Call Center In India - Call Center Industry in India
Thursday, November 20, 2003
Sleepy City Has High Hopes, Dreaming of High Tech

CHANDIGARH, India — Thirty years after a "green revolution" turned the plains around this small city into India's breadbasket, a cadre of ambitious government officials, pricey consultants and local high technology entrepreneurs is trying to accomplish something almost as ambitious — transforming this sleepy farm state capital into the "technology hub of northern India."

"Chandigarh," glossy brochures declare to prospective investors, "the city with brains."

Chandigarh was designed and built by the Swiss-born modernist Le Corbusier in the 1950's as a replacement for the former Punjab capital, Lahore, which had been absorbed into Pakistan after partition. Now a city of 900,000 people, it is the joint capital of India's two most prosperous farming states and one of half a dozen cities and states furiously competing for the call centers and software parks that American and Indian companies are opening across India.

As tens of thousands of service jobs continue to flow to India from the United States and Europe, small cities like Chandigarh offer even lower labor costs than India's "first tier" technology hubs, places like Bangalore, Hyderabad, Bombay and Gurgaon, outside New Delhi.

Manisha Grover, a Bangalore-based consultant hired by Chandigarh to aid its marketing efforts, said those cities were running short of skilled workers. "It's maxing out," she said. "The pace of finding people is definitely slowing down."

Officials from Bangalore disputed that claim, saying the city's talent pool remained vast. But businessmen here said that wages were far lower in smaller cities like Chandigarh, where a starting call center operator makes roughly 7,000 rupees, or $150, a month. A starting worker in a "first tier" would be paid as much as twice that, they said.

At the center of Chandigarh's effort is Vivek Atray, a wiry, smooth-talking 36-year-old electrical engineer, who is the city's new director of information technology. In terms reminiscent of the American Internet boom, he breathlessly predicts an explosion in jobs here.

"We expect 5,000 new jobs in the next six months to one year," he said, adding that he expected five new call centers to open. On top of the three that started up in the last 18 months.

Mr. Atray acknowledged that only one of those five companies, Indian-owned Infosys, had committed to opening an office in Chandigarh. It will employ 600 people in its first year, he said, with plans to reach 2,400 workers within three years.

When contacted, officials from two other companies that Mr. Atray said were on the verge of expanding to Chandigarh, Dell Computer and Convergys Corporation, said they had made no firm decisions yet.

In the end, whether Chandigarh can persuade these companies to open call centers here may depend on young men and women like Varun Sood, a short, boyish 20-year-old college student. To a business owner, Chandigarh offers 50,000 college students like him for possible employment, what Mr. Atray's brochures call a "ready availability of trained manpower."

Dressed in jeans, a stylish green shirt and baseball cap on a recent evening, he said he was eager to make extra cash at what he sees as a hip and exciting job. Young, open-minded and curious about the outside world, he talks cheerfully about a task many Americans might find anesthetizing: working all night cold-calling people in the United States.

"It's good," said Mr. Sood, who adopts an American accent and persona over the phone and uses the name "Boris." (After his favorite tennis player, Boris Becker.) "You get to speak to a lot of people outside your country."

He speaks English well, thanks to a strong local education system that includes a leading university, engineering college and medical school.

His 28-year-old boss, Anuj Mahajan, represents another asset in Chandigarh: local Indian entrepreneurs flush with cash. After traveling to Britain, the United States and parts of India to study methods and scout for customers, Mr. Mahajan, the son of a local textile mill owner, used family money to open the Kalldesk call center in September 2002.

A year or so later, he has quadrupled his work force to 80 people from 20, finished renovations on a modern, stylish office and is planning to expand to 200 workers. "It's all family owned," he said. "We borrowed a little, but we've paid them back."

An older business, IDS Infotech, represents the potential for broader growth. Partap Aggarwal, a software programmer who worked in Orange County, Calif., for seven years, opened the company in 1990. After struggling for years, it now has 1,150 employees, many of whom scan millions of pages of legal and medical documents on behalf of American law firms and drug companies.

For now, Chandigarh has only about 2,000 jobs in call centers and back offices, not enough to have a major effect on the local economy. Questions have also been raised about the quality of the work, which involves grueling hours and can be mind-numbing. The average call-center worker stays in the job for only four months, business owners said.

"No one takes it seriously as a career," said Kavita Deswal, 23, a law school graduate who was working as a call agent for several months while waiting for her law license to be approved.

But Mr. Atray remains optimistic. "We hadn't been known as a high technology center," he said. "With this knowledge revolution, it's been picking up."

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