultural training programs and giving their workers, not only easy to pronounce English names, but even whole, fake American identities. If a customer asked where the call center was located the agents were instructed to lie, to say they were in Atlanta or Sacramento, rather than Hyderabad. She says Knoah never did this but many other firms did.
The manager with whom I had sipped late-night tea had been particularly annoyed by this charade. “These white executives just didn’t trust Indians and so we created all this BS ‘cultural training’ to allay their fears. We used the idea of the cultural training and the fake identities to sell the services to the American businesses. But the actual customers on the phone, you and Mrs. Smith in Ohio, never really believed it.”
Dr. Kiranmai says that firms like Apple never requested silly ploys from their call centers, realizing that honesty was better for the brand. “An agent will use a phone name,” says doctor Kiranmai, “but that is just to save time. You don’t want people wasting time trying to learn how to pronounce Sirivennela.” As for training, there is four- week “accent neutralization” course, and along the way some cultural references are folded in. “We will play taped episodes of television shows like Friends or some movies like Legally Blonde.”
What about the corrupting influence of the work? Is vice seeping backwards down the data pipe? Dr. Kiranmai thinks it is but she has no examples. “People are very worried. I have had parents who dropped their daughters off to work and wait all night outside to collect in the morning. Some Muslim girls come wearing burqas and then they uncover here and wear Western dress. There is an anxiety about the culture of the call centers,” she concludes somewhat ambivalently and philosophically.
If it is not the kids and their licentious new habits that are changing India, what is?
The sun is setting orange and dusty over the boulder-strewn ridgelines and office parks of Cyberabad. Half-built towers rise from the gullies, their dark skeletal structures of rebar and bare concrete silhouetted against the dirty orange sky. Around the building sites are tucked dense, little camps of blue tarpaulin hovels—shelter, such as it is, for the thousands of migrant construction workers. Clad in little more than raggedy shorts and flip-flops, they spend their days carrying bricks, using acetylene torches, and climbing high into the rickety scaffolding. In the roadways below, fleets of white taxicabs are starting to stream in, shuttling the technology workers to their posts. Another hard day’s night has begun.
I am touring the outer edges of Cyberabad with a renegade IT pioneer named Farhan. Tall, relaxed, and an avid runner, Farhan is such a nonconformist he doesn’t have a last name; his father dismissed such things as “feudal vestiges.” An old high school friend of the Manager, Farhan, a Muslim, is somewhat of a highly connected outsider in the Hindu-dominated tech industry. He has been intimately involved in the rise of Hyderabad’s IT and BPO sector.
Farhan made his money as a phone freak turned pro. He and some friends devised a way to use the Internet to circumvent international phone lines to make long-distance calls for almost nothing. The phone companies saw this as theft and tried to shut them down.
“Some of us were actually tortured by the police,” says Farhan. Eventually, Farhan’s pirate network grew too large and the big phone companies bought him out. Now he’s rich, but, in classic cyberpunk fashion, he is working on a new way to screw the big guys. This time, he and his friends are going to use wireless systems to create a nearly free Internet-based cell phone service.
As we drive, Farhan explains the history of Cyberabad and, by extension, the whole Indian tech sector. The story involves the convergence of four essential components: fiber optic cables laid by the dot-com boom, India’s economic liberalization, the educational legacy of India’s liberal socialism, and the arrival of foreign-technology companies.
“It all began about 10 or 12 years ago,” says Farhan. “As part of the ’90s technology boom, firms like Global Crossing were laying all that deep-sea fiber optic cable. Lots of it. Too much. More than could ever really be used, or profitably used.”
As with all bubbles, that one burst, and, when it did, firms like Global Crossing hit the ground hard—so hard they smashed to pieces. With their collapse, the cable networks were sold off for a song. “Too bad, if you invested in a telecom firm,” says Farhan. “But all that cable meant the price of connectivity between United States and India just collapsed. Suddenly, it was possible to have hundreds of thousands of phone lines and Internet connections linking India and the U.S. in real-time for very little money. With that it became possible to move these labor-intensive IT enabled services to India.”
The new connectivity brought India’s well-educated work force online, but where did all these software engineers and accountants come from? Since gaining its independence, India has developed a mixed economy in which private business was heavily regulated, the state owned many businesses, national markets were vigorously protected, and public education was heavily subsidized and widely available—at least by the standards of an appallingly poor, mostly agrarian economy. High quality, almost free university education was available to any kid disciplined enough to do the work and pass the many necessary examinations.
“For decades we produced more brains than we could absorb. We had an international body trade, exporting professionals—doctors, engineers, scientists, accountants,” says Farhan, as we roll past the geodesic dome being built by one of his businessman friends.
While the old mixed economy made an effort to redistribute wealth to the poor, it was also frequently an ossified, corrupt, Byzantine mess that weighed upon the economy and slowed growth—layers upon layers of regulations policed by armies of often corrupt and incompetent, paper-shuffling civil servants. The whole bureaucratic racket was dismissively referred to as the “License Raj.”
That too began to change in the early 1990s. As the dot-com boom hit California, India began to loosen the strictures of the economic game: import and export regulations, permitting processes, and labor and taxation rules were all relaxed. But the state did not withdraw from the economy, it merely became more pro-growth, more IT-oriented in its planning. Leading the way was the government agency called the Software Technology Park Scheme (STPS). Its mission was to incubate an Indian technology sector by courting foreign investment.
Being the type of guy who seems to know everyone, Farhan has soon delivered me to the offices of J. A. Chowdary, the man who once ran the STPS. He is short and somewhat stocky. He no longer works for the government, having since started a major chip manufacturer called Nvidia. Chowdary wears the IT uniform: oxford shirt, no tie, pleated khaki pants, sensible shoes.
“The Software Technology Park scheme really helped jumpstart the whole IT and BPO sector,” says Chowdary. “With the STPS we created a centralized process office that could clear all the permits one needed to set up a business. One-stop shopping. We also provided government land for free, sewer, water, electricity, the whole infrastructure. Ten-year tax holidays. Training and networking for workers and entrepreneurs. The whole thing,” Chawdary says this as if the catapulting program of transformation was all now rather boring. With all this on offer and with some aggressive marketing by Indians the major firms started pouring in—Microsoft, IBM, Dell, Google, Bank of America, HSBC, and all the rest.
By the late 1990s, the four components of the boom had converged: the cheap fiber-optic connectivity, pro-growth government policy, the huge and ready work force produced by India’s public education system, and the foreign companies with the established products, technologies, and markets.
“It was all part of a larger plan,” says Chowdary. “Certain cities were targeted first: Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Gurgaon. Then second and third tier technology hubs were begun.”
It is estimated that each technology job creates five others for people: working in shops, driving taxis, teaching school, maintaining roads, working in hospitals, and so on. By 2007, India was cruising along with a 9 percent annual growth rate. This year, despite the severe international economic crisis, growth is expected to be a “mere” 5 percent. (The U.S. hasn’t had a rate that good since 1984.)
On the streets of cities like Hyderabad, the boom means a strange invasion of foreign symbols and tastes. The landscape and the experience of everyday life is changing, radically. The global brands have arrived: Kentucky Fried Chicken, Baskin Robbins, an array of swank new malls, and McDonald’s.
McDonald’s in a country where the top of the caste hierarchy, the Brahmans, are all vegetarians and cows actually roam city streets unmolested, despite millions of people homeless and hungry. Okay, so Mickey D’s here serves vegetarian burgers instead of beef, but its arrival was still strange. And it was amid these kaleidoscopic transformations that people started to fixate on the call-center kids and their allegedly nasty ways.
The tech workers, on their late-night breaks at the grubby tea stalls, buying packs of Royal Flake cigarettes and samosas, are all worried. Like their own leaders they are worried about what’s seeping back down the data pipe. But it is not vice that they fear—it is unemployment.
“We’re all very worried about losing our jobs now,” says Kumar Reddy. “The churn has stopped. People are keeping their jobs even though they’re so hard.” In fact, he’s so nervous about losing his job he won’t even tell me what firm he works for, only that he fixes software bugs.
It is just one more example of how “the kids” are getting a bum rap, taking the blame for the larger forces of globalization. They did not conjure forth the brand culture, the consumerism, the landscape of the new India. Their government and the captains of industry did. Nor did they “steal” American jobs; the jobs were exported by profit-hungry firms; the decisions to outsource were made by the great holding companies and the cost-cutting managers. Now, in America, these young Indians take the wrath of workers who are increasingly pressed against the wall, on the one hand losing jobs, on the other hand being hounded by debt collectors.
It is the bad luck of the kids to work at night, when the world is ruled by dreams and nightmares; when sex and theft occur; when the rules are suspended, or are being remade. They work when their elders are not looking and thus imagining the worst.
On my last night wandering around Cyberabad I stop for tea on a patch of bare earth by a line of small food stands. About 20 black and yellow rickshaws are parked nearby, their drivers smoking and waiting for rides. Across the four-lane highway is a massive office park called Mind Space. Just up the sloping hill is Cyberabad’s power station, lit ominously from below. Beyond that rises a huge, red brick, rounded T-shaped Ministry-of-Truth-style building designed by the ultra-famous Swiss architect Mario Botta.
Looking upon this I ponder once more how the landscape tells the true story: This trophy office park, designed by a globetrotting European for an Indian company, is serving American clients, with similar office parks lying nearby–all of them paving over and destroying the ancient Deccan plateau’s solid boulder-piles, wiping away the holy places and ancient campsites of the Rajasthani nomads, replacing them with this new and profane high-tech city and its money quest. It’s far too much, far too profound a process of transformation to be laid at the feet of the kids. And I think about the worried middle class elders. I wish I could tell them: Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.
ContributorChristian Parenti, with photos by Jessica Dimmock